Book Club: Dr. Reivich’s Pick05/02/2013
Dr. Reivich is our Positive Parenting expert. She'll share stories focusing on the five key skills of Fishful ThinkingSM -optimism, resilience, emotional awareness, empowerment and hope.
Get to Know Dr. Karen Reivich
- I knew I was a mom when…When I looked at Jacob and Aaron as infants and thought “How is it possible that I’ve lived for 30 years without them?!”
- I love my kids when…I ALWAYS love them! I also deeply admire them when they stand up for someone who is having a hard time standing up for themselves
- I love my kids even when…They are “skoochy” – our family word for cranky. They come by it honestly!
- My kids love me even when…I am skoochy (which is most mornings before 9am).
- Three words to describe my parenting style are…Playful, honest, evolving
- I know it’s time to recharge when…I am not laughing as much as I want to.
- One of my favorite moments with my kids was…Watching Jacob, Aaron, and Jonathan perform together in their school jazz band; taking a luge ride with Shayna down a mountain in New Zealand.
- I feel most connected to my kids when…We are lying around, talking, laughing, just hanging out…
- With an extra hour in the day, I would…Read more!!!
- I hope my kids will remember the moment(s) we…saw something awe-inspiring together (like the night sky in Vermont)
- I think one of the best things about motherhood is…Discovering that your children are NOT you and that they have strengths and talents that are all their own!
- The most important thing I can share with my kids is…that the world and people are fundamentally good and that it’s our job to notice the good stuff around us every day.
- My desired legacy is...to inspire my children to create a life that lets them use their strengths, talents and gifts so that they inspire their children to create a life that lets them use their strengths, talents and gifts so that they inspire their children…
More Info About Dr. Reivich
Dr. Karen Reivich is the co-director of the Penn Resiliency Project and a research associate in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Reivich is also an instructor in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program in which she teaches a course on Positive Psychology and Individuals. She is a leader in the field of depression prevention, resilience, positive psychology interventions and school-based intervention research. Together with Drs. Seligman, Jaycox and Gillham, Reivich is a co-author of the book "The Optimistic Child" and co-authored "The Resilience Factor" with Dr. Andrew Shatte´. In addition, Dr. Reivich has a coaching practice and provides consultation to organizations around the themes of resilience, optimism and strength development. Dr. Reivich completed her B.A. and her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Reivich's current work focuses on helping educators and parents promote well-being in children and adolescents. She is one of the lead authors of the Penn Resiliency Program for Adolescents and a parallel program for parents. During the past years, she has been the co-director of studies of PRP, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. She is also a co-author of a high school Positive Psychology curriculum and a Co-Principal Investigator on a Department of Education-funded study of that curriculum.
Dr. Reivich has conducted workshops and trainings for parents, educators, clinicians and corporations throughout the U.S. and internationally. She lectures extensively on the topics of resilience, optimism and positive psychology. Dr. Reivich's scholarly publications have appeared in academic journals including: Psychological Science, Journal of Early Adolescence, School Psychology Quarterly, Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology and Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
Dr. Reivich has also been featured in numerous consumer publications including: The New York Times, USA Today, Parents Magazine and US News and World Report, and has been a guest on several television programs, such as Oprah and Prime Time Live.
Dr. Reivich puts her work to practice every day as the mother of four children: Jacob (14), Aaron (14), Jonathan (12), and Shayna (7).
Q&A with Dr. Karen Reivich
Question: from Kristen i
Our 9-year old son seems immature for his age. When he gets around younger children he tends to act their age rather than his own. What suggestions do you have for helping a child mature? Because he's very tall (5 ft. 1 in) and looks older, his immaturity gets more scrutiny because he appears to be a teenager acting like a young child. How can we help him mature and act more appropriate for his age?
It is hard to judge from your letter whether there is any problem. Many nine year olds (and older kids) will adapt their behavior when playing with younger children. That can be a sign of social intelligence, not immaturity. Because I don't have a lot of detail, I will suggest some questions that might help you to sort out whether your son is really having a problem with maturity. Does he get in trouble at school? Have his teachers talked with you about immaturity or other behaviors that are disruptive to the classroom? When he is with same aged peers, does he behave in ways that are like his peers? Do children of his own age enjoy playing with him? Does he enjoy playing with children his own age? Does he prefer playing with younger children or children his own age? Does he have temper tantrums or express his emotions in other ways that are less typical for nine years old?
If after reflecting on these questions, you believe the facts indicate that he behaving in ways that are immature for his age, I'd recommend you set up a time to talk with his teacher or the school counselor. Getting a sense of how he behaves at school will help you gauge how global the problem is. It's not uncommon for children to act out or be silly or "childish" at home rather than at school. For some kids, the structure of school with all its rules and expectations can get exhausting and having time at home to be more rambunctious helps them decompress.
Another thought I have is that the problem might be that your son, who is tall for his age, is being expected to behave older than he is. As you say, people might scrutinize him more because he looks much older than his age. If that is what is leading to the assessment that he is immature, then I think you will need to support your child and remind others (maybe yourself too!) that development tracks with chronological age, not size! Being judged as a teenager when you are only nine is not fair to your son.
Karen Reivich, Ph.D.
Question: from Kalpana A
My daughter is 8 years old and is in grade 3. She is very intelligent but when it comes to writing she is very slow and feels lazy or maybe she is distracted soon at school and comes back with incomplete CW. What to do?
I would start by talking with your daughter about her experience. What makes writing difficult for her? Are there parts of the writing process she enjoys (coming up with story ideas, thinking of great descriptors, etc.)? If she enjoys words, challenge her to use as many new words as she can in her next assignment. Or, make the writing more fun for her by asking her to see how many adjectives she can use or by trying to use at least five alliterations in one writing assignment. (You probably want to let the teacher know about these creative ideas so that she/he understands what is driving the new writing style!)
Does she have a homework environment that is conducive to writing — a quiet, clean space where she can do her work? At her age, many kids find the physical act of writing unpleasant or difficult but they have lots of creative ideas to express. If this is part of the problem, work with your daughter to create her "writing space" and set a goal that she will write a certain number of sentences and then can take a short break to do something that she finds fun.
I would also strongly recommend talking with the teacher to better understand what is causing the difficulty. Teachers encounter this situation all the time so he/she will likely have ideas about how you can help your daughter to learn to enjoy expressing herself through the written word. If you, your daughter, and the teacher work collaboratively, you will likely find strategies that help your daughter to find more pleasure in writing.
Karen Reivich, Ph.D.
Question: from Margo F
An 8 year old boy has real fear of trying new things. Once in new endeavor, and/or environment he is fine. But before, he won't get out of the car for example. It takes over an hour of coaxing. These are things HE wants to do. How can I help him?
There are many children like your son — I have two myself! First, it is important to remember that as your son gets older, most likely his fears will diminish. As the parent, it's all too easy to get sucked into the anxiety and to start to paint a picture of our children sitting on the sidelines for the rest of their lives. It is great that you point out that once he is in the new situation, he is fine. That's the bottom line! You know and he needs to know that the hard part is getting started with something new, but once he's started the anxiety diminishes. That's how it is for most people. I describe two of my kids as "slow to transition." What I mean by that is the transitions take a little time, but once they make it, they enjoy themselves and excel. For me, knowing that their style takes a little longer than my other kids helps me to relax and not catastrophize when they are hesitant or nervous. I know that is part of the process and that it will ultimately get better.
That said, it will help your son to have a clear and specific plan in place for how he will navigate a new situation. Before the new situation, rehearse with your son exactly what will happen. What time you will drop him off. What he will do while he is there. What time you will pick him up, etc. If he worries about starting up conversations with other kids, you can practice that with him by role playing what he can say or how he can respond when other kids approach him. Many children benefit from learning how to argue back against the thoughts that drive their worry. For example, if your son thinks "I'll look silly" you can help your son to kick those thoughts out of his head by saying "That's not true! I won't look silly. I like soccer and I want to get out there and play!"
If his anxiety gets in his way significantly — for example, he won't leave the house, won't go to school, won't go to friends' houses, or leads to excessive amounts of worrying — I'd recommend that you consult a mental health provider. Anxiety is not fun (understatement of the year!) and if it is getting in your son's way of enjoying himself and engaging in activities then working with a counselor will likely help him a lot. There are many things we do as parents that can unwittingly reinforce the anxiety so it will also be important for you to learn how to parent him through his worries. A counselor who specializes in dealing with anxiety will help you and your son.
A book you might want to read is called Freeing your Child from Anxiety: Powerful, Practical Solutions to Overcome Your Child's Fears, Worries, and Phobias by Dr. Tamar Chansky. The book will give you lots of tips and strategies that will help you help your son.
Karen Reivich, Ph.D.
Question: from Rebecca P
I am a single mother and my daughter is 4 and she is a very strong-minded little girl. She doesn't listen when I ask her to do something, she is constantly running away from me when we go to the park. What can I do to help this without feeling like I am yelling at her all the time?
Four year olds definitely can make us parents remember our pre-children days fondly! I remember when my now thirteen year old twins were four and would run in separate directions when it was time to leave the park. The only maneuver I enjoyed less was their dreaded "sit on our bottoms and not budge" technique. If I managed not to scream at them I considered myself "Mother of the Year."
So, repeat this phrase: "This too shall pass. This too shall pass." It will. Four year olds are practicing independence. At four there are many things they can do on their own and they enjoy flexing their "I can do it" muscles. They are often self-confident and open to new adventures. They like to try out things that at three they didn't do — using naughty words, pushing the limits with parents, etc. The upside is that four year olds have wonderfully elaborate imaginations; they enjoy telling jokes, love dramatic, fantasy play, and seek out adult approval. Use that last one to your advantage!
The most important thing to remember when your daughter runs away, disobeys, etc., is that she is acting her age. That doesn't mean we should ignore it, but it helps us to keep the behavior in perspective. Try your best to stay calm and speak in a clear, firm voice. Let her know specifically what she is doing that you don't' like and the consequences. For example, "When you run away when it is time to leave, we don't have time to read together when we get home. And I'm really excited to read with you!" Don't call her names (e.g., "You're being a bad, bad girl!"). Keep your sentences short and sweet and follow through on what you say. For example, if you tell your daughter that she can't watch her favorite show if she doesn't pick up her toys, don't cave and let her watch it. Sometimes the best offense is defense. So if you know that it takes fifteen minutes to get your daughter out of the park, make sure you leave yourself at least fifteen minutes for that process. A lot of times we end up getting unduly angry because we didn't time manage well!
Seize every opportunity to praise your daughter. Name exactly what she did that was helpful and show her through your facial expressions that it made you happy. For example, when she comes to you when you call her; give her a big hug and smile and say "It's great when you come the first time I call you. That way we'll have time when we get home to read a story together!" This praise lets your daughter know exactly what she did that you like (coming the first time you call) and it also points out the reward that will come from her doing as you asked (reading a book). You can learn more about effective ways to praise children by reading Praise with Purpose.
Finally, do your best to enjoy all the wonderful moments with your four year old. It's such a great age of exploration. Build lots of positivity and reward her sense of adventure by going on a Happiness Scavenger Hunt together and build her emotional awareness by playing Emotion Charades or Mood Music. Your daughter is enjoying her independence so capitalize on that by giving her lots of opportunities to make decisions for herself: What to wear, whether to put her toys away before lunch or after lunch, whether to have pasta or chicken for dinner, what toys to play with, etc. The more you reward her for her appropriate independence, the better you will tolerate her less appropriate independence (e.g. running away from you at the park).
And remember...this too shall pass!
Karen Reivich, Ph.D.
Question: from Desiree M
My son is in kindergarten. He is very smart. He isn't a bully and he doesn't throw tantrums, but he constantly bothers the other kids and makes funny noises. My mom thinks he should see a doctor. Is there any thing I can try to do to help him pay attention more? He needs to listen to the teachers better and just calm down. I would like to do what I can to help him before I consider taking him to a doc. Do you have any ideas for me? He does play a lot with his friends after school. Is this a problem?
I think the first step is to get a clear picture of what is going on in the classroom. Set up a time to meet with his teacher and ask for a detailed description of what he is doing. My daughter is in kindergarten and I can tell you from being in the classroom that there are a wide variety of behaviors! What behaviors are bothering the other children? When does he make the funny noises? Are there certain emotions that trigger behaviors that bother the other kids (e.g., when your son is angry or feels left out)? Does the teacher see his behavior as a problem? Is it out of the ordinary for a kindergarten boy? If he is disruptive, is it during a specific time of the day or activity? What is he doing really well? What parts of the day does he most enjoy? When is he helpful to other kids? Ask questions that help get a picture of your son's strengths and weaknesses in the classroom.
With the teacher's help, work out a plan to help your son build on his strengths and to develop strategies for managing his emotions and regulating his behavior. Staying focused and on task at school requires practice for some kids so work with the teacher to set up a system for tracking this and rewarding him for the behaviors you want to build. Many teachers use charts with stickers to help build positive classroom behaviors. No doubt your son's teacher will have encountered this before and will have ideas that you can build on at home.
It will also help for you to build on your child's emotion management at home. If part of what drives your son's behavior is frustration, use the Shake Off the Frustration Dance activity to help him develop a strategy for coping with frustration. You can also help him learn how to express his feelings through words, rather than actions (a skill that all kindergartens are working on!). Use theIf You Feel It, Talk About It activity to help your son express his feelings through words, drawings, and body movements.
Also, keep in mind that for very active kids, the transition to the more structured setting of school is not also easy. Make sure your son gets lots and lots of physical activity in his day.
Finally, your son's pediatrician can be a great resource. If you are at all concerned that his behavior falls outside what is typical for his age, set up a time to discuss it with the pediatrician.
Karen Reivich, Ph.D.
Question: from Cheryl M
My grandson, Dylan, is turning 8 years old next month and today my daughter called to tell me that "Joey" held Dylan down while "Zach" punched him in his nose. Dylan came in crying and didn't know why the boys did that to him. As parents, what do we tell the boys and their parents what their children did...and what do we tell Dylan whose feelings were very hurt?
I think the direct approach with the other children's parents is best. Keep in mind that any parent will respond better when the person calling stays focused on the behaviors (the punching) and not the character of the child (your son is a bully!). I recommend that your daughter begins the conversation by saying something like, "There was a problem between our kids and I wanted to touch base with you about it and talk about how we can help our boys get along." This shows that your daughter is interested in solving the problem, not merely laying blame. Your daughter can then share what was reported to her by her son. Keep to the facts. And give the other parent an opportunity to share whatever information he/she has about the situation. We hope that the parents of the other boys will see their behavior as unacceptable and will talk with their kids about it. It might be that if this threesome doesn't work well, your daughter might choose to minimize the time all three boys are together and to certainly make sure there is plenty of supervision when they are.
As important as it is to talk with the other parents; it's equally important that your daughter talk with her son. It sounds like a scary experience and it will help him to have the opportunity to talk about it. It might be that he says a lot, or that he says very little. If he doesn't want to talk about it, let him know that she'll check in with him again in a few days and that if he changes his mind, she is always available to listen. Either way it will help him to know that his mom cares about his feelings and wants to listen to whatever he wants to share. Your daughter can also use the opportunity to talk with her son about ways to protect himself. For example, she can let him know that if he feels scared when he is with his friends, that it's okay for him to leave the situation or to call her to be picked up.
Karen Reivich, Ph.D.
Question: from Sherry W
I was blessed with a wonderful, sensitive son. It breaks my heart to see other boys pick on him. He is 8 yrs old and wears glasses. I'm not certain if the glasses make him a target, but his self esteem has been dwindling in spite all of my efforts. His school does attempt to address bullying, but I must say it is a weak effort. What can I do to help him? My goal is to help him address the boys with confidence and prevent further harm to his self-esteem.
It's great that you see your child's sensitivity as a strength, not a weakness. My son, Jacob (now 13) was described by his first grade teacher as having a tender heart and that's just how I think of it. As a first grader, he'd get upset when he saw other kids treated unkindly and I love that about him!
Still, that sensitivity comes with a cost. It can make a child a target for children looking to get a rise out of him. And the empathy your child likely feels for other kids can be hard at times. I recommend you talk with your son and the teacher, principal, and counselor about what is happening at school. A group meeting communicates that you see this as a real problem and that you expect the school to help you by working together. Ask a lot of questions so that you have a clear picture of what goes on for your son at school. When does he get picked on? By whom? How does your son respond when it happens? How do the adults respond? With the help of the school team, work out a variety of ways that your son can deal with situations when he is being picked on. What are a few ways for him to respond in the moment? Who does he see as an ally that he can seek out if he needs help? What can he expect his teacher and the school to do if the teasing continues? Your son needs to feel safe at school and your assertive involvement will help him get the support he needs.
There are a variety of ways to help your son feel confident and to have a positive view of himself. I recommend you read the article "Raising a sensitive child" for thoughts about parenting a sensitive child. Work with your child to identify his top strengths — kindness, compassion, creativity — whatever they are and help him to identify new ways to use his strengths. For example, if one of your child's strengths is kindness, design a weekend activity where he can use his strength of kindness to help someone in need — maybe have a lemonade stand to raise money for children in Haiti or offer to do an hour of gardening at an elderly neighbor's house. When your child puts one of his strengths to work, he'll feel energized and pleased with himself.
You can also build your son's self-efficacy by making sure that he spends time each day doing things he loves whether it be playing an instrument, reading, art, or sports. The more your child develops his talents, the more he will see himself as talented and view himself more positively.
In addition, help your child to build positive friendships. Ask your child who he enjoys hanging out with and invite those kids over. It's often easier to build friendships one on one so start by inviting one child over and arrange another time for your son to hang out with another kid that he likes. Having a couple good friends will help bolster him against the unkind acts of other kids.
Most of all, continue to send him lots of positive messages about who he is so that he understands that his sensitivity is something to be cherished.
Karen Reivich, Ph.D.
Question: from Cherele G
My stepdaughter just came to live with us and she appears to have no boundaries. She takes things that belong to others and claims them as her own. She hoards things in her room belonging to either me or my son. When I asked her if she had seen an expensive item of mine she said no. Later I found it in her gym bag. I feel betrayed. She stole and then she lied. How can I get her to understand that she should not take other peoples' things? Is it appropriate to put a lock on my door?
I can understand why you are upset. It sounds like a difficult situation and that your family is going through a tough transition. First and foremost, I would talk with your husband. You don't mention him in your letter — how is he feeling about the transition? What behaviors is he noticing? How does he understand what his daughter is going through and how to best help her? The more you and your husband are a team, the better it will go for everyone.
Once you've had a chance to talk with your husband, I suggest the two of you sit down and talk with your stepdaughter. Pick a time and place that is quiet and won't have lots of distractions. Start off by asking her how the transition to the new home and the new family is going for her. Her behavior indicates that it isn't going smoothly and the more she can talk honestly about what she is feeling, the easier it will become. Her actions suggest she is angry so let her know that you are willing to hear what she is going through even if it is hard for her to express it.
After she has had the opportunity to talk about what she's going through, you and your husband need to be a united front about what is acceptable and unacceptable in your home. Let her know that you want her to feel welcome, safe and happy in the home and that the rules and expectations are so everyone feels comfortable. State any non-negotiable rules and expectations clearly (like not taking others' belongings without permission), but try not to lecture. Keep it concise. Then, be willing to negotiate on any expectations that you can be more flexible with (bedtime, how long she can watch TV, etc.)
Family meetings are a good way to check in on how everyone is doing. And with blended families, they are a good way to make sure everyone has an opportunity to hear from each other and learn about each other. I'd recommend setting aside 20-30 minutes once a week to sit down all together for a check in. By making a standing family meeting you let your children know that creating a fun and happy home is everyone's responsibility and that it's something you can accomplish together.
You can also build a positive home by making sure you spend some time each week just enjoying each other! Check out the Gift of Time activity as a fun way to build relationships.
Karen Reivich, Ph.D.
Question: from Krista M
My daughter is struggling with negativity. She has a "glass half empty" mindset only exhibited with her family. At school, I only hear "perfect kid" from her teachers. This is a daily struggle and not in just one particular area. She does not want to go to school or gym but when she arrives she loves it, hates homework, yet when we dig in...she enjoys our time together doing it. Whining/complaining is common. She is in a home where she has family that love & care, needs met, etc. What can I do?
It sounds like your daughter enters situations with trepidation and some negativity. The good news, of course, is that once she is engaged, you and her teachers describe that she enjoys herself. That is great! It means that although the transitions (from home to school; from play to homework) are a bit rough, once her “mindset” changes, she is able to find joy in school, gym, and time with you doing homework. That is not the picture of a “half empty” person. Rather, it sounds like her glass is sometimes half-empty, and other times overflowing.
My first recommendation is to talk with her about how she understands what is going on for her. Are there specific worries she has about the transition from home to school? Is there a part of the transition that is most difficult for her? Give her an opportunity to talk in detail about what she feels in the morning as she is getting ready for school, or what she thinks about going to gym class. Next, explore with her ideas about how to smooth the transitions. Often times, rituals can be helpful in making transitions easier. Work together to develop a home to school ritual (for example, a certain phrase you always say to each other) and a school to home ritual (a certain snack she’ll have when she first gets home and music she’ll listen to). Finally, she might find it helpful to create a list or keep a journal of the things she likes about school, gym, doing homework. It’s easy for all of us to race by what we enjoyed and slow down and ruminate about the parts of something we didn’t enjoy. That tendency – called the negativity bias -- fuels negativity and pessimism. By keeping a list of what she enjoyed, you’ll be helping her to hang on to the positive parts and that is critical for building optimism. You can even turn this into a ritual by keeping a “good stuff” journal together.
Question: from Greta O
I have one son who's 12 years old and in the 7th grade. He has two step-sisters who are 4 & 5 respectively. I know he loves them both dearly, but there are many times when I find him talking to them rudely. I try and explain to him that they are his sisters and he should be good to them, but he seems to listen only for a little while and then starts talking to them in an authoritative way again. I need your advice in what I should be talking to him about regarding this?
I have two twelve year olds, a ten year old and a 5 year old so I can empathize with this situation! My twelve year olds are wonderful boys, and they too can be rude, at times, to their five year old sister (and ten year old brother!). There are a few strategies to try. First, set clear limits about what is not acceptable. Some teasing among siblings is inevitable, but there are also lines that should be drawn, then when your son crosses the line, let him know that it has to stop immediately. Second, encourage your younger children to tell him how they feel when he is rude to them. Helping them to tell their brother what they don’t like about how he interacts with them is as important as helping him to change some of his behaviors. Third, make sure you praise him when he is kind, funny, loving toward his sisters (and encourage them to tell him too!). Build on these positive interactions by talking with your son about what he most enjoys about his little sisters, what he likes doing with them, what he likes teaching them, etc, and then make sure you build in time in the week for those positive experiences to happen. Fourth, empathize with your son. No matter how wonderful his sisters are, having younger siblings is frustrating and annoying at times. This doesn’t give him license to be mean, but empathizing with his frustration is important. Additionally, if there are certain times of the day when his little sisters really get on his nerves (before bed or early in the morning?), see if you can minimize interaction at those times. There is no rule that families have to be together every minute of the day! If his younger sisters’ pre bedtime fussing bothers him when he is trying to relax or do homework, then make sure there is ample space between the siblings during that phase of the evening. Finally, you might also want to talk with your son about how he is feeling being part of this new blended family. Many children feel a complex array of emotions (positive and negative) as the new family grows together so you want to give him plenty of opportunities to talk with you and his step-father about what is going on for him.
Question: from Ruth F
My 6 year old son has had the same best friend since he was 3. They are extremely competitive and get physical. His friend also plays a lot of mind games. Recently after his friend was choking him, my son decided he didn't want to be friends anymore. His mom is one of my good friends so this is awkward. I want to support my son's decision to get out of what I believe is a destructive relationship. It appears it may mean sacrificing my own friendship. Do you think I'm doing the right thing?
It sounds like you know what you want to do. You seem clear that helping your son extricate himself from the friendship is in his best interest, even though it is awkward because of your friendship with the boy’s mom. It won’t be easy, but I encourage you to be direct and explain to your friend that your son would like to “take a break” from the friendship for a while. It might be in time they reconnect – as they get older and mature, but for now you want to help your son develop some new friendships.
In addition, you might find that your son changes his mind about his buddy. Six year olds often do! If this happens, talk with your son about things he might still want to do with the boy and things he doesn’t like to do with him. For example, if sports bring out the competitiveness, limit those activities and encourage them to spend time together by going to the movies or in a structured club or activity at school (something that includes adult supervision). Let your son know that you will support his decision to stop hanging out with the boy, and also let him know that you are happy to talk with him about it if he starts to feel like he wants to be friends with him again. Knowing that you will be available to help him sort through his feelings is very important.
Question: from Jean J
My almost 9 year old daughter is very defiant and talks back when told to do something. She also shouts as if she is very angry. In addition, she criticizes her younger sister and makes fun of her a lot. What could be causing this behavior and how should I deal with it?
Defiance is a normal part of childhood. As kids get older and become more interested in making their own choices and spreading their wings, many will begin to challenge their parents around rules and expectations. How a child navigates this period of growth can vary a great deal. Some "defiance" is a good thing — it means that your child is eager to try out her independence. Of course, it depends on the nature of the defiance and what is motivating it. If your child is doing things that are unsafe, then you need to help her to find more appropriate ways of expressing her independence. A good place to start is with a conversation.
Pick a time when you are both calm and in a good mood and ask her about how she is feeling. Give her lots of room to answer and just listen. You can also ask her if there are any rules or expectations that she believes she has outgrown (e.g. bedtime that is too early). Again, hear her out and then together discuss the pros and cons of these rules and expectations. Work together to negotiate expectations and rules that are appropriate for her age and maturity level. You can also help foster your daughter's independence by finding new activities for her to engage in that are independent of the family — a lesson she'd like to take, a free class at the community center she's interested in, or even a new activity around the house she'd like to take on (like redecorating her bedroom.)
You also mention that your daughter is picking on her sibling. I would talk with your younger child about how she feels when her sister picks on her and help your younger child to practice what she can say and do to stand up for herself when it happens. In addition, I would talk with your older daughter and be very clear about what you believe is out of bounds "teasing." If she is angry about something, ask her to talk with you about it (sometimes younger siblings can be annoying to older siblings) and then help them to talk directly to each other about what changes they'd like to see in their relationship. For example, perhaps your older daughter would like to have more time independent of your younger daughter or would like to have certain toys/clothes that she is not expected to share.
There are no simple solutions, but the more you create opportunities for your children to talk with you about what they are feeling, the more positive these changes will be for everyone in the family.
Question: from Sheetal I
My daughter is 5 year old and she is a bright child, makes friends easily and sticks to the one whom she likes most even if they 'rule her' i.e they take advantage of her and dictate to her. I tried explaining this to her in a calm and harsh way too but now she has started lying to me when I ask about them. I don’t want her to hang on to such friends who are after her just for her toys or food or stuffs.
It’s never easy when we don’t like our children’s choice of friends. At age five, you have much more control over who your child socializes with than you will when your child is a teenager so I would use this as an opportunity to help your daughter learn important social skills.
Of course, if you believe the friendship is harmful for your daughter then as the mom, you can choose to end the friendship. But before you end the friendship completely, you might decide to arrange that they play together only in supervised environments – like at your house or at the park while you are there. Then, if you see an interaction that you think is mean or unfair, you can help your daughter and her friend to talk about what is happening, and you can help your daughter develop the skills to navigate the ups and downs of friendships. For example, if the friend aggressively takes a toy from your daughter, you can help your daughter to tell the friend, “I don’t want you to take the toy out of my hands. If you want to use it, tell me and I’ll let you have a turn when I am done.”
If after several attempts of helping your daughter to protect her feelings and belongings you still see the friendship as too negative, then help your daughter to build other friendships that are more equitable and kind. You might start by inviting a girl that she already knows to your house for lunch and playing. On a different day, invite another child over – at age 5, it’s usually easier to build friendships one friend at a time. Continue to talk with your daughter about what she likes about each of her friends and build in as many opportunities as you can for your daughter to practice speaking up for herself when difficulties emerge.
Question: from Abby A
I have twin grandsons that are 4 1/2, they have a problem going to sleep at night. They cooperate on going to bed, but can't seem to settle down or stop goofing. My daughter has used a time out for the one that seems to instigate it, but it doesn't seem to help...please give us some suggestions.
I was running errands recently, and while waiting in a long line at a store I realized my meter was about to expire and there was no way to get back to it in time. Another parking ticket was coming my way. But when I got to my car, I saw that someone had put a quarter in my meter and left a sticky note that said, "Random Act of Kindness."
Question: from Kim F
We have 5 year old twins (boy/girl) that are just finishing their first year of kindergarten. The school insisted on separating them, despite the fact they had 2 years of preschool together successfully. We supported the school in their decision but have really struggled with helping our son be successful and feel confident. Should we advocate for them to be put in the same class for 1st grade to hopefully encourage success next year?
I am a mother of twins, too, and understand first hand the issue you are confronting. I don't believe that there should be a strict "twin policy" but rather that parents and educators should talk together about what is best for this set of twins — and each child in the twin pair.
You say that you have struggled with helping your son to be successful and confident. You might begin by talking with the kindergarten teacher about what he/she saw in the classroom regarding his confidence. Which situations does he feel confident in and which does he struggle with? How can you help him to develop the skills to deal with the situations that are hard for him? Having his sister in the classroom might lessen some of his struggles, but it might also decrease his opportunity to develop coping strategies on which he can rely.
In addition, you might think about how your son interacts with his sister at home, and in a variety of situations. Does she help him to enter social situations, negotiate problems? Does he seek her out more when he is tired, excited, worried? Once you know when your son seeks out his sister, you can begin to help him to develop alternative ways of dealing with those situations. For example, if he seeks her out when he is worried, you can help him to share his feelings with the teacher instead.
I encourage you to think about your daughter as well. What was the year like for her? What opportunities did she experience being in a different classroom than she might not have had if they were placed together?
Once you have a detailed understanding of how your children interact in the school setting as well as outside of the school, you will likely have more information with which to think through placement for next year.
Lastly, I would encourage you to continue to find lots of opportunities for your twins to do things together. The closeness of that relationship and the sense of interconnection matter as much as their independence! So, if they are in different first grade classes, you might think about other opportunities for them to have special time together like being on a little league team together or participating together in a community club.
Question: from Lorenzo N
Hi, we have a 16 year old son and he shows every school year the same picture: bad start with ups and downs and a barely good year end. Motivation to study doesn't stay for long time and he goes back to his standard behavior of doing no more than the minimum. We tried with nice holidays, language courses, but no visible changes took place. He's a nice, polite, no smoking guy, but would like to push his motivation and wish to work a bit more. Any suggestion? Best regards Lorenzo
As I read your letter I was thinking "I wonder what this kid is passionate about?" It sounds like he hasn't found something in school that really excites him. Nice holidays and language courses might be fun for him, but they don't address the underlying issue. Have you spoken with him about what he most enjoys about school? Is there a subject, a club, a particular teacher that he really likes? What topics is he most curious about? What are his talents — does he like to draw, play music, sports? At his age, he likely has some choice in his school schedule — electives he can take. I would start by helping him to choose electives that connect to his interests.
I encourage you to talk with him about his understanding of the "ups and downs." Are the ups and downs related to issues with friends, difficulties meeting the academic challenges, boredom? There are a variety of reasons why a 16 year old might struggle at school and the solutions you come up with need to be based on what is causing the problem. If you haven't already, I'd set up a time to meet with the school counselor and at least one of his teachers so you can understand their perspective on what is going on for your son. The better the communication between you and the school, the easier it will be for you to find ways to improve the situation.
Finally, your son might find it useful to set a goal for himself. If he does the "bare minimum" in a variety of domains of his life, he would likely benefit by challenging himself. He can start by identifying a couple areas that he finds interesting and enjoys — music, sports, environmental issues. Ask him to list a few challenges that he can set for himself in one of those areas. For example, he might challenge himself to learn a new instrument or to record a song. Help him to work out a step by step plan to reach his goal and reinforcements or rewards for accomplishing the steps along the way. Goal setting is a skill so even if it the goal he sets is not school related, the skill he learns will benefit him, as will the feeling of confidence and pride that comes with goal attainment.
Question: from Sunshine M
My husband is a stay at home Dad so my 4yr old spends a lot of time with him. I have been unable to get my daughter to understand that I need "Mama Time" sometimes just like Daddy. I spend alone time with her doing fun things but when it is over and I tell her I need to clean or grocery shop or just read my book she gets very upset. It's as though she expects me to be her playmate. I play fun games and Dad does ABC/123 things. What can I do to get her not to cry when it's Mama Time?
I understand the need for "Mama Time" — I have four children and know the importance of making time to rejuvenate oneself. Unfortunately, our children don't always see it this way — particularly four year olds! At that age, their world revolves around their needs, wants, and desires and Mommy's (and Daddy's) needs, wants and desires just don't make it on their radar.
You ask what you can do to get her not to cry when you need to do errands or spend time alone. Your daughter is crying because she is sad or angry and, from her perspective, those feelings make perfect sense. She wants you and can't have you! So, rather than trying to make her not cry, I would encourage you to reinforce how much you love her and enjoy playing with her and make a clear plan for when you will play with her next. You might say, "I know you don't like it when Mommy isn't with you and you feel sad when I go read my book. I LOVE playing with you too! And as soon as I'm done reading, we'll get to play again." Then, make a concrete plan. For example, if you are going to read your book for 30 minutes, you can show her where you will be sitting and then set an egg timer for 30 minutes. Tell her that when the egg timer goes off, you will be done reading and then you and she will play a game together or go for a walk. Set her up with an activity (or two) for her to do with Daddy while you are reading so that she is engaged during your "Mama Time".
By acknowledging her feelings and making a plan, your daughter will gradually learn that she can manage the separations from you. When you return, make sure to praise her for her patience so she feels good about her accomplishment.
Question: from Kathia R
My 2-year-old (member of identical boy twins) hits me whenever anyone tries to hug or kiss me (including my mom, sisters, brother, even his father.) Sometimes the extended family members tease him by hugging me. How should I deal with him? Should I ignore or act out explaining that it's ok? And why do I get to be hit although I'm not the one initiating the hugs?
It sounds like your son feels jealous when others give you a hug. That's not uncommon for young children. In addition, he likely feels angry and picked on when members of the family tease him by hugging you as a way to get a rise out of him. Two-year-olds are not capable of seeing this teasing as good-natured fun—from his perspective it is hurtful, even if that is not what family members intend.
So, I have two suggestions for you. First, I'd explain to your family members that the teasing is not helping you or your son and ask them to stop. Second, I'd sit down with your son and in simple language help him to name and share what he is feeling. You can say, “I know you don’t like it when people hug Mommy. You feel jealous and mad when I get hugs and then you hit me. It's okay to feel jealous and mad, but you can't hit me. You can hit a pillow instead.” He hits you when he is jealous because he wants you all to himself—very normal for young children—and when you get a hug from someone else he is mad that he is being forced to share you with others. You can reassure him by letting him know that you love him, and that you never stop loving him, even when other people hug you.
Question: from Lori G
We have a blended family. My husband has a 9-year-old daughter, and I have two boys ages 10 & 7. The 10-& 9-year-olds get along very well, which leaves the 7-year-old feeling left out. I have noticed that the 9-year-old is unresponsive and never wants to interact with the 7-year-old. He feels left out—which causes some acting out. I discuss his behavior and feelings with him and try to suggest how to deal with the situation. Can you make some suggestions on how we should approach these issues? Thanks.
It sounds like you are already doing the most important thing—talking with your son about his feelings. His acting out, as you rightly point out, follows from him feeling left out. You can help build your sons emotional awareness and his self-efficacy by helping him to share what he feels when his stepsister is unresponsive and what behaviors follow from his feelings. It makes sense that he feels left out, and that his feelings are hurt if his attempts to engage his stepsister are not well-received. Knowing that you empathize is critical, so give him lots of opportunity to share how he’s feeling with you.
You and your husband might also want to talk with your stepdaughter privately to better understand what is going on from her perspective. It’s great that she is enjoying her relationship with her older brother, and you might help her to think about things she can do with her younger brother that would be fun for both of them. Of course, the reality is that people sometimes feel closer to one person in the family than another – that’s normal family dynamics, and those dynamics often shift – which is important for all of the children to understand. The two siblings who are close in age probably have more in common, so you might also make sure your younger son invites a friend over and has plenty of time with same-aged peers.
Many families find it helpful to have a family meeting once a week where they talk about what is going well in the family and what they’d like to work on as a family. You can do this around the dinner table or in the evening—as long as it’s a time when everyone is present and distractions are minimal. So that your son doesn’t feel like he’s the problem, I’d suggest framing the meeting as an opportunity to talk about how things are going and to identify areas that you want to strengthen. You can have each member of the family name something that is working well for them within the family and take a few moments to celebrate the family’s successes. Then, switch gears and ask each family member to name something they’d like more help with, or something they’d like to see change. Ask the family members to share the situation in a positive way, rather than blaming others. For example, you could say “I want to play with you more” rather than “You always ignore me.” Take time to problem-solve and write down all the solutions you come up with together.
Question: from Teresa G
Anger—how to show it healthily and not stuff it then explode.
Anger is a very common feeling for kids. We feel angry when we think our rights have been violated or when someone or something is making it hard for us to get what we want. And let’s face it, young children are told many times during a day, “No, you can’t do that, have that, eat that…” So, it makes sense that anger is a common feeling for young children! In fact, anger is a healthy emotion that reminds us to protect and defend ourselves. Of course, as you point out, there are healthy and productive ways of expressing anger and ways that aren’t so healthy or productive.
As children get older, they learn more ways to control their emotions and express them appropriately. Emotion regulation is a skill. You can help build this skill in your child by helping him to name what he is feeling and showing him a variety of ways to express the anger. When you see him start to get angry, you can start by naming the feeling for him. You can say, “I see how mad you are right now.” Keep what you say short and simple. Then, you can ask him to tell you what is making him mad and listen to what he says without trying to challenge him, cheer him up, or problem-solve. Just listen! After he’s had the opportunity to tell you what is making him mad, you can share some ideas about how to blow off the steam that often comes with anger. Some kids like to punch a pillow, some like to draw a picture of what they’re feeling, some like to run around, some like to do something calming like tensing and releasing their muscles or taking slow, deep breaths.
One size doesn’t fit all, so help your child to try out a variety of ways to help express his anger so that he can learn which work best for him.
Question: from Nicole T
My son has severe anxiety about going to sleep. The only thing he can say is the monster’s in his head. I have cut video games out 2 hours before bed, TV one hour, then we read the last 30 minutes before bed to relax him. He still wakes up several times during the night and isn't sleeping very well at all. He never seems rested... what should I do to help ease his anxiety?
The strategies you are trying are good ones. Having good “bedtime hygiene” is important. Cutting out television and video games long before bed and having a calming pre-bed activity like reading are part of good bedtime hygiene. There are a variety of other strategies you can practice with him. Listening to calming music after the lights are out is also helpful for many kids. You can buy or make a tape of relaxation strategies, like controlled breathing, that also helps calm the body and facilitate sleep.
It sounds like your son doesn’t know how to name what it is that is worrying him. You might suggest that he draw what the monster looks like. Sometimes, getting the fear on paper can help alleviate the anxiety. He can make the monster into a cartoon and add the thoughts and dialogue to show what the worry is. If he’s willing to draw the monster, you can also ask him to draw himself with the tools and equipment he’ll use to get rid of the monster. Help him to work out his special superhero powers. By building his self-efficacy and his ability to cope with anxiety, the anxiety will start to diminish.
You might try asking your son to talk about what worries him when he is not feeling anxious. Once the anxiety starts, it’s sometimes hard for kids to express what the worry is, and they might believe that by saying it out loud they’ll feel worse. So pick a time of day when he typically feels okay, and ask him to share with you what his nighttime worries are. You can reassure him that all people have worries – even adults – and that you want to help him figure out how to deal with whatever it is that is worrying him.
If your son’s anxiety continues to interfere with sleep or begins to interfere with other aspects of his life (school, friendships, etc.), I’d recommend consulting with a therapist. Severe anxiety can cause a lot of hardship for a child (and his family), and there are very effective talking therapies, particularly cognitive therapy, that can help children and families cope with and lessen anxiety. You might ask your pediatrician for the recommendation of a cognitive therapist in your area.
Question: from Melissa O
I have a wonderful 2.5-year-old son who speaks clearly, expresses himself, has very good manners and has always enjoyed going to his daycare. Recently my son has been hitting, spitting and kicking other kids at the school (for about 4 months). The teachers and I have spoken about it. They say that there doesn't have to be a reason for it, he'll walk up to a child who is having a snack and just hit him. We try time-outs, taking away toys and nothing helps. The doctor says it's a stage. Is it?
It’s great that you and your child’s teachers and doctors have an open dialogue – communicating with all the key people in your son’s life is so important. As your doctor said, it might very well be a stage that he’ll soon outgrow. Kids at that age are going through many rapid changes in their social, emotional, and physical worlds, so it’s not uncommon for there to be changes in behavior that are hard to explain. The fact that your son is still so young can make it hard to know what is going on for him since he might not have the self-awareness to know for himself, let alone the words to express it.
Whatever is triggering his behavior, it sounds like he is feeling angry. That can be scary for a child. You might reassure him that all kids (and adults) feel angry at times, and even though it doesn’t feel good, it’s just another feeling (like happiness or sadness). You can help your child develop emotional awareness by playing some simple games with him like Emotion Charades and Mood Music. These games help your child act out feelings in healthy ways.
You might also use action figures or dolls to help your child express what he is feeling at day care. You can pretend to be his peers and/or teachers and let him guide the play by acting out what happens at daycare. Oftentimes, children at this age can express their feelings through play in ways that they can’t through conversation.
Finally, I’d continue to keep talking with his teachers. Have there been any changes in the staff or the children who are in his class? Are there any changes at home that might be causing stress for your child? Young children aren’t able to express feelings about change directly, so it’s through their behavior that we sometimes learn they are upset about something new or different going on in their life. You might also ask the teachers to keep a log of how often the outbursts occur, when they occur and the circumstances surrounding the outburst. Together you might be able to find a pattern or a trigger that you can then address as a team.
Question: from Amy U
My husband (soon-to-be ex) states that I am too close to our daughter. Is it possible to be too close to your child? I am very involved in her school and know all of her friends. I encourage her to talk to me about anything. I believe my husband's statement stems from his jealousy of my relationship with our daughter. My intent is to make sure she knows that I am always here for her and I will love her no matter what. Would you provide your insight, please?
Your intent of letting your daughter know that you will always be there for her and that your love for her will not falter is what most of us want to communicate to our children. I can’t speak to what is prompting your husband’s concerns, but I do know that the issue of being close to our children AND also maintaining appropriate separateness is not always easy! There is nothing that you say in your letter that is alarming—being involved in our children’s school and knowing their friends is wise and helpful.
If you begin to sense that you might be too involved, or if your daughter sends you signals that say “give me a little more space,” you might reflect on what your daughter’s growing independence means to you. For many parents, myself included, it is exciting, scary and sad to see our children venture further into the world without us by their side. Recently, my two oldest sons (almost 12) have started meeting friends at a skating rink and—here’s the shocker—they don’t want me to stay! Who will tie their skates? What if they fall? What if a stranger talks with them? The danger center of my brain goes on high alert, as does the “I can’t believe they don’t want me there,” reaction. For me, talking with my husband and friends about what it feels like for me to watch my kids grow up has been helpful. I can share the excitement, my feelings of loss, and worry with those in my inner circle and not inappropriately burden my children with these feelings.
All parents will confront the changing nature of our relationship with our kids, and I believe that making time to reflect on and talk about our own feelings (with other adults) will help us to stay connected and engaged with our children.
Question: from Rebecca P
My oldest daughter will be 5 in January. She is a reserved child and we have been noticing that she is a real follower with her friends as well as not wanting to try new things. She also tends to have a negative attitude frequently. Overall, she is a happy child and we have a warm, safe family environment. She has one younger sister, almost 3, who is much more outgoing and adventurous. I just wanted to see if you have any suggestions to help her become more positive and outgoing. Thanks.
As you well know, every child is different and has different strengths, interests, and skills. Trying new things – the willingness to take a risk – is a valuable life skill, as is optimism. So it makes great sense that you want to help cultivate both in your daughter. I believe the best place to start is to build on an area of strength. What does your daughter love to do? When does she feel the most engaged in an activity or experience? By identifying these, you can then help her to take a risk within a context that she is already enjoying. So, for example, if she loves to draw, you can talk with her about something new she’d like to try to further enjoy art. Maybe it’s to take an art class or inviting a few kids over to make clay sculptures together.
If she expresses worries or doubts about taking on these new activities, ask her to share with you what she is worried about. Sometimes children have very specific worries – like they won’t know where the bathroom is in a new building – and you can help alleviate that fear by addressing the worry directly. Other times the fears and the negative thinking is a bit more general – like “I won’t like the class” or “I won’t be good at it” or “Other kids won’t like me.” Once you give her the opportunity to express these worries, you can help her to feel more comfortable by gently providing her with the tools to challenge the negative thinking. For example, you might say, “Painting is about playing with colors on paper and having fun, it’s not about being good at it.” Or, “You get better at something by practicing and trying things out. No one expects you or needs you to be good at this right away.”
It’s also helpful to model optimism and healthy risk-taking for our children. If you’re the cook in the family, you might ask her to be your sous chef and then talk aloud about how you are going to try a recipe you’ve never prepared before. Express your concerns about trying something new, AND express your eagerness to learn new cooking techniques and the excitement of doing something that is challenging.
Question: from Rachael B
My child is just turning 7 in a couple of days. I feel like she is so impatient with me, always. It seems like appropriate tolerance from a 13-year-old. How do I get her to want to talk to me without making her feel guilty or punishing her? I know we cannot always be friends, but I feel as though our relationship is suffering and I am wondering what it is I have done wrong here.
It’s great that you are framing this situation as an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with your daughter. You mention that you wonder what you have done wrong. Perhaps there is something that your daughter is upset about, but it might also be a natural shift as your daughter begins to focus more on friendships and her peer group and burgeoning independence. I know that when my children were in the third grade, they became much more interested in their friendships than before, and that took a little getting used to!
It sounds like you want to talk with your daughter about what she is feeling, and you point out that you want to do so in a way that doesn’t generate guilt or make her feel punished. That sounds just right. So, language is going to matter. Try to frame the conversation in a positive way, steering clear from sharing too much about how her shift in behavior had made you feel. Your feelings matter, but young children can be confused and overwhelmed by their parents’ feelings; so it’s better to keep your description of how you feel brief. Talk openly with your significant other or a friend about your feelings, but with your daughter, make sure to focus on her. You might say, “It seems like you’re feeling more impatient or annoyed by me lately. Is there something specific that I’m doing that is bothering you?” If she expresses something specific, that’s great because then you can talk about how the two of you will handle it.
I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if she doesn’t have anything specific to say. If that’s the case, her annoyance might just be a reflection of her growing interest in independence – something that is bittersweet for most parents. You can tell her that you’re excited to see her growing up and then work toward having some special times together (like a mother-daughter afternoon, or going out shopping together, or watching her favorite movie on the couch). Set a goal of having a few extra brief positive experiences a week (even if they are just twenty or thirty minutes – that can go a long way). Let her choose what they are. The goal is simply to share time together, so be flexible and creative. Sometimes, the best way to work on a relationship is to build in more positive moments, rather than taking the negative moments head on—particularly when these negative moments are an unavoidable part of our children growing up.
It’s clear from your letter that you are sensitive to your daughter and your relationship. That alone will take you very far!
Question: from Cami E
Whining! I need a few tips on how to deal with my now whiny child.
I feel your pain! Whining is so unpleasant. It’s like screeching chalk, only worse. The unfortunate thing is, kids whine. (To be honest, at times, I whine – although my husband refers to it as “crankiness”). For the most part, the best strategy is to ignore it and remove yourself from the room when your child is whining. I usually say something like; “I find that voice annoying. I’m going into the other room so I don’t get in a bad mood.” Then, off I go. Notice that I say the voice is annoying, not that my child is annoying. That’s a helpful distinction to make so that your child doesn’t feel that you are leaving the room because you don’t like him anymore.
Of course, removing ourselves only gets us so far. It doesn’t reward the whining and it spares our mood – two good things – but it also doesn’t help us understand what is bothering our children. Sometimes whining is just a result of being tired. If that’s the case, rethinking bedtime and nighttime rituals is a good idea. If the whining is not a result of being tired, you’ll want to get a better understanding of what is upsetting your child. Pick a non-whiny moment for the discussion. Tell your child that you’re not a fan of the whining, and you want to help figure out what is upsetting your child so that you can work together to improve the situation.
When your child is not in that whiny place, he might find it hard to remember what was going on. You can remind him, but remind him in a way that sticks to the facts and isn’t full of blame. For example, you can say, “You started to get upset before dinner. I think you and your brother were on the Wii game together. What was happening?” This is less likely to push buttons than saying; “You started all that whining right before dinner. Something happened between you and your brother. You always start whining when you don’t get your way.”
Help your child to talk about what he was feeling in the situation. Don’t challenge what he is saying. Just listen and empathize. Next you can ask your child what he wanted to have happen, what was his goal. Whining is often the response that follows when our kids feel stuck and don’t know how to solve a problem more effectively. After your child tells you what he wanted to have happen, spend one or two minutes thinking of other ways he might handle the situation next time – so that he feels better equipped at dealing with the problem. By focusing on solutions, rather than the whining, you are working to build your child’s self-efficacy. The more confident he feels in handling setbacks and problems, the less whining you’ll hear.
Question: from Laura K
My 8-year-old son is very competitive in all aspects of his life. He plays many different types of sports and excels when he plays. He is also competitive with his schoolwork and games that are played in the classroom. He is not always a good sport when winning or losing. How can I help him be a good sport without squashing his enthusiasm for sports or work in the classroom? What tools could I use when these situations arise?
I think the way you have presented the situation is just great! Implicit in your message is that you see your son's competitiveness and drive as strengths. He's enthusiastic and it sounds like he works hard and throws himself into what he is doing with zest. Those are strengths! You also see the "shadowy side" of those strengths - at times he's not a good sport. Your son, like many of us, needs to practice being a gracious winner as well as a gracious loser. Learning to be gracious will take practice, but it is something he can achieve and will likely bring greater enjoyment to his activities.
It is helpful for parents to keep in mind what leads to gloating after a win and being a "sore loser" following a loss. Usually, gloating stems from the mixture of excitement and delight in the win coupled with a lack of empathy for what the other person/team is feeling following their loss. Being a sore loser stems from feeling disappointed and frustrated that all one's efforts did not bring about the outcome desired. Delight following success and disappointment/frustration following loss are reasonable, healthy reactions. So, a good first step is to just connect with those emotions. When you see your child gloating, say, "I can imagine how excited and happy you feel. You played well and that feels good." Or, "I can see how mad and frustrated you feel. I feel that way too when all my effort doesn't bring about a win!" By connecting with your son's feelings you are modeling empathy, and empathy is a critical part of being gracious in both winning and losing.
To help your child build the skills of graciousness and empathy, start by watching age-appropriate sports movies together and/or talking about sports figures that are known for being good sports and those known for being bad sports. Talk about how the athletes react after a win and a loss. What does your son notice about the way the athlete reacts? What does the athlete say and do? What does the athlete communicate through his or her body language? How do his or her reactions affect their teammates and the players on the other team? How does the person who lost feel? By focusing first on other people, your son can begin to learn to identify the ingredients of being competitive and gracious. He'll also have the opportunity to notice how other people feel when someone is a poor winner/loser, and noticing the emotions of others is the critical ingredient in building empathy.
Based on what you learn from your sports-viewing blitz, make a "Gracious Winner/Gracious Loser" playbook where you record how to be gracious in competition. Write down, as specifically as possible, the 'how to's' of being gracious - what to say and not say, what to do and not do, what body language communicates gloating versus appropriate delight in a win, etc. With playbook in hand, you might try role-playing a variety of situations. Keep them brief - role-play gets old fast - but it is a great, low-risk way to practice new skills.
Finally, you can help your son with "real time" graciousness by coming up with a signal that you'll give when you notice him being ungracious in his responses. Signals are a key part of player/coach communication because they are in the moment and share critical information. When you give the signal, your son will know to switch plays and to put into practice what you have worked on together. You might even share this with his teacher so he/she can work with him at school.
Question: from Linda G
I have a child who performs best when under pressure (or given greater challenges). Does that mean I should "always" try to put him in situations where the bar has been raised higher?
Being able to perform well when under pressure is a strength and it's one that many kids and adults wish they could further develop. It sounds like your son enjoys challenges and finds them motivating and exciting. Have you talked with him about what he likes about challenges and pressure? What a fun conversation to have!
Many people feel at their best when they are in situations that require them to use a strength or talent to its fullest. When people are in this mode, time passes quickly because they are fully engaged in the task. When the challenge outstrips skills, people often feel anxious and when situations are not challenging enough, boredom sets in. Encouraging your child to seek out appropriate challenges will be engaging for him and builds resilience — nothing promotes an "I can do it" attitude better than experiencing oneself surmounting a challenge.
This doesn't mean, however, that you want to always raise the bar and create ever growing challenges. It is also valuable to learn how to enjoy and engage in experiences that are not about "performance" or doing well - just going with the flow. We all need moments in the day when we are doing things just out of the pleasure of the experience, not motivated by a need to succeed. So sure, go ahead and help your son to enjoy his strength of "rising to the occasion" but also create opportunities for him to savor simple experiences as well — listening to music, or playing a game (not to win, just to have fun), or hanging out with you.
Question: from Lynn J
When my kids were little I was home full time. Now that they're older (10 and 12) I am back to work. The transition hasn't been easy on any of us. I thought I was managing the dual role well but lately my kids have been complaining that I never spend any time with them. Whenever they say this I feel so guilty and wonder whether going back to work was a big mistake. What can I do to give them the time they want with me and still work outside the home?
Oh, do I feel your pain! My 3-year-old said to me yesterday, "When will you be all done working so that you are just mine?" Trust me, I was trotting out every resilience skill I know!
Like you, I sometimes feel guilty when my children want time with me and I am not able to give it to them because of work obligations. The first thing I do is to gain perspective by reminding myself of the time I do spend with them. I remind myself of the fun things we have done together recently and I take a moment to recall the times when I said no to professional opportunities because they would have taken too much of my time. This usually takes the edge off my guilt so that I don't panic and instead can focus on my child and what he or she is asking of me. (By the way, I don't recommend that you share your calming recollections with your child. Your child doesn't care that you turned down an invitation to an important conference so that you could be there for his school play. And by sharing this, you might inadvertently make him feel guilty. That's not the goal.)
Once you are feeling less guilty, it's time to really listen to your children. Ask them to tell you more about what they are feeling. What sorts of things do they miss doing with you? When do they miss you the most? What do they do when they miss you and you are not there? What does it mean to them that you work? Giving your children the opportunity to share their feelings with you is important. It shows them that you want to know how they are feeling, and that you will listen - even when what they are feeling might be uncomfortable for you to hear.
Next, it is time for problem solving. I think about both quality and quantity time. Kids need both from their parents. First, quality time: Every day I do my best to have some "work-free - no email, no phone, no thinking about work" time. Given technology it is possible to be connected to our work 24/7 and our kids need to know that they have time with us when they are our sole focus. So, although I am a multitasker, I make it my goal to have time every day when I take off all of the other hats I wear and just be Mom (I don't always succeed, mind you, but the more I practice this, the more present I feel). We all feel the difference when I do this. My kids and I feel more engaged and it is rejuvenating to all of us. So, ask yourself: What can I do to make sure that my children have some time with me each day where I am fully present and focusing on just them?
Second is quantity time. Quality time does not replace the need for quantity time. A great 45 minutes of togetherness does not replace the need for long stretches of being together. I make sure that every week there are some times when we are together for long stretches (even if the long stretches include grumpiness and errand running along with going to the park, playing board games, and reading.) Is there a day of the week that you can keep unscheduled so that you and your children have the opportunity to just hang out together and let the day unfold without lots of "to dos". If the answer is no, you might want to sit down with your children and talk about this and see if, as a family, you can figure out how to get more unstructured, open time together. You might all have to give up something to make this happen!
Question: from Micah P
Over the past six months, I have noticed that my little girl, who is now 4 years old, has been picking at her nails. They look as if she has bitten her nails down, but she is just picking the nail away. She is doing this to her fingernails and toenails. Should I be concerned? Do you have any suggestions for me? I try not to draw to much attention to it. I used to bite my nails and the more my mother would say stuff, the more I would bite them. I was a nervous child.
You are correct that often the more attention you put on her nails, the more of a "thing" it will become. It's always wise to run situations like this by her pediatrician — they see this behavior a lot and will likely have suggestions. One of my sons also picks at his nails, particularly during "down times" like when he is watching TV, reading, or laying in bed. We've had some success by giving him a ball to squeeze or a piece of paper to roll between his fingers. This helps keep his fingers occupied. You might try out a variety of ways to keep her fingers busy and gently remind her of them during the times that her nail picking is the most common. You might try squeeze balls, paper, string, or even dried macaroni as ways to keep her hands busy.
Question: from Nancy H
My son is a typical 9-year-old boy. He's active, funny and athletic. However, he has a significant learning disability with reading. His older brothers sometimes tease him when he can't read the directions on a video game. He came home one day very sad and asked me why his brain doesn't allow him to read like everyone else can. How do I make sure he doesn't lose his confidence and continues to view himself in a positive way? How do I stop his brothers from teasing him about his disability?
It is important that your son hears from you — repeatedly — that his learning disability and difficulty reading is just one part of who he is. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses — my kids joke that I am missing the gene for spatial skills (I still turn the wrong way when I get out of the elevator in my own office!). All kids need to learn to define themselves as much by their strengths as their weaknesses. So, talk with your child honestly about his difficulty reading (it never works well to sugar coat the areas our children struggle with) and help him to understand that his brain is not damaged or bad. After all, that's the same brain that allows him to be funny and athletic. You can even make a list with him of his strengths and spend time with him discussing how he feels about these parts of who he is. Of course, you also want to give him time to share his feelings about his learning disability with you.
Sometimes parents rush too quickly to try to cheer their kids up and they might be, inadvertently, communicating to their children that they don't really want to hear and talk about the hard things their children struggle with. So, when he comes home from school sad, ask him about it. Ask him what he feels like in school and how he feels when his brothers tease him. After he has had a chance to tell you all about it, then you can work with him to practice what he can say to his brothers when they tease him — and to himself when he is feeling down. He could try something like, "Reading doesn't come easy for me, but I'm keeping at it. Your teasing me doesn't help, so knock it off."
The truth is that you can't stop his brothers from teasing him, but when you hear it, you can clearly and firmly tell them to stop. When my kids tease each other, I say something like: "We need to look out for each other, not put each other down. Your teasing hurts and I want this to be a family in which we build each other up." If the teasing is an ongoing problem, you might want to have a family talk about it — at a time when everyone is getting along. Ask the brothers to talk about times they have been teased and what it felt like and ask your son to share how he feels when they tease him. You can also ask the kids how they want to handle it when someone teases them (your son can learn from his brothers and use it against them next time they tease him!). The best way to stop teasing is to build empathy so the more your family shares with each other what it feels like to struggle with whatever it is they struggle with, the greater empathy you will all have for each other.
Question: from Pam S
We are moving next month to a new town and my 3 children (ages 7, 9 and 12) will be leaving behind all their friends they've spent their childhood with. They will be starting a new school. While I really believe they will love our new home and community once they've settled in, I expect this to be a rough time for us all. How can I help them through this transition?
Moving to a new neighborhood and school is stressful for children (and their parents). When families move, children often feel a wide range of emotions: anger that they are being forced to leave behind their house, friends, neighborhood and school; sadness over the many losses the change brings; anxiety about what it will be like in the new home, school and making new friends; excitement about the change. All of these emotions (and moving quickly from one to another) are normal and expected. So, the first step in helping your children to navigate the transition is to give them plenty of time and space to share what they are feeling. Ask about how they are feeling and don't be surprised if what you hear changes hour to hour, day to day. Ask often and be prepared to listen: not advise, not cheer, just listen.
I stress listening because sometimes when our children are feeling upset our instinct is to cheer them up, perhaps by pointing out all the great things about the new house or school. There will be time for you to switch into problem solving mode, but if we do that too soon, it can backfire. Unfortunately, despite our good intentions, often our cheery pep talks communicate to our children that we don't think it's okay for them to be angry, sad or anxious and that message will make it harder for them to be honest about what they are feeling. And to further complicate the issue, you might be feeling guilty about "doing this" to your child. Because of your guilt, you will be even more motivated to highlight all the great things about the move.
Here are a few ideas to help your child through the "before and after" of the move.
Before You Move
Make a My Home scrapbook
When we moved (just 4 blocks, mind you), my mother made a scrapbook of our old house for the kids. It had pictures of all the rooms and the kids liked looking through it to remember the house and how they had their rooms set up. Even though we walk by the house often, they still miss it, and we use the album as a way to share fun stories about our experiences in their first home. Your children might enjoy making the album with you — if not, you can do it yourself and give it to them as a moving gift.
Have a Good-bye Event
Marking the move with an event — like a party, special dinner, camp-out in the backyard — can help children cope with the experience. Together, you and your children can design the event. Some children might like a big party with friends and neighbors, others might like to keep it small and quiet — there is no wrong way to do this. The goal is to design an experience together that resonates with your children and gives them the opportunity to formally mark the move from the old house to the new house (We knew that the family moving into our house had a 2 year old boy, so my kids decided it would be fun to leave him surprises — drawings, small gifts — in various spots around the house).
After You Move:
Get together with Friends
If the distance that you are moving is manageable, it can be helpful to children to have a date on the calendar when they will have their friends over. Don't wait until you are totally unpacked! Kids need a sense of continuity, so making sure their friends come over (and maybe help decorate their bedroom) will help your children to know that their important relationships can continue.
Don't Rush Friend Making
Sometimes parents rush their children into making new friends and this often feels overwhelming for the child. If your child is gregarious and connects with other kids easily, go ahead and invite him to bring a friend from his new school home. If your child is more introverted and takes longer to form relationships, respect her pacing. Rather than push her to invite friends over, ask her to share with you stories about her new classmates: Who seems nice? Who seems helpful? Who did she have a positive vibe from? This shouldn't feel like you are peppering her with questions, but rather by showing your curiosity and giving your child the opportunity to share stories with you, you are helping her to begin to figure out who she'd like to know better.
Expect Moodiness and Spend More Time
Some children are moody after the move — and for good reason. Their life has dramatically changed and they had little if any say in it. Be patient. You will likely be stressed too, and may be distracted by a huge "to do" list, so it will be easy for you to snap at your kids or to be so focused on other things that they get less of your time and attention. Make sure you set aside time each day to give your children your attention. They need you now, not after your lives are back in order! Plan some fun family activities that help acquaint your family with the new neighborhood and most important, plan some down time where you all get to just hang out and breathe!
Question: from Sarah A
Every day, my 10 year old comes home and, after a break, goes into her room to start her homework. Inevitably, after just a few minutes, she comes out looking defeated and says, "I don't get it." When I ask her specifically what she doesn't get, she starts to get upset, saying, "I don't get any of it." She gets very sad and often cries. Then she starts to blame anyone she can think of: her brother for bothering her, her teacher for not teaching the lesson in class (which I know she does!) or me for not helping her properly. I believe that she is looking to blame others when she is really just down on herself.
Your intuition about your daughter sounds right to me. The first step is to just listen and not try to cheer her up or talk her into another point of view. Often what our kids most need from us is our empathy. So, next time, rather than asking her to get more specific about what she isn't getting, simply say something like, "That must be horrible. I remember feeling totally lost sometimes when I was in school, and I just wanted to give up completely." Try to connect with her around her feeling of hopelessness and give her the chance to explore with you how she is feeling about school and her strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes parents worry that getting into all of that will make it worse, but it actually helps make things better.
After your daughter has had a chance to share her feelings with you, then you can move into problem solving (you might even find that just by listening to her and not trying to cheer her up, she feels able to move forward on her own). You don't have to point out that she is blaming others — that will likely make her feel defensive. Instead, ask her what she needs to make things a bit better. It might be that she needs a longer break before starting homework.
Some kids need a couple of hours to unwind before they have the energy to tackle another chunk of work. It also might be that she is upset by one subject more than the others. It might work better for her if she starts with the homework she most enjoys and saves the homework that she least enjoys for last — some early positive experiences will make it easier for her to continue. Help her to see that you have faith in her ability to figure things out. Of course, you want her to know that you are willing and happy to help, but sometimes when we offer solutions we inadvertently send the message that we don't believe our children are capable of finding solutions themselves.
If the situation persists, take some time on a weekend, when she is not focused on homework, to talk with her about it. Tell her that you want to better understand how she is feeling and what she is going through and to help her through it. It is often more productive to have these conversations when your child is not in the thick of it-and when you have more distance as well. You can ask your child how she wants you to help her when she is feeling frustrated and down. You can work with her to list, as specifically as possible, what she is feeling upset about. Often these quieter, calmer conversations are much more productive than the in-the-heat-of-the-moment ones!
Question: from Sharon D
My son wants to try out for the lacrosse team, but he seems to downplay his desire. He says things like, "I don't know if I can do it." How can I encourage him to think and speak more positively, give it his all, and gain the most out of tryouts?
Lots of kids feel nervous and have self-doubts when trying out for a team or club. That's a normal reaction to risk taking. Taking risks requires courage—being willing to try, despite the fear. I'd start by asking him to tell you more about what he is thinking and feeling and to let him know that you feel nervous and have self-doubts too. The challenge is to try things even when you have self-doubts, not to eliminate all self doubt and nervousness.
Sometimes kids feel embarrassed if they are not being "positive" enough and the first step in feeling more positive is to not feel bad about feeling negative and having fears. After you've given him time to share his fears and doubts with you, work with him to develop an image of himself during tryouts. By creating a positive image together, you can help him to feel more relaxed and willing to take the risk. The goal is to create as detailed an image as possible. What will he wear? What will he eat for breakfast or lunch that day? Who will he go to the tryouts with? What will he say when he sees the coach?
Help him to imagine himself playing lacrosse - not perfectly - but catching and throwing, checking, scooping up the ball - and help him to feel the fun it is (after all, that's why he wants to be on the team). Once you have created this image together, you can rehearse it with him before the try-outs. Children also learn a lot from hearing our stories of taking risk, successes and failures. So think back to your own experiences trying new things or trying out for a team or club and share what it was like for you. Talk about what you were afraid of or worried about and how it felt for you to try it anyway. The more we model courage, the more courageous our children will be.
Question: from Sophia Y
My 11 year old son gets very nervous when faced with new experiences, whether they be activities in school, social situations, or just changes from his normal routine. I spend a disproportionate amount of time helping him to prepare mentally for these challenges and work hard to bolster his confidence. In the end, he comes back from each of these new experiences proud and triumphant but cannot carry over that confidence to the next new thing. We are always back at square one again. What can I do to help him move forward with his confidence in new situations?
Your son is nervous when he faces a new experience, yet despite his nervousness he perseveres and comes back triumphant. I understand that it would be easier for all involved if each time it got easier so that soon he was able to approach new situations comfortably. But, for now, he might continue to feel initial anxiety when he's trying to tackle something new.
With your help, your son has been able to develop skills and master the challenges he confronts, despite feeling anxious. And that he continues to do so demonstrates his resilience — and the helpfulness you are providing him.
You might find it useful to create a "Challenge Book" with him in which he writes down a few sentences that describe the situation and a few situations that describe which of his strengths and coping skills he used to help himself move forward, even though he was feeling nervous. Encourage him to also write a few sentences that describe the positive feelings he experienced afterward. Taking a few minutes to write in his Challenge Book might help the experience to stick and it can also become a resource to him — a place to go to remind himself of what worked in the past. As he gets older, my guess is that he will be able to provide himself with the "pep talks" and that he will need less of that from you.
Until he can do this for himself, you are serving as his resilience coach. If it feels like you need to spend inordinate amounts of time coaching him, work together to identify what you do that is most helpful to him and what you do that he feels able to do for himself. By discussing this with him, you are sending him the message that you have confidence that he can coach himself through parts of the process — and that message is an important one for him to hear from you.
Question: from Steve C
I have a 5 year old whose catch phrase is, "I can't do it." We have heard it at home and the teacher has heard it at school. Maybe it's because he has grown up in the shadow of a very intelligent older brother, but he seems to lack confidence and be afraid to try new things, especially mental things like letters, words, etc.
At age 5 there are lots of things your son can't do, particularly compared to an older sibling. His awareness that certain activities or tasks require more than he has the skill for is a sign of his growing awareness of the world and others. The challenge for you is not to convince him that he can do anything and everything — no one can — but to help him to find enjoyment in the process of building his skills.
I always recommend starting with a strength — it is much easier (and more fun) to get better at something you are already a little good at than it is to get good at something you are not good at yet. You mention that he seems to shy away from verbal or language-oriented activities — don't start there. For now, the goal is to help him learn to enjoy challenge — later you can broaden the challenges to include areas outside his comfort zone but that's not a priority initially.
Pick something your child likes to do and has some talent in (whether it be sports, drawing, music, dance) and begin to find ways to increase the challenge of that activity. For example, if he enjoys kicking around a ball, take some time in the yard and construct an obstacle course for him to kick the ball through. Start with large spaces that are easy for him to get the ball through and make them more narrow as the course progresses. It will be more helpful to him if you praise his effort and how he kicks the ball than if you praise him doing it well. So say things like: "You look like you are having fun out there (if he is)," or "Wow, you really kicked that ball hard," or "I like how you circled back and kicked the ball a second time." When you praise his effort and how he approaches a task, rather than the outcome, you are teaching your child that the process of learning and developing is what matters most. And this is just what taking risks is all about.
Question: from Sue H
My 16-year-old son is extremely shy and introverted. He won't go to the school's homecoming even though he has a safe date all lined up for him! He prefers staying home alone to initiating activities with his friends and very rarely invites friends to our house to hang out. He seems happy enough, but I worry that he's missing out on his high school years. He's a junior at school but has a late birthday for his class.
It's hard when we see our children making choices that we feel are not the best! I'm reminded of this daily in my own family. Still, you made a very important statement. You said that he seems happy. As you know, there is a wide range in terms of social contact people want. Some teens (just like adults) like to have friends around all the time, some like to be mainly by themselves and most are somewhere in the middle. Have you spoken with your son about his preference to be alone? Does he find it distressing? Is this a change for him or has he always tended to prefer more solitary activities? Would he like to increase his social network? If he tends to be introverted and if you tend to be extroverted, it might be particularly hard for you to truly believe that he feels happy — so the more you listen to him the better able you'll be to understand what it feels like to be him.
I'd encourage you to talk with him about what brings him joy and what he's passionate about. Is it reading? Computer programming? Drawing? With this knowledge you can create as many opportunities to build on these passions as possible. Sign him up for a workshop on computer technology, go to an exhibit at a museum, encourage him to enter a drawing or short story in a contest. Through his passions, you can help him to reach out of his comfort zone – just a little. Feeling comfortable socially and having at least one friend is important, so you can use the knowledge of what he enjoys as a way to enhance that social domain of his life. For example, you can help him think of an activity or club that he can join which builds on his interests and creates opportunities for him to engage with kids who share his passions. A realistic goal might be to join one activity that meets once a week. The most important thing is to accept who he is and to encourage him to try new experiences AND to let him know that it is okay for him to be different than you.
Question: from Alison L
My daughter always assumes the worst and sees her world as the glass being "half-empty." She just can't seem to recognize all of the good things in her life. Are there any techniques I can use to help her have a positive outlook and to see that her life is really "half-full?"
Optimism is an important skill for children and adults. It's great that you already see optimism as something you can help your daughter to learn. And yes, there are some strategies you can use to help your child to develop her optimism. The fact is, many of us pay more attention to the bad stuff than the good stuff that happens each day. A simple way to get started is to work together with your daughter to "hunt for the good stuff."
For younger children, you can quite literally go on a "good stuff" scavenger hunt in which you take a walk around your neighborhood and write down anything positive you notice — someone picking up trash and putting it in the trash can, a person helping another person carry some packages, the warm smile that the shopkeeper gave you when you walked in the store. For older children (as well as young), you can ask them to write on a slip of paper something good that happened that day and to put it in a shoe box that you keep on the dinner table (or any other location you congregate around). Every few days, take turns pulling out one of the pieces of paper and reading it aloud. Be curious about the good thing to show your children that you have an interest in talking about, and exploring, the good stuff in life, not just the bad stuff.
Question: from Amanda R
I sometimes wonder if my kids are too resilient when it comes to losses in sports. They don't seem to care that much if they lose a soccer game. Shouldn't kids really want to win and be disappointed (but not despondent) if they don't win?
You remind me of watching my son Jacob play soccer when he was young. Most of the kids were chasing after the ball and there he was meandering around, looking up at the clouds, straightening the cones when they got knocked over, sometimes chasing after the ball. My first thought was, "Okay, he's never going to be an athlete," and I was worried. With some reflection, I realized this was about me, not him. I cared about him doing well in sports and he didn't. For him, playing soccer wasn't about winning or losing it was about having fun, being on the field, being part of the team - that's what mattered to him. What worries you about your children's lack of disappointment over losing? What do you think this means about them and what it will portend for their future?
I think one of the greatest losses we experience as we get older is the loss of the joy of the process. We stop doing things we love just because we love them and focus instead on doing just those things we do best. That's a real loss. I stopped playing the clarinet in the 5th grade - even though I loved it - because I didn't think I was good enough. I never would have become a concert clarinetist, but I would have enjoyed making music. Your kids' attitude sounds wonderful to me. I wish I had more of it myself.
Question: from Beth F
The other night my seven year old daughter screamed that she hates me. She wanted to stay up late to watch a new episode of one of her favorite TV shows and I told her she couldn't. I pointed out that the new episode would air again and she could watch it another time, probably even the next day. I thought I was being reasonable but she just lost it and went on about how mean I am and how much she hates me. I think she was being totally disrespectful and that it's not okay for her to talk to me like that. My husband said she was just mad and blowing off steam and that I shouldn't take it so personally. What do you think? Should I let her talk to me like that?
My mother recently showed me a letter my sister wrote her when my sister was about six or seven. It said: "Dear Mom. I hate you. Love, Jennifer." That says it all! In that moment, my sister hated my mother. And she also loved her. That's how it goes.
It's never pleasant to hear our children express how angry they are at us, but it happens. How could it not? How many times a day do kids hear "no", "not now", "you can't", "sorry, but no"? I know that if I heard that many "nos" in a day, I'd feel really mad too. That's not to say that we should just start saying "yes" all the time. I point it out, however, to put your daughter's "I hate you" in perspective. In that moment, she might very well feel hate toward you. Your daughter - like all of us - doesn't like hearing that she can't do something that she wants to do. Your answer was reasonable, but that doesn't mean it is going to feel good to your daughter. She got mad because she wanted something and you wouldn't let her have it. Her anger is completely, totally normal and common. Kids have strong feelings toward their parents - love and anger among them - and those strong feelings are going to be expressed in lots of different ways.
Now, even though her anger is normal, that doesn't mean you will like or approve of how she expresses it. And learning how to express anger is critical. It sounds like you and your husband have different views on what are acceptable expressions of anger in your family. I bet, though, that you also agree in many areas (for example, most parents agree that it is not okay for children to hit their parents even if they are very angry). You might want to start by finding a quiet time to talk with your husband about his views on expressing anger and to share your own. When your daughter says "I hate you" what do you feel? What does your husband feel when she says it to him? What do you each want for your daughter around the expression of anger? Is screaming okay? How about punching a pillow? Or writing a note like the one my sister wrote to my mom? The more you explore, as a couple, what you are comfortable with and what your goals are, the easier it will be for you to work together as a team when it comes to helping your daughter develop her ability to express feelings.
Also, find a quiet time to talk with your daughter about the situation. It rarely makes sense to do that in the heat-of-the-moment. She is already very upset and it would be nearly impossible for a seven year old (or a 40-year-old!) to be able to explore her feelings when they are that strong. You can ask her what it felt like to her when you said she couldn't watch the program and give her the opportunity to share her feelings with you in a more controlled way. The more you can empathize with her feelings, the better. I often share stories with my children about experiences I had when I was their age so that they understand that I have gone through similar situations and know that it is hard. You can also discuss with your daughter other ways that she can express her anger so that she is building the skills of anger management.
Finally, expressing strong anger at one's parents can be scary for kids - even if they don't look scared in the moment. So remind your daughter how much you love her and that you always love her, even when she hates you.
Question: from Sarah Z
My daughter is beautiful but a little chubby. She is 10 years old and is getting more and more aware and sensitive about her weight. She sometimes gets very upset that she doesn't "look like everyone else." So far, she's still a fairly positive, upbeat, happy kid but I worry if she will stay this way as she gets older and peer pressure intensifies.
Dear Concerned mother in CT,
As you can't help but be aware that in our culture beauty is one size (and it hardly fits anyone). So one thing you can do is to reclaim the word beautiful. One of the most beautiful faces I've ever seen was an old woman - she must have been 80 or so. Her face was deeply wrinkled and slightly hidden behind some of the folds on her skin were the most beautiful, riveting, expressive brown eyes. I go out of my way to point out beauty in all its forms to my children—faces, trees, muddy rivers. I'm not suggesting that this alone is going to buffer your daughter against all the messages and images we consume about beauty, but it is a start. You can also work with your daughter to develop an appreciation of herself—her talents, passions, strengths—her physical appearance is just one aspect of who she is.
Explore with her what she enjoys about her body—not simply it's appearance, but what it can do. Can she climb trees? Kick balls far? Run fast? Probably the most important way to help your daughter is simply to give her the space to express how she is feeling with you. Every child, at some point, is going to not fit in. Every child is going to be teased, is going to fail, is going to feel embarrassed or ashamed. We can't protect our children from that. But, we can help them when they are feeling embarrassed or different or bad about themselves by letting them know that we are interested in how they are feeling and that we want to hear about it—even when what they are feeling isn't happy.
Question: from Elizabeth S
My 11 year-old daughter attends a very small girls' school. She's an excellent student and gets along well with everyone in her class and school, including the adults. She is not shy, however she continues to let one of her classmates take advantage of her (i.e., borrows a pen, breaks it, then tells my daughter it's her fault). We have had many discussions with our daughter about standing up for herself, but she continues to let Sally use her. What's going on? Thank you for your advice.
It sounds like your daughter has a lot of strengths – academic as well as interpersonal. And it also sounds like she is open to discussing this ongoing issue with you – which also speaks to her strengths. All of these strengths will serve her well as she continues to navigate the often complicated world of peer relationships!
Although it is hard for me to offer specific advice since I do not know the details of what is going on. I can share with you how I would be thinking about this if one of my children was dealing with a similar situation. My first mantra is always: Clarify the Problem. This means understanding it from the child's perspective, not my perspective! As parents, we have all sorts of feelings and beliefs about situations like this, and often times our children's experience is very different from what we imagine. It doesn't help our children to project our worries and concerns on-to them. We have to create space for them to share how they are feeling. So during this phase of the conversation, talk little, ask a lot, and empathize, empathize, empathize. For example, I'd want to know what she makes of the girl's behavior. How does she feel when the classmate takes her stuff? How does she feel about the classmate in general? Is she a friend and your daughter sees this as just an annoying feature of an otherwise good relationship? Or, does your daughter feel threatened or intimidated by the girl? Does your daughter herself believe that she is not standing up for herself or is she comfortable with the approach of ignoring it? If she wants to speak up and tell the classmate to stop, what are the hard parts for her in doing that?
Once you have a clear sense of how your daughter feels, you are ready to move to the second part of the conversation: Name a Goal. What does your child want to have happen? What does she want to be different the next time this happens? Work with your daughter to make a clear statement of a goal that she would like to set for herself. It could be: I want to tell my classmate to stop touching my stuff. Or, I want to ask my teacher to help me talk with my classmate about it. Or, I want to invite my classmate over to my house so we can become better friends.
After your daughter has set a goal, work with her to Develop a Plan. Help your daughter figure out the specifics of what she will say and do to reach the goal. I recommend that you role play the situation. You can pretend to be the classmate and your daughter can practice how she'd like to respond. Role playing is very important (although often done with a fair amount of eye rolling) because often what makes it hard for children in these situations is knowing exactly what to say. When they practice it aloud, it makes it much easier to find the words during the real situation.
For example, if your child's goal is to tell the girl not to touch her belongings, you can pretend to be the classmate, pick up one of her pencils, and your daughter can use this simple 3 step approach for telling the classmate (you!) how she feels.
Step 1: Name the problem: "Sally, I don't want you to take anything from my desk without asking me first. You just did that and I don't want you to do that anymore."
Step 2: Name the solution: "If you want to use something of mine, just ask me first. And if I say you can use it, then you have to bring it back to me without breaking it or messing it up."
Step 3: Name how this solution will improve things: "I won't take anything of yours without your permission either so this way we won't get into fights about stuff like this."
Practice it a few times. First, be a "good" classmate and let your daughter practice without you interrupting or fighting back. After she is comfortable with the basic flow of what she wants to say, now you can make it more challenging (and probably realistic) by interrupting her some and disagreeing with her solution. The more your daughter practices using the words to express the goal she has set for herself, the more her confidence will build, even when the classmate pushes (not literally, I hope) back.
Finally, very rarely do these situations dissipate immediately. So remind your child that it might take more than one attempt for her to reach her goal. And it might be that despite your daughter's best efforts, the classmate continues to take her belongings. If that's the case, then it's time to have a back up plan such as consulting with the classroom teacher or school guidance counselor. In either case, it is a success for your daughter because she has learned how to clarify the problem, name a goal, and practice strategies for reaching that goal.
Question: from Kim L
My son is a "dip your toe in the pool" kind of kid, who takes his time to warm up to new things. My husband is concerned that our son will end up "never taking a swim" without prodding. I think he just needs time to warm up and take it at his own pace. How do we figure out the best way to work together to support our son and give him the encouragement or time he needs to try new things?
I've struggled with something similar with one of my sons. As a young boy, he tended to watch what others were doing rather than to jump in full steam ahead. Like your husband, I sometimes worried that he'd spend his life on the side lines and my anxiety would grow. But one day while we were at the park, I watched him and learned something important. A group of similarly aged kids were trying to climb a tree. Some made it to the top, others fell with scraped knees and bruised arms. My impulse was to encourage Aaron to give it a try, but instead of indulging what I wanted for him, I sat down and watched my son.
Aaron wasn't passively sitting on the side lines, he was actively watching other children as they tried to climb the tree. I could see that he was studying how they approached the situation and that he was paying close attention to what worked and what didn't work. My son was not passive, he was thoughtful and curious. He was engaged — engaged in a way that felt comfortable to him. In that moment, I saw my son as thoughtful and curious rather than anxious and timid. What a big and helpful change in how I thought about him!
Learning to let our children choose how and when they tackle new experiences and how and when they wiggle out of their comfort zone is rarely easy for parents. I'm not suggesting that we never intervene or encourage our children to take risks — we need to at times. But how we intervene and how we encourage our children will feel very different to them depending on what is driving us — anxiety and fear or acceptance and appreciation.
A good place for you and your husband to start might be to talk openly about what you feel when you see your son warming up at his pace, rather than the pace you might prefer. It's important that you are honest with each other about your concerns and fears. Often voicing your fears and concerns and talking about them together is helpful in and of itself. You and your husband might even spend some time reflecting on the new things your son has tried. My bet is that your son, like all children, does try new things — at some point. Maybe it is a new food at a restaurant or a game that he played with a friend. A good place to start encouraging your son is to encourage him in areas that are already relatively comfortable to him. When he tries something new, ask about it. What did he like and not like? How did it feel? What was challenging about it and how did he overcome the challenge?
The bottom line, however, is that your son might operate at a different pace than you do when it comes to trying new things. Is this necessarily bad? What are the positive aspects of his pacing? When I reframed my son's style from passive to thoughtful, I had a whole new appreciation of this part of his character. I saw this part of him as a strength rather than a weakness. As my son has gotten older, I see him taking on lots of new experiences that in the past he would have been more hesitant in. And, more importantly, I see lots of examples of how his thoughtfulness and "active watching" have served him well.
Question: from Kim M
My son is 13 and started a new school this year. He has not made any friends and I'm concerned. I have tried to coach him in some friendship skills, however he seems to be spiraling downward thinking no one wants to be his friend. He is not real outgoing but had friends at his old school. I know this age is a bit harder but do you have any suggestions for me?
The transition to a new school is a challenging time for most kids, and making new friends takes time, particularly for a child who is less outgoing. A place to start might be to focus less on making friends and focus more on joining a club or activity that he would enjoy. Other kids with this shared interest will be part of any club he joins, which is a natural way to start building friendships. The first choice would be for your son to choose an activity or club at school because that will promote friendships with his classmates. The second choice would be to join a club outside of school. Although this might not promote friendships with classmates, it will build his network of friends and help him to further develop the skills. Finally, during this transition time it will be helpful for him to maintain his friends from his last school. In fact, although it's logistically harder, there's no reason those friendships need to disappear. Encourage him to invite one of his friends from his last school over or arrange to meet at a park or for a movie. Keeping those relationships going will help him feel more confident as he develops new friendships.
Question: from Holly E
Hi, I have a 12-year-old stepdaughter and we do not get along at all. I have been married to her dad for almost 2 years, and with him for about 4 years now. I hate to say this, but she is very spoiled and has everything. I will admit I can be strict and sometimes too hard on her, but she does not seem to listen to her dad or me, and always tells us she won't do what we tell her to do. She is always on the computer or watching TV. She does have ADD, but that does not mean she should disrespect us. Please HELP.
It sounds like a tough situation for all of you! I can imagine that it feels disappointing and frustrating to have so much negativity and conflict with your stepdaughter. It's probably not easy on your husband or your stepdaughter, either.
I think a first step is for you and your husband to talk about the situation. Does he feel that she's spoiled and disrespectful? How would you both like it to be in your family? You might also speak with your husband about how you understand what is going on with your stepdaughter. From your description, she sounds angry and perhaps hurt. What is she angry about? Hurt about? Family transitions can be hard on children, so it would be helpful for you and her father to start by trying to understand what she is feeling and thinking.
Once you and your husband have talked honestly about how things are in the family, then I'd recommend sitting down and asking your stepdaughter to talk about what things are like from her perspective. How is she feeling? What would she like to be different? In this conversation, your job is to listen. Not to judge. Not to argue. Just to listen and allow her to express what she feels.
After she's had the opportunity to share some of what she is feeling, I'd recommend that as a family, you pick one thing that you enjoy doing together - watching a movie, going to the mall, taking a hike, playing cards - and set a goal of doing it together more each week. I'm not suggesting that an extra few hands of cards or watching movies is going to solve all your problems, but it is much easier to work on the hard stuff by first increasing the stuff that is already enjoyable for you.
With your collection of shared positive experiences increased, I think you can then talk about one change you'd each like to make in the way you interact with each other. Be specific. Rather than saying, "I don't want you to be disrespectful", you can say, "I'd like for you to sit with me at the table when we're talking about responsibilities around the house." Of course, this also means that you and your husband will need to make some changes, too. Working on your relationship is going to take effort from all involved, and this is your opportunity to be a great role model and show your stepdaughter how positivity, flexibility and compassion will go a long way in helping to make things better.
It's easy for all of us to focus on what we don't like to the exclusion of what we do like, and it sounds like your family is going through a very tough time. I think you'll find it helpful, as you work to improve things, to remind yourself (each day) of what you like about your stepdaughter and what you admire in her. This won't magically make the struggles disappear, but it will help you to keep motivated and optimistic through this difficult time.
Finally, you might find it valuable to talk with a family therapist. Family therapists are trained to help families with difficult transitions and to help improve relationships in the family. Your family doctor will likely be able to refer someone if you choose to consult with a family therapist.
Question: from Jovette G
I have 13-year-old twin girls who will enter High School next year. There are a lot of things that they will encounter and become exposed to. I don't have a problem talking with them and they share with me their feelings and what they think. They are a little more developed than the girls in their class and it makes them feel uneasy at times. My question is, is there anything I can do to help them feel better about who they are? I would like to give them a boost of self-esteem.
Like most parents, it sounds as though you are feeling some apprehension about the next phase of your daughters' lives. My twin sons start Middle School next year, and I too find myself feeling a bit uneasy about it. It also sounds like you and your daughters have strong communication. It's great that you are comfortable talking and listening, and that they share with you what they're thinking and feeling. That's probably the most important thing we can do as parents - be willing to listen to our children and help them feel safe sharing whatever is on their minds.
Developing earlier than one's peers can be a source of stress for girls. It sometimes brings unwanted attention and that can feel upsetting or embarrassing. It's important to give them the opportunity to talk with you about how they feel about the changes in their bodies and any uncomfortable attention they perceive. Sharing your own experience of transitioning through puberty can be reassuring, and will reinforce the strong communication it sounds like you have.
There are many things you can do to continue to help them to build a strong sense of self-efficacy or self-esteem. Kids with high self-efficacy have confidence in themselves and have a good understanding of their strengths. They believe they are competent and have strategies and skills they can rely on to cope with challenges and adversity. One way to reinforce self-efficacy is to ask questions that guide your daughters in naming their strengths, skills and talents. When you see your children cope with a setback or overcome an adversity, talk with them about what enabled their success. Help them to be as specific as possible. You can ask: How did you deal with that problem with your friend? What did you draw on - within yourself - that helped you cope with the situation? What strengths and skills did you use? The more you help your daughters to recognize their strengths and skills, the more likely they will be to call on those aspects of themselves in the future.
You can also help to reinforce self-efficacy through the way you praise your daughters. When you praise them, make sure you are as specific as possible. Rather than saying, "Great job" or "You were wonderful," name exactly what they did that brought on the positive outcome. For example, "Congratulations on the B! I saw how well-organized your notes were and how systematically you studied." "Great job" doesn't underscore how your daughter brought on the success, but "I saw how systematically you studied" does.
Responses to any questions posted to Dr. Reivich on this web site are general in nature, are not a substitute for personal advice from a health care professional and do not promise a specific outcome or result. Please contact a trained, qualified professional if you have a specific concern or question needing professional advice
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A great read about motivation, praise and peer relationships.