More on Family Values

Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

I would like to add another piece to the posting of the previous post on family values. It is related to “truth” but what I am actually referring to is “pretend”. A recent Harvard Gazette (March 27, 2017) issue referred to a panel at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society discussing “fake news”. The panel noted the difficulty defining the term with clarity since it can encompass anything from an opinion piece cited as news to state-sponsored propaganda. What I found most interesting about the article was the focus on the idea that “fake news” has a “cultural logic” that appeals to a particular audience (Xiao Mina, ibid). Another scholar on the panel, Sandra Cortesi, suggested shifting the focus from the question of whether something was “true” or “false”, to the question, “What do you value?”(Cortesi, ibid). It seemed to me, reading the article, that this speaker was onto something.

In the past half century, our society has experienced a disorganization that has included a fracturing of traditional values. Maybe some of that fracture is due to the radical change in the way we communicate and even relate to one another at a distance through screens. Maybe it has to do with the related effects of globalization and the breakdown of the comfortable boundaries that affect our sense of safety. Maybe it also has to do with changing economic factors such as the loss of certain reliable jobs and the pressure to innovate. I am sure that economists, social psychologists, and sociologists have many more answers than I. However, it does bring me back to my emphasis on family values and how important they are. If societal changes create strain on traditional family values, what do we do? Living together in a civilized society requires certain rules; can we afford to give up values like “truth”?

I had an even more sobering thought. Being a child analyst, I am fascinated by and committed to the value of pretend. But pretend depends on truth for its existence. How many times has a child reassured me (or himself) by announcing firmly during a play session when the mother doll was getting skewered, “Don’t worry. It’s just pretend. It’s not true.” The difference between “pretend” and “fake news” is that pretend is a creative act that represents a meaning intolerable in its original form, such as a murderous wish. A pretend murder in play has fanciful elaborations – and most important – it has the flexibility to be undone. In its pretend form, it can be transformed to allow new possibilities. Whenever a child plays “good guys and bad guys”, I wait for that wonderful moment when one of the good guys switches over to the bad guy side. Then I might say to the child, “Hmm. If that good guy switched sides to become a bad guy, I wonder if a bad guy could switch to become a good guy.”

In his play, the child is creating a space for dynamic transformations that make possible positive change. That is not true for fake news. The political untruths and fake news spread by this political administration and some of its followers have none of these features. They are rigid, stark, and reductive. The false equivalency between the accusation of Obama’s foreign birth (the “birther controversy”) and Hillary’s misremembering a glorious but false event (the helicopter under fire incident) should be evident, even without the continued restatement of the former and the embarrassed retraction of the latter. Fake news makes a mockery of the idea of positive change.

We as parents and supporters of parents, which should include all of us, now face the challenge of reviewing our family values and growing them into the contemporary world. In many ways we need them more than ever. Truth – lies spread over the Internet have motivated anguish and even suicide in our youth. Responsibility – refusing to take responsibility for one’s actions – such as Trump’s accusations of Obama’s wiretapping, or inactions such as the poor preparation for replacing Obamacare, has degenerated into infantile assigning of blame. Respect – lack of respect for the beliefs of others, such as immigrants of other faiths and even for one another with different points of view, makes dialogue impossible. Protest – against offensive government actions, on the other hand, can invigorate us and force our elected representatives to behave according to our values. And I must add compassion, for those who would lose their safety net if certain government policies were enacted, and for those suffering the unimaginable horrors of war in other parts of the word. Yes, now is a time more important than ever to strengthen our family values – to live by them and to teach them to our children.

Co-Parenting II

Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

Co-parenting frequently breaks down in parents’ efforts to organize home life or set limits. That may be in part due to the emergence of different parental styles in the planning process, such as when the parents are deciding on a bedtime for their child or establishing family rules. One parent may feel that the organizational plan (for example, setting a regular bedtime, the number of warnings a child is allowed before a consequence, whether a child is allowed an alternative meal choice, etc.) is too rigid, while the other parent feels it is not strict enough. These conflicts often arise from what seems natural or necessary because of the parent’s own experience as a child. Sometimes the parent believes that the way their parents treated them shaped them in helpful ways. Other times the parent believes that the way they were brought up was hurtful and insensitive to their needs. In addition to differences in the way they grew up, problems in “co-parenting” may also arise from basic difficulties the parents have negotiating a common agenda. One parent may tend to be more controlling or bossy than the other, provoking the second parent to dig in their heels or resentfully submit, etc.

When these problems occur, it is important to return to a focus on the child. What is the child telling you that she needs? If she is tired the next day, perhaps she needs an earlier bedtime or some other change in her bedtime routine. (Of course, telling her this when you are trying to get her to go to bed will not usually lead to a good result!) If she requests something else to eat at the dinner table, perhaps an alternative meal choice is justified. It is good to be flexible within limits. The problem comes when parent and child – or parent and parent – get into an escalating control struggle and share the perception that only one winner will emerge from the battle. The truth of the matter is that in a struggle, there are always two losers. That is because both parents and child want the child to grow up healthy and strong, but struggles build unhealthy and maladaptive patterns in the child’s mind which are reinforced with subsequent struggles. The pull to get into a struggle, often against a background of family tension, can interfere with generating or establishing healthier patterns of interaction. Good co-parenting occurs when one parent can see that the other parent is in danger of falling into a struggle pattern and can give them the emotional support they need to avoid it.

Children need routines and predictability, especially in families with co-parenting difficulties, or in families of children with school or behavior problems. Often these two things go together because difficulty co-parenting clearly interferes with effective parenting, and also because some children are harder to parent and generate more than usual stress in their parents. Children with school and behavior problems may lack the personal resources to accommodate to the typical demands of school and family life. A common set of problems that cause trouble in school and at home are problems organizing oneself in time and space. That makes transitions particularly challenging – the transition from sleep to an awake state or from an awake state to sleep, from an activity to homework, from a video game to supper, from a quiet indoor activity to outdoor play, from free play to paying attention to the teacher, etc. One way to help children in all these circumstances is to create routines and stick to them. Often children benefit from “visual cues” such as words or pictures on calendars. These cues must be kept in a visible place that is commonly visited, such as the kitchen or the bathroom. However, none of these aids will be useful if they are not practiced regularly and frequently. For example, it is helpful to refer to a calendar of the day’s events both at bedtime and at breakfast. This is an area of parenting that often breaks down. If two parents can maintain a routine, they are doing something right.

Co-parenting

Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

Co-parenting

Recently, a couple of parents came to consult me to ask me about “co-parenting”. This is a term that parents typically use to refer to working together as parents when they are divorced. In this case, the parents were married, but they still had trouble coordinating their parenting behavior. They attributed this difficulty to difference in parenting style. I have heard of this kind of difficulty many times before, and I particularly appreciated these parents seeking consultation about it.

Let me first say a few things about “different parenting styles”. Conflicts between parents may arise for a number of reasons. Three common reasons include: different experiences of being parented as children; chronic stress in the family; underlying conflict in the marriage. Often more than one of these factors is present at the same time. Let’s take them one at a time.

Suppose that the father was raised in an authoritarian family in which his parents were strict and what they said was law. The children would not dream of speaking disrespectfully to them, and discipline for transgressions was swift and sometimes harsh. The mother, on the other hand, was raised in a household with progressive values and style of discipline. In practice, that meant that the father was the “bad guy” disciplinarian and the mother the reluctant protector the child ran to when he fled the father’s discipline. This meant that the father felt unsupported in setting limits on the child’s behavior and the mother felt burdened with having to respond both to her partner’s and her child’s distress.

There is an answer to how to think about how to change this situation. Note that I do not say, “resolve the problem”. The answer about how to think about the situation is to put aside the conflict between the two parents and focus on the needs of the particular child. I will follow this line of reasoning in responding to the questions the parents in my practice brought to me.

The first question the mother asked me was how to manage the morning transition. She explained that her 8-yo son was always forgetting what he had to bring to school, and he not infrequently called her from school because he forgot some sports equipment or a piece of homework. The father expressed his frustration about his son’s disorganization and insisted that the mother ignore his calls and let him “learn from experience”, but the mother felt that to do that set her son up for failure.

Further exploration suggested that their son had a more general problem with organization that impeded his ability to make transitions. (Remember that to make a transition you have to take apart your current state of organization, such as eating breakfast at your kitchen table, and reorganize it in a new place and with new expectations, such as school.) With this in mind, the parents and I set up a routine (remember that routine and ritual are parents’ best friends!) for how to manage the morning transition. Children need routines and predictability, especially children with organizational problems (sometimes referred to as “executive function disorder”, though I do not like to use the term “disorder” in children if I can avoid it). Once we established their child’s need for external predictability and order, we could move on to discuss how each of them – with their different parenting styles – could work together to provide that for him. The father took in my explanation about how the child could build organizational capacities that were not yet in his repertoire by practicing routines created by both parents, and he volunteered to keep an eye on how the family maintained the routines. The mother said that she could validate the child’s feelings about being confused, overwhelmed, and criticized, while also holding to the routine. Both parents agreed to try to learn from each other in the process of helping their child grow stronger.

In my next blog posting I will consider the parents’ next question: “How do we translate the difference between our two parenting styles for our son so that he understands where we are coming from?”

The Election and Family Values

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Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

After the election, I was moved to write a blog post to parents and other child caregivers to support them in talking to their children about the election. Many parents at the preschool where I consult were angered or weeping at the election results, and there was a natural concern that their children would feel frightened and insecure and wonder what the world was coming to. Immediately I found a number of excellent essays and blogs that stressed what I agreed were the primary points for child caregivers to consider: first, regulate yourself, and then reassure your children that they are safe and that the world will go on.

A week later, I have had other thoughts, largely in response to the efforts of President Obama and many other liberals to reach out to Trump in a constructive way and to extend themselves to his supporters. In some respects, I thought this was a good thing. Yet, I also felt there was something not quite right about this, that there was something missing or being lost, and I reflected on it.

I realized that in addition to helping child caregivers reassure their children about their safety, there was something else I wanted to say, and it referred to one of the familiar subjects in my blog – “family values”. The election provides parents with a unique opportunity to teach their children about their values and reinforce the values they want their children to carry into adulthood. I will suggest only 4 here – truth, responsibility, respect, and protest, or the constructive use of anger.

Truth – There is value in telling the truth. Many of us stress this with our children. Sometimes people stretch the truth or even occasionally deny the truth when they are frightened or ashamed. We teach our children to try not to do those things, because honesty is an important value. However, stretching the truth or occasionally denying it is very different from having no regard for the truth, for saying whatever you think will serve your purposes without any evidence of conflict or shame. This is what Trump did during his campaign. That is not what we want to teach our children.

There is another aspect of truth that has to do with what is true. People are often quick to accept simple answers that make them feel good or that affirm their beliefs. That is understandable, but it is not the best we can do. It is hard for all of us to push beyond our cherished beliefs, to challenge ourselves by exploring what is foreign to us. Extreme elements of the press tell their audience half-truths or falsehoods in order to promote a set of beliefs. That is not only bad journalism; it undermines the value of honesty. It is important to teach our children that we must always search for truth, no matter how unpleasant, frightening, or confusing the search, and no matter that we can never actually reach “truth”.

Responsibility – one must take responsibility for one’s actions. That includes the words one speaks. It is not OK to say hurtful, insulting, or false things at one time and later say, “I didn’t say that,” when you did, or “That was then and this is now.” It is insulting to hear Donald Trump’s cruel remarks and lies be referred to as “campaign rhetoric” or “distortions of the liberal press”. Videotape evidence exists to show that he did say these things. The people who maintain that Trump did not say them either avoid that evidence or knowingly deny it. If we accepted it when a child said, “I lied and said hurtful things to get what I wanted. Now that I have what I want, I ‘take it back’,” we would not be teaching our child good values. Actions must be accounted for, and speech is action.

Respect – The belief that all people were created equal is an important part of who we are as Americans. Attacking groups of people and devaluing them or mocking them – Muslims, women, African Americans, the disabled – is wrong. Again, it is not something you can “take back”. To say, as we have heard some Trump supporters say, “That is not the Donald Trump I know” is hardly reassuring. Do we want to teach our children that we will ignore their bad behavior if sometimes they behave well? Do we want to teach them that if they are bullies sometimes it is OK if other times they are not? No. We want to teach our children respect for all human beings.

Protest – anger is not in itself a bad thing. It is what you do with your anger that counts. If in response to your anger at feeling like a loser you attack someone weaker, then that is being a bully and that is wrong. If you use your anger to motivate constructive action – peaceful protest, searching for answers, fighting for rights of others – then that is what the civil rights workers, the suffragettes, and reformers across the ages have done – and that is good. That is what we want to teach our children.

It is distressing to hear the claim that it is “unpatriotic” to wish Donald Trump’s presidency will fail (Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal, p. 10, Nov. 16). I agree that we should respect the electoral process, something that Donald Trump did not do when he refused to say that he would accept the results of the election if he did not win. I agree that it is good to hope our country grows in a healthy direction for all its people; I do have that hope. However, to celebrate a government that won by insulting the values of honesty, responsibility, respect, and constructive protest – not to mention generosity, humility, and compassion – would to my mind be essentially unpatriotic. That is not what we want to teach our children. The values that guide our behavior towards others and that help us know ourselves – these are precious. If the country we belong to elects a leader who scorns these values, we lose something. Many of us feel that loss. We must now grieve the loss and try to learn from it. That will be something good we can do for our children.

Stress Regulation: From Theory to Practice

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Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

Stress Regulation: “From Theory to Practice”

Perry’s ideas about stress regulation are particularly important to me in my clinical work. In contrast to the negative cascade stress can cause in a sensitized child, helping a child grow his stress regulation system may initiate a healthy “cascade” effect.

In my practice, if a child gets better at calming herself, she can pay more attention to my ideas about the motivations for some of her problem behavior and consider trying more adaptive ways of behaving. For example, if a child is poorly regulated, she will not be receptive to my observations that when she starts out with “loser feelings” she cannot bear to play competitive games with her peers. She is more likely to use psychological defenses such as denial and avoidance to protect herself from the stress of acknowledging her painful feelings. If, however, we begin by my giving her a “handicap” that makes it easier for her to win, and then emphasize the rhythmic, repetitive turn taking patterns of the game with my actions and with my voice, she may be able to establish and maintain a receptive, alert position in relation to my communications and even allow me to scaffold some self reflection. In play sessions with one child, I would ask her at the beginning of the session whether it was a “bad guys in” or “bad guys out” day for her before we settled into a game of Candyland. If it had been a hard day for her, we would take all the cards that send you backwards out of the pile. If it had been a good day, we would leave them in. This small ritual allowed us to play the game together, while also helping her begin to reflect on and identify her feelings, and eventually appreciate the link between her temper tantrums and her sense of herself as a “bad girl”.

In psychology and psychoanalysis we refer to “respecting the child’s defenses”, something that Anna Freud talked about. That means not overwhelming a child, usually by avoiding confronting him with information he is not ready to receive. Perry’s idea of “dosing” and “spacing” adds a new dimension to the concept of “defense”. It brings the body into the equation in an important way. Thinking in these terms helps us organize our interactions with a child in time and space. It helps us put the music and dance into our clinical work. Because I study videotapes of my work with children, I see the nonverbal communication, what I call the “music and dance” of psychotherapy, both in a standard time frame and in a microprocess, second by second, time frame. In the microprocess, you can see this dosing and spacing even better than in real time. For example, in one session with a 4-yo boy, you see me introduce an idea about something scary to him; I deliver my communication in short (2 sec) vocal turns defined by short internal pauses (“dosing”) and then, right after I finish, I sit back and fold my arms across my chest. This is “spacing”. When you look at the film in slow motion, you can infer my (out of my awareness) intention of giving him space, giving him a turn.

“Dosing” adds the factor of measurement, of size, which I think is very useful to keep in mind. I remember playing with a little boy who felt the need to exert extreme control over me in the session. In order to help him grow, move him towards reciprocity, I had to stress him by interrupting him sometimes, declining to jump to comply with an order, or by adding a detail of my own to the narrative that he was spinning, any of which could make him mad. Sometimes I “dosed” my contributions by adding humor, sometimes I made them very short, and other times I acted a little confused. Slowly, using dosing in that way, he began to give me a turn now and then.

Spacing is another very helpful perspective. “Spacing” is even closer to the theory of psychological defenses than “dosing”. I was observing the need for “spacing” when I sat back and folded my arms across my chest in the previous example. Another example is my work with a child who lost a parent. When he saw me in the preschool classroom, he would “pretend” reject me by playfully pushing me away or telling me in a loud voice to go away. I would play along, sometimes moving back a few inches, but not going away until it was time for me to say goodbye. When you think about it, there is a lot of communication in our behavior. He is telling me he needs to know if his behavior can cause me to disappear forever, and I am telling him that his behavior is unrelated to when I come and go. My leaving the classroom was a dosing experience for this child. One day after many months of this daily play (“spacing”), I stood to leave, and the boy approached me sideways, without giving me a direct gaze, and leaned against me. I stroked his hair and he didn’t move.

In addition to dosing and spacing, Perry’s thoughts about “distributed caregiving” have also been helpful to me. Actually, what has happened is that my own clinical experience has been moving me further and further from thinking in terms of categorical diagnoses and “clinical” interventions. Instead, I think about children’s problems more often in dimensional terms and tend to move to support the child’s caregiving environment before immediately beginning an individual psychotherapy. Supporting the child’s caregiving environment means working with the child’s parents and teachers. One of my favorite ways of intervening is to work in the preschool. Then, I not only have a chance to offer the very capable teachers an insight now and then about a particular child. I also have the chance to “be there” for certain children when and how they need me. This is what Perry means by “distributed caregiving” – allowing a child to initiate a particular kind of interaction with each caregiver in a group available to him. This kind of thinking moves away from formulations about pathology and towards developmental goals. For example, Perry talks about how after the Waco disaster, the traumatized children seemed to identify particular caregivers for specific needs of the child – one for help with schoolwork, another for rough housing, another for snuggling. I have seen the same kind of distributed caregiving activity in the preschool classroom with healthy children.

I realize that psychotherapists and even psychoanalysts like me sometimes consult to teachers in schools by sitting down with them and listening to them talk about the children and answering their questions, and even by entering the classroom to observe certain children pointed out by the teachers. What I prefer to do is “live” in the classroom so that I can see the children in action and sometimes engage directly with them, while at the same time trying from time to time to identify what the teachers can do even better. For example, I might see a little boy who seems more fearful than average and begins tentatively to play with a toy car. I might suggest to the teacher that she encourage some gentle crashing games if the child initiates them.

In closing, I would like to emphasize the importance of rhythmic patterned activity that is repeated over and over again in helping people grow. This is very different from what I learned in psychiatric and psychoanalytic training. It is not that I have not engaged in that kind of activity in my clinical work; I have. On the other hand, now that I have integrated it into my theory, I do it more, and I do it better.

Stress Regulation: Bruce Perry

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Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

Every time I hear Bruce Perry speak, I hear something new, and I take a step forward in making sense of my experience with children and families. On September 16, Bruce talked to our IPMH course about his “theory of change” – Change is created by an intentional act that is repeated in a way that will influence the system in the brain relating to the function you are engaging in the action.

As always, he grounds his remarks in the science of the brain – although he is careful to remind us that all “models” of the brain are gross oversimplifications and only useful in so far as they help us understand how the brain works. That is because the brain is unbelievably complex. There are approximately 86 billion neurons in the human brain and many more glial cells. The brain is hierarchically organized both in terms of architecture and function. The most “primitive” part of the brain – the part that is most like the brain of primitive animals – is at the base of the brain. This part, including the brainstem and cerebellum, maintains bodily equilibrium – body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. Above that is the diencephalon that regulates functions such as appetite and sleep. Then there is the limbic system that deals with basic emotions such as anger, fear, and happiness, and also affiliation, and reward. Finally, there is the most uniquely human part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, that produces abstract though and the more complex emotions of guilt and shame. Yet, every time we introduce a model of the brain we oversimplify; these anatomical parts of the brain do not relate precisely to the functions described; it is complicated.

In addition to “intrinsic neurons” that make primarily local connections, there are neural systems in the brain that have wide distribution throughout the nervous system. These systems, such as the ones of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine, are crucially important in managing stress. The stress response systems connect the lower parts of the brain with the cortex and also connect the brain to the autonomic nervous system and to the endocrine system, the immune system, the musculoskeletal system, and the internal organs.

As we have noted in other blog postings, the lower part of the brain forms earliest in intrauterine life when the brain is growing most rapidly and is most subject to influences from the environment. Although “neuroplasticity”, or brain growth, occurs throughout life, the most rapid and profound changes occur in the first few years. That is why students of development stress the importance of a good early caregiving environment. An adequately responsive, consistent, and predictable caregiving relationship can modulate the effect of adverse experiences on the developing brain.

When an infant experiences an adverse event – such as exposure to toxins in utero – there can be a “cascade” of effects. The lower part of the brain may be primarily affected, but because the child then becomes compromised in his ability to regulate stress, subsequent development of all the interrelated parts of the brain and body may be affected. That is the reason why children born into homes that suffer chronic poverty, domestic violence, and substance abuse, for example, are more likely to have problems with their emotions, their relationships, and learning.

The neural networks of the stress response system are in dynamic equilibrium. Too high a level of stress-inducing novelty will activate the system in order to lower the stress. Too low a level of novelty will cause the system to increase stimulation to restore alertness. When a child experiences repetitive, unpredictable, stressful events, her stress regulation system will be sensitized, lowering her set point and causing her to be more vulnerable to similar stresses in the future and to react with a more extreme response. A child may be sensitized by a chaotic or violent home environment. He may also be sensitized by vulnerability caused by inherited developmental vulnerabilities or serious childhood illnesses. For example, a child who inherits genes associated with “autistic spectrum disorder” (I put this in quotes since I consider this a highly problematic diagnostic category.) may be highly stressed by making eye contact with another person. A child with this inherited vulnerability is sensitized early in life and will inevitably have multiple repetitive adverse experiences while living in what for another child might be a comfortable home life.

In order to change the regulatory set point of a stress response system in a healthy direction, it is necessary to activate the same system with small repetitive stressors that are organized in an appropriate pattern of dose and space. The last time I wrote about Bruce Perry, I introduced his idea of “dosing”, one that I find very important in my therapeutic work. This time Dr. Perry introduced another important concept, that of “spacing”. Dosing means that you apply a stressor but not in a dose that is beyond the capacity of the child to manage; you do not overwhelm him. Spacing means that you time the doses so that the child is prepared for another challenge. For example, if I am working with a child who becomes easily dysregulated by negative affect states, I am likely to accept her protestations that she really loves her little brother for some time before gently questioning them.

I will continue the discussion of how I use Bruce Perry’s ideas in my work with young children in my next blog, “Stress Regulation: From Theory to Practice”.

Bruce Perry, Lecture, U Mass Boston Infant Parent Mental Health Course, September 16, 2016

Link

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Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

Aggression in Early Childhood

Aggression is a good thing. It motivates initiatives – including learning, athletic effort, and healthy competition. Yet, good outcomes depend on the capacity to regulate aggression, and that is always a challenge. Self-regulation, as we have said many times in this blog, is a developmental competency that we keep working on throughout our lives. Self-regulation is a special challenge in early childhood, when it is just getting established, but it is a challenge at any age when we are under stress.

How do young children express aggression? They express it by running joyfully with their friends through the playground, by throwing a basketball or riding a tricycle fast, by shouting out the words of a song when cued, by laughing at a clown or shrieking with excitement at a magician. They also express it by pushing another child, by screaming, biting, or hitting, or by grabbing a toy away from a friend. What is the difference between these two ways of being aggressive? The difference is that the first way is adequately regulated; the aggression is under control. The second way is poorly regulated and out of control.

If children do not have adequate self-regulatory capacity to manage their aggression, they may express it with aggressive outbursts such as noted, but they also may express it by holding themselves tight – holding their bodies tight and holding on tightly to their emotions. That frightened, too-tight holding-on is intended to guard against an unwanted aggressive outburst and can manifest as excessive shyness or fear of speaking, or even as bodily problems such food pickiness or constipation. The reason that children fear the loss of control of aggression so much is that they are afraid of the destructive force of their aggression. Even if it is completely unrealistic that a small child could hurt an adult with an aggressive attack, children (out of their awareness) fear that this could happen. That can lead to nightmares of bad things happening to them or to their parents, whom they love and depend on. I want to stress that it is not the aggression that is bad, but it is the fear of losing control of it and harming someone that is bad for the child.

Why do some children have more difficulty managing aggression than others? Some children are temperamentally more sensitive, more active, or more intense. Some children have developmental difficulties that make it hard for them to “get it altogether” – from the point of view of regulation in various domains – motor, emotional, cognitive. Imagine how hard it would be to feel relaxed and confident if your body “didn’t listen to your mind”- that is what I sometimes say to impulsive children. Other children come from high conflict families in which overt or covert aggression presents a chronic threat. Still other children have histories of trauma – either directed at them or at a parent or even grandparent. Finally, some children have more than one of these reasons to have difficulty with aggression.

How can we help children develop the crucial competency? We can help them in three ways. First, we can create a safe situation in which both child and caregiver are not afraid. That usually means adequate and predictable adult supervision, predictable routines, and secure boundaries. Second, we can communicate tolerance of aggression and model constructive forms of aggression. For example, teachers who play basketball or tag with the children are helping the child experience the high arousal state of aggressive activity without the fear of losing control. At home, a parent’s skillful rough housing with a child can offer the same experience. Third, we can make it possible for children to practice aggressive activities without getting hurt or hurting others. Children cutting play dough with a wooden knife, crashing small cars into magnet tile constructions, and engaging in active playground activities are just a few ways I observed today at the preschool.

Our society has a strange and highly ambivalent relationship to aggression. Some parents in our culture prohibit pretend play with toy guns and soldiers, while others teach their children to shoot real guns. American television, video games, and movies are full of aggression. That puts parents in a difficult position, having to negotiate a reasonable balance between under and over controlling both their children’s aggressive behavior and the aggressive displays they are exposed to. There is no simple solution, but the guidelines as mentioned above are – demonstrate to your children a healthy attitude towards aggression; offer them a safe opportunity to take risks with their aggression and to practice using it; and give extra support to children with special sensitivities and needs so that they too can try out their emotions and test their bodies with exuberance.

Read this blog in Spanish.

Back to School Jitters

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Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

It is back to school time again. Returning to school after summer vacation is a major transition. We have talked about transitions and what a challenge they are for everybody, especially for young children and vulnerable children of any age. Here are some ideas about how to make back to school time easier for everyone.

Try to Be Calm and Relaxed

Parents’ communication of anxiety to their child plays a significant role in the anxiety experienced by the child. Evidence for this influence is presented in a recent review of 15 studies addressing the question of the extent to which fear-relevant features of parental verbal communications affected the child (Percy et al, 2016). However, scientific studies are not necessary to convince teachers of this fact. Observations in a typical classroom offer support for this important dynamic. For example, I observed a father dropping off his 4-year old daughter, giving her a hug, and asking her, “Will you be all right, now?” She said, “Yes, Daddy.” The father responded, “Are you sure?”

In fact, much of this communication occurs nonverbally in parents’ behavior – such as lingering in the classroom, returning to the child after the initial good bye to add some information or give some advice. After the child is in the hands of the teacher, it is almost never a good idea for the parent to return if the child complains or even cries.

Positive Communication 

For young child, the most effective way parents can support him or her at drop off is to communicate positive feelings about the experience, to “hand off” the child to a teacher, and to leave. For example, a parent might find a teacher and in the child’s presence tell the teacher something about the ride to school or the child’s excitement about the class activity planned for the day, reassure the child about who is picking up the child and when, give the child a hug, and say good bye.

Child’s anxiety 

All children have some anxiety about returning to school – usually to a new classroom, a new teacher, and new classmates. Children express their anxiety in different ways. Most young children express their anxiety verbally and by clinging to a parent. Other children express it by running from one activity to another in a dysregulated manner. And others become more constrained, holding themselves in, sitting quietly and avoiding taking risks.

Some children are particularly vulnerable to separations and transitions and need extra support. Some need to bring a comforting object from home to help with the transition (although that object must usually be put away after the class begins). A goodbye ritual is helpful to all children. The parent can help the child hang up her coat, check the schedule for the day, wash her hands, etc. In some of the classrooms of the preschool where I work there is a “goodbye window” where parents can say another goodbye after they have exited the school building.

Listening to Your Child 

Communicating positive expectations to the child does not mean that the parent – or teacher – refuses to listen to the child’s concerns. No matter how unrealistic the child’s fears might be, the adult must take them seriously as fears – not as reality – and validate them. For example, the child may say, “You won’t come to pick me up!” The parent must respond with some kind of acknowledgement of the child’s fear that he will be abandoned in this scary place, while also reassuring him that his fears are unjustified. For example, she might say, “That is such a scary thought, that I wouldn’t pick you up. I know you are scared. But you know that I really will pick you up at lunchtime and that Ms. Smith (the teacher) will take good care of you until then. You are going to have a cooking activity today. You know how much you love that!”

Familiarity with the School 

Familiarity with the school helps too. Most schools have visiting days, but some children need time to familiarize themselves with the school without the noise and activity of many other children and parents. Other ways to help the child feel comfortable include coming to the school when it is not in session and playing on the playground (if that is permitted) or walking around the building and pointing out where the child’s classroom is located, where the parent will bring the child and pick her up.

Get to School On Time

Getting to school on time is important for many reasons. At the beginning of the school day the teachers have more availability to greet the child and parent than when groups of children and parents descend on the classroom. The classroom is less noisy and has less physical activity – sensory challenges that are particularly hard for some children. Being rushed does not lend itself to a positive good bye. Also, teachers usually plan “free play” time at the beginning of the day, and if children come to class late, they miss that important and enjoyable time.

Percy R, Creswell C, Garner M, O’Brien D, Murray L (2016). Parents’ verbal communication and childhood anxiety: a systematic review. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 19(1):55-75.

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Sibling Rivalry

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Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

Here is another question posed to me by a number of parents recently: How do you deal with sibling competition and aggression?

This problem is common and has a simple answer. That does not mean it is easy to “fix”; it just means that it is easy to understand. The answer has three parts: (1) create a comfortable and relatively stress-free family environment; (2) create routines that teach children skills in sharing, turn taking, and negotiating; (3) separate siblings who cannot be together without fighting and then create short, parent-facilitated times together that have maximum probability of successful outcome, and practice them.

I am going to start by answering #2, then #3, and leave #1 – perhaps the most complicated one – for the last.

(2) This answer is a mixture of two of my favorite recommendations for parents – routines and family values. The routines function to put into place and practice the family values of sharing, turn taking, and negotiation. Remember that the power of “family values” is that you can’t argue with them. That is, you could try to argue, but the answer is always unarguable – “That’s just the way we do things in this family.” For example, if one child calls the other child a name or makes an insulting remark that the parents consider unacceptable, the response is, “In our family, we don’t use names like that or say insulting things like that.” That cuts through the child’s argument that another kid said the same thing – even if the other kid was in the same family. Or, if one child insists that he always sit in a preferred seat in the car, the response is, “In our family, we share.” Then the routine that practices the family value is something like – on the way to school X gets to sit in that seat, and on the way home from school, Y gets to sit there, or something like that. Another common conflict between siblings is fighting over the same toy. In that case, the family value of sharing is implemented by a negotiating process that is taught beautifully by the teachers in the Cambridge Ellis School. The child who wants the toy is helped to ask the child holding the toy, “Are you finished with the toy?” If the child holding the toy says no, then the other child is helped to ask, “How many more minutes do you need before I can have a turn – 1, 2, or 3?” (For older children, the time period is usually longer.) This scaffolds both children’s agency in the situation and supports the child who ultimately has to give the toy up.

(3) The third answer is similar to what I have recommended for play dates. Although parents certainly need relief, play dates are not primarily intended to serve that purpose but instead are meant to provide the child with opportunities to learn how to have fun playing with other children and learn to get along with them, among other things. The same can be said for the time siblings spend together, although sibling relationships are of course much more meaningful and intense than peer relationships. If siblings are going through a period of not getting along (this can happen for many reasons, including one sibling in particular having a hard time and taking it out on his or her brother or sister) then the time they spend alone together should be minimized (I realize this is often difficult) and they should be given short periods of structured play time together with parents facilitating the interaction. For example, the parent might say, “Since you guys have been having a hard time getting along recently, then X is going on errands with me while Y stays home to do homework with Dad, and then later this afternoon we will all go to the park together. It is important for the siblings to have enough good times together for them to want to spend time together in the future, which will motivate them to behave well with each other. While they are together in the relatively short enjoyable times the parent is playing the role of the teacher (above), scaffolding the development of sharing and good negotiating skills, as well as the respect for family values.

(1) Create a comfortable, relatively stress-free family environment. Of course this is not at all easy to implement. The reason I include it as #1 is because it is so important and because parents often forget that a major source of sibling conflict is preexisting tension within the family. Sometimes the original source of tension is in the marriage or between separated parents. Sometimes the tension is related to problems with extended family members, or to financial worries or job dissatisfaction. Other times tension is generated by conflict between one particular child and a parent, and the parent holds the tension within him or herself in between actual times of conflict. Then, when a demand has to be made on that child, the parent anticipates noncompliance and approaches the request in a negative frame of mind. Sometimes this tension is communicated by the parent’s facial expression, tone of voice and abrupt gestures, and aggressive choice of words.
Regardless of the origin of the tension, the children in the family pick up the stress, and often they will express the stress they feel by fighting with each other. Partly, this fighting response emerges from the irritability the family stress causes in the children. Also, the children unconsciously may be distracting the parents from the original source of their tension by calling attention to the problem they are causing in the moment. Interestingly, that can make everyone feel “better” because at least they know what the problem is – “fighting kids” – instead of living in a situation in which the cause of the unhappiness is hidden or unacknowledged. The answer to this problem of tension in the family is to refocus attention on the parents’ need for support. Remember the old directive of what to do with the oxygen mask in the airplane. First put it on yourself and then put it on the child sitting next to you. That is because the child will need you to be alert and strong in order to take care of him or her. In some cases, this need for support means getting more help from extended family and friends, or hiring someone to help take care of the house or the children. In other cases, the parents need professional help to manage the trouble in their lives.

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Avoiding Meltdowns

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Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

Yesterday two excellent parents came to talk to me about their 8-yo daughter, “Hannah”. They suffer from her temper tantrums, and they know she suffers too. When we tried to sort out what was causing her to meltdown, we were able to identify three major sources of the tantrums. I am going to write three blog postings, one for each of the vulnerable times for this child and her parents. The first was our old friend or enemy, transitions. The second is sibling relationships. The third is complying with parental authority. As you may have guessed, these three trigger points are not completely distinguishable, since sibling conflict often arises at times of transition, and the same could be said of compliance with parental demands. Let’s start with transitions.

This beautiful and intelligent child happens to have a tricky cognitive profile, something I have talked about before. She is extraordinarily bright in some areas of cognitive capacity and only average or even below average in others. This makes life harder for her. It is harder for her to make realistic expectations for herself since she can perform excellently in some tasks and struggles much more than her peers in others. In addition, just the unevenness in the domains of her cognition can be subjectively experienced as disorganizing. It is harder for her to make flexible and adaptive meanings of her experience in the world. You can see how this would add to the usual difficulty people have with transitions.

Let’s start with the first transition of the day – waking up in the morning and getting ready for school. Many of us have difficulty with this transition. Lou Sander, the “grandfather of infant research”, has said that day-night organization is the first organization facing the newborn human organism. In this case, Hannah often wakes up “in a bad mood”. The anticipation of this possibility makes Hannah’s mother anxious, which increases the stress of the situation for both of them. I suggested talking to Hannah about how she feels in the morning – maybe they could create a scale, for example, “grumpy”, “a little grumpy”, “good”, maybe even including “very grumpy” and “great”. The benefits of doing this together is that while you are in the process of coming up with “strategies” for dealing with Hannah’s moods, you are also helping her learn about her various affect states – their subjective “feel”, what causes them, and what to do about them. This will take some time, and you certainly don’t want to pop this idea on her when she is just waking up, especially in a grumpy mood. But you can begin with a gentle observation that she doesn’t seem to be feeling very good, coupled with an idea about how to make things better. Would it help to take a little longer waking up? Would it help to have Mom bring a small glass of juice or water to her bedside? Would it help to have some music? The idea for Mom is that there is some legitimacy to Hannah’s grumpiness (a struggle making the transition – physiological, motoric, symbolic – to get up in the morning) and that she, Mom, can come up with ideas about how to make it better. Mom doesn’t need to feel helpless nor does than Hannah. (Mom’s feelings of helplessness in this situation can contribute to her lack of flexibility in responding to Hannah’s needs.)

The getting dressed part can also be a big challenge. Sometimes Hannah can’t decide what she wants to wear to school. Sometimes she knows what she wants and she can’t find it, or it is in the dirty clothes. There is a simple (though not always easy) solution to this problem. Institute a routine of picking out her clothes the night before.

Bedtime is another big transition. The key to a comfortable bedtime is a good bedtime routine. (As I have mentioned many times, “a routine is a parent’s best friend”; that is true of the morning transition, too, of course!) That means the same preparatory activities practiced every evening the same way at the same time in the same order, except under unusual circumstances. Usually these activities include a bath or washing, tooth brushing, toilet, bedtime story or song, and bed. Typically, only one parent is in charge of the bedtime routine for one child, and if there are two children or more, the parents take turns. Important things to remember are (1) no excitatory activities such as roughhousing or video watching right before bed; (2) no overly long bedtime story time – settle on 1-2 stories and stick to it; (3) if there are two siblings, it is better if each sibling stays out of the bedroom area where the other child is being put to bed. Sometimes that is very hard when there is one parent putting to bed two children, but it usually works better that way.

I will pick up the subject of siblings in the next blog post.

Read this blog in Spanish.