Parenting Experts: Check Your Privilege

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Another day, another piece about how important it is to chat with your young child.  Zero-To-Three just ran this summary on their Facebook page MIT language study and I felt so sad.  For everyone.  For the umpteenth time in the past few years, I am in the awkward position of agreeing with “experts” that kids learn language skills best with face-to-face interaction that expands language, but I also appreciate why some cultures don’t interact with children like MIT researchers want them to.  My concern is that the  researchers can’t seem to see beyond their (boojie) bubble.

Because I have the good fortune to treat children in their homes, and have family and friends that span every economic group from barely-getting-by to (almost) Richie Rich, I have seen a lot of parenting styles.  A lot.  Here is what I see:

Parents teach children to behave so that they will succeed in the culture their parents exist in and the world they hope their children will access.  How parents interact with their children is also affected by how stressed they are.  No parent thinks about this consciously.  But there are huge differences, right from the start.

What I think the MIT folks haven’t realized is what goes on for those parents who come home after working two jobs, who worry about which bills to pay now and if they will have a job this time next month. These good, hardworking folks don’t have the extra bandwidth to chat with their children in the same way that a less stressed parent does.  Maybe the researchers haven’t thought to ask, maybe they assume that what they see in an interview tells the whole story.  But they haven’t seen these family’s homes and their lives.

When that proud, super-stressed, working-class parent thinks about their child’s future, they want to see a job with benefits, a job that can’t be outsourced, a job that has automatic raises.  Many of the jobs they dream about for their children are government or union jobs.  These jobs require obedience to rules and to supervisors.  In these positions, telling your boss that he or she is wrong could cost you your job.  Staying out of controversy and following the rules gets you to the next rung on the ladder.

When their child questions a request, they aren’t going to have a heart-to-heart about why they don’t want to unload the dishwasher.  A parent wants it done because they need to do three loads of laundry immediately and won’t be done with it until 2 am tonight.  Everyone in their family has to help to make tomorrow a possibility.  And they want their child to know that refusal to follow a supervisor’s order could mean that they could be out of a job and maybe out of a home.

Someday there will be someone at MIT that learns more about these families, is brave enough to say what they think, and maybe even publish a study.  That will be something that I can’t wait to post on my blog!

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Should Your Hypermobile Child Play Sports?

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Kids with hypermobility fall on a very wide spectrum.  Some are strong and flexible, allowing them to compete in gymnastics and dance with ease or even excellence.  Some kids are prone to injury; they spend more time on the sidelines than on the field.  And some need to have P.E. classes adapted for them or substituted with physical therapy.

Wherever your child lands on this spectrum of ability, it is likely that they want to be able to participate in sports, and you want them to be able to do so as well.  Engaging in sports delivers a lot of positives:  conditioning, ability to work in a group, ability to achieve goals and handle failure/loss, etc.  Most therapists and doctors will say that being as physically active as possible enhances a child’s overall wellness and can be protective. But every child is different, and therefore every solution has to be tailored to the individual.

Here are a few questions to guide your assessment  (and involve your child the  decision, if they are old enough to be reflective instead of reactive to questions):

  1. Is this activity a high or low-risk choice?  High-risks would include heavy physical contact, such as football.  Tennis requires hitting a ball with force and rapid shifts of position with lots of rotation of the trunk and limbs.  I am going out on a limb, and say that ballet on-pointe is a high-risk choice for kids with lower-body weakness and instability.  The question of risk in any activity has to be combined with what is risky for each child.
  2. Will endurance be an issue, or will there be flexible breaks?  Activities that require a lot of running, such as soccer and lacrosse, may be harder than dance classes.
  3. Are there ways to support performance, such as braces, kineseotaping or equipment modifications?  A great pair of skis or shoes can help tremendously in sports.  So can targeted exercises from a physical therapist or a well-trained coach that understands the needs of the hypermobile athlete.  Your child may not be able to be on a travel team due to the intense demands and greater risk of injury due to fatigue/strain, but be very satisfied being on a local team.
  4. Will your child report pain or injury and ask for assistance?  Some kids are very proactive, and some will try to hide injuries to stay in the game or on the team.  Without this knowledge, no coach or parent is able to make the right/safe choices.  Sometimes it’s an age thing, where young children aren’t good communicators or teens are defending their independence at the cost of their health.  If you think that your child will hide injuries or push themselves past what is safe for their joints, you will have to think long and hard about the consequences of specific activities.
  5. Within a specific sport, are there positions or types of participation that are well-suited for your child’s skills and issues?  Skiing wide green (easy) slopes and doing half-pipe snowboard tricks are at distinct ends of the spectrum, but a hypermobile child may be quite happy to be out there in any fashion without pain or injury.  Goalies are standing for longer periods but running/skating less.  Endurance running and sprinting have very different training and participation requirements.
  6. Sadly, hypermobility can progressively reduce participation in sports.  Not for all kids, and not even for kids with current issues.  Children can actually be less hypermobile at 12 than they were at 3.  They build muscle strength as well.   It happens.  Therapy and other strategies like nutrition and orthotics can make huge improvements for hypermobile kids who want to play sports.  But too often, the child who is pain-free in dance class at 7 isn’t pain-free at 14.  This doesn’t have to be a tragedy.  Kids can be supported to adjust and adapt so that they are playing and working at their current maximal level.  Good physical or occupational therapists can help you figure out how to make athletic activities fun and safe!

For more information regarding hypermobility, please read Hypermobile Kids, Sleep, And The Hidden Problem With Blankets ,  Can You K-Tape Kids With Connective Tissue Disorders?  and Should Hypermobile Kids Sit On Therapy Balls For Schoolwork?.

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Why Telling Your Child “It’s OK” Doesn’t Work (And What To Do Instead)

 

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In a few months I will be doing another lecture on managing difficult toddler behaviors, and I can’t wait.  I love teaching parents, therapists and caregivers how to help young children manage their most difficult behaviors.   The responses that most therapists dread (crying, whining, tantrums, etc.) are the ones I hope will happen in a session with a parent.  Why?  So I can demonstrate and explain how to handle these tricky moments.  How you respond to your child can do more than help you get them into the car and back home.  It can teach them how to deal with their feelings and how to communicate them to other people.

When faced with a crying child, telling them “It’s O.K.” right away seems to be the most natural response in the world.  For one thing, it is usually the truth; you can clean up the broken cookie and get another, their bump is a minor scratch, and they have another blue crayon to replace the one that rolled under the couch.  And we want to help them feel better; comforting an upset child is what we do as caring adults.

But for many kids, telling them “It’s OK”  elicits more crying, if not some wailing and even physical responses like throwing things or hitting.  You go over to console them, and they might even push you away.  The baby that used to melt into your arms is now a toddler, rejecting your best efforts at comfort!

Why?  Very likely because your response did not show them that you understand the gravity of the situation and the pain they are experiencing.  I know, pain from a broken cookie? Really? Well, when you are 18 months old, you can’t always comprehend that there could be more cookies in the cupboard.  The horror of seeing your favorite treat destroyed in front of you is just too great.  And the feelings inside of you really do hurt.  Young children need two things to recover:  someone to say that they know what your problem is and for that person to say that they are aware that you feel this way.

Note that I did not say that the other person has to agree that it is the end of your toddler world.  The adult is only agreeing that something has happened and that you feel badly about it.  As adults, we don’t always remember a toddler’s perspective, and we invalidate it more than we think we do.  This is why telling your child “It’s OK” is heard as “Your complain is without merit, sir, and you have no right to feel angry or sad about it”.

You would never intend to say that to your child, and yet that is the message many children get when you rush in too soon with this response.  

What could you say instead?  I first use Dr. Harvey Karp’s Fast Food Rule combined with his Toddler-Use communication style to respond to an upset child.  It is fairly simple:  State what you believe your child is thinking in simple phrases that match their comprehension level when upset (which is always less than when they are calm) and matches their emotional tone by 1/3.  So if your child is screaming  “COOKIE, COOKIE, COOKIE!!!” and you know that her cookie fell on the sidewalk into the mud, your response has to be similarly short and heartfelt.  Something like “COOKIE BROKEN!  You want cookie!” tells the sad story of what has happened to her snack.

This can be enough validation to calm her down a bit, as seen by a decrease in the volume of her screaming, more eye contact with you, and even a sad nod.  NOW it is time for consolation, and perhaps the offer of an alternate snack.  You have shown that you know her problem and her pain.  She has felt understood and her feelings accepted, and may now be ready for a resolution to this crisis.  If she continues to scream, repeat your statement once or twice while further shortening your words and slightly increasing the emotion in your voice/the emphasis of your gestures.  Sometimes it takes the toddler brain a moment to process.  Give her that time.

Good luck trying out this approach with the next upset toddler or preschooler you encounter.  I promise you, communicating your empathy and modeling acceptance of feelings delivers more than a calmer child.  It teaches important emotional skills and deepens the connection between you.

And it all started with a broken cookie….

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How To Talk So Your Gifted Child Will Listen

 

 

greyson-joralemon-299735I have written a few posts about identifying giftedness in very young children ( Your Bossy Baby or Toddler May Be Gifted. Really. Here Are The Signs You Are Missing!  and Gifted Or Disordered? The Unrecognized Behavioral Traits of Young Gifted Children ) but I want to give some specific attention to communicating with a young gifted child.

Communicating may seem to be the least of your worries when raising or teaching these kids!  Many, but not all, gifted children start speaking early.  And they waste no time once they learn to speak.  Gifted toddlers are known to be chatty, specific, and often demanding in their insistence that you listen to them.  Getting them to listen to you is usually the problem.

Why?  Not because giftedness confers entitlement or because they are spoiled.  The gifted brain is wired for details and connections like a heat-seeking missile.  It likes novelty and intensity over routines.  Gifted kids cannot stop themselves from seeing relationships between objects, events or ideas.  They often want to change the rules of a game and strongly value their own viewpoint.  They learn one concept and will immediately have seven more questions about that topic.  And they want all their answers responded to.   Right now.

You will probably never be able to use “Because I said so” and get away with it when speaking with a gifted child.  Why?  Your response provides no details, no information for the gifted mind to chew on.  And they have lots and lots of ideas about how to approach and complete just about everything.  Doing it your way may take some convincing!

Here are a few suggestions that make communicating with a gifted child more successful and even enjoyable:

  • When making a request or giving a direction, be clear that it is one or the other.  Gifted children will take you at your literal word when you say “Could you clean up your space now?” and respond that they could, but they don’t want to.  Ask them to clean up, or offer them the choice to do it now or in 2 minutes.
  • If you do make a request, provide a simple rationale but use the “big words” they love.  “Please clean up so that we have enough space and less visual distractions to do _______on the table” is logical and saves the time you would spend to repeatedly ask them if you said  “Clean up now”.   It also adds some vocabulary words they may not know.  That can be like catnip to a gifted mind!
  • Don’t be offended if you get a quick retort that things could be done a different way.  Gifted children aren’t necessarily being rude or sassy.  They are stating what is obvious to them:  there are more ways to accomplish this task than the one you laid out.
  • Explain your reasoning when you get a rebuke, and make sure it makes sense.  Gifted kids dislike illogical or rigid thinking.  They may comply with your directions because of a reward or peer pressure, but they will not see you as an authority if  your reasoning doesn’t demonstrate clear and rational thought.  The exception to this rule is when your rationale is creative and expansive.  Some, but not all, gifted kids will go along with this type of thinking because it suggests more excitement could occur by following you there.
  • Be prepared to be exhausted.  Gifted children’s minds work overtime, and you may be caught up in complex stories or conversations about anything and everything.  These kids can go on forever, it seems, ferreting out more information from you and coming up with multiple lines of thought.  Expect that you will be asked to give them this kind of attention.  It can be fun, not exhausting, if you set limits for time and attention.  If you have to move on, suggest that you can take this conversation back up later.  They probably will remind you of this promise later on!
  • Suggest that they use their creative powers to come up with new ways to play with old toys or combine two toys or games with other children.  Gifted children do not always need adult interaction, even though they often seek adults for play.   They will often say that their peers cannot or do not want to take play in a direction that they find fun or exciting.  By giving them a creative start and letting them explore, they may find ways to get peers involved as more than assistants or observers.

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What Helps Sensitive Kids Handle Haircuts?

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Depending on your child’s age and issues, getting a haircut can be anything from a chore to a dreaded event that you put off, and then put it off a bit more.  So many kids fear them:  kids with ASD, kids with sensory issues, children that have had multiple hospitalizations or procedures, children with anxiety disorders.   I have been asked by parents of children well into grade school to help them with the problem of getting their child to the barber or hairdresser without a major fight.  My strategies are informed by my training as a pediatric OTR and as a Happiest Baby on the Block educator.

My approach to improving a child’s tolerance for a haircut is based on three goals: reduce the novelty of the experience, reduce the sensory impact of the haircut, and build their overall coping strategies based on their developmental level.

  1. You can borrow techniques from “exposure therapy” to make the experience of getting a haircut more familiar.  The very first step could be making combing or brushing their hair a non-event.  Explore what tool is the most comfortable for your child, and gradually introduce combs and even hair clippers.  Let them turn the clippers on and off ( establish safety rules first) and let them hear the clippers both far away and close to their ears.  Let them comb their hair first, then allow you to do so.  Washing their hair in the bath is another experience that you can use for pretending that you are giving them a haircut.  You can also get a bit wet and allow  them to pretend to cut your hair.  I have safety scissors that don’t cut anything but paper  Lakeshore Scissors for Toddlers That Only Cut the Paper, Not the Toddler  that work very well for this experience.  Expand grooming so that it can happen at different times of the day and in different locations in your home.  It needs to become as much of a non-issue as possible at home before a child is truly comfortable in the hair salon.
  2.  Remember that the entire experience of receiving a haircut has strong sensory components:  the salon and the sight, sound and smell of it’s other staff and customers, the tools used to cut hair, the feel of the chair and the drapes on your child.  They can all be contributors to agitation and aversion.  How can these be minimized?  Early appointments might be less crowded, there may be ways to apply water or lotions to reduce the experience of being sprayed, or children can be actively involved in saying that they are ready rather than feel attacked when they don’t expect touch.  Some kids just to be told before the event that their hair will be sprayed, or they need to feel in control of the timing.  Your child may seem too old to sit on your lap, but it could help them stay calm.  Ask if this is something they would like.  Your hairdresser is interested in doing a good job without a lot of drama.  Most of them will work with you.
  3. Many of the kids I see that struggle with haircuts also struggle handling frustration and anticipatory anxiety in general.  They are used to big dramatic exchanges when asked to do the things that are expected of them that they CAN tolerate.  These kids have often spent years developing a dance of refusal and opposition that they are now stuck in with their parents.  In my sessions, they quickly learn that I don’t engage this way; I am a no-drama girl.  I set limits and consequences, and I provide options so they feel they are working with me, not against me.  I use Dr. Harvey Karp’s Fast Food Rule and use all of his “Feed The Meter” strategies Turn Around Toddler Defiance Using “Feed the Meter” Strategies to build a sense of compassion and communication.  Both of these Happiest Toddler strategies work well with older children because anyone that is upset is thinking and behaving at a lower developmental level.  My best strategy is simple:  I stop a challenging task before a child has the chance to bail.  I may introduce another task that is similar and still offers challenge.  Stopping isn’t always ending the overall challenge.   The child’s experience is that they don’t have to fight to get a break, as for support or have adjustments made.  I am now their partner in learning to handle haircuts, dressing or nail cutting, not an authority making demands.
  4. Try not to minimize their distress, even if you can’t see why they feel that way.  In Why Telling Your Toddler “It’s OK” Doesn’t Work (And What To Do Instead)  , I wrote about how important it is to actively validate a child’s perspective.  with children that have sensory issues, this is huge, absolutely huge.

It is my belief that if you can help a child handle the daily challenges of their life with compassion, respect and skill development, that child will trust that you can help them with the other events in life that make them frightened or overwhelmed.  They have a new sense of how to manage their behavior, and believe that adults are resources for learning and partners in growth.

Looking for ideas on nail trimming or dressing as well? Read Why Cutting Nails Is Such a Challenge for Autistic and Sensory Kids and Dressing Without Tears: Sensory-Sensitive Strategies That Work

And don’t forget that my e-book on toilet training is out there to help you with this challenging skill:  The Practical Guide To Toilet Training Your Child With Low Muscle Tone isn’t just for kids with low tone; kids with ASD and sensory processing issues can use these strategies to build skills that help them make real progress quickly! You can buy my e-book on my website Tranquil Babies, at Your Therapy Source (a terrific site for OT workbooks and other products), and on Amazon.

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Have More Fun When You Use Drawing To Develop Pre-Writing Skills

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Why should learning to write mean a pile of boring worksheets?  It shouldn’t!  This week, try teaching your preschooler to draw fun shapes that mirror correct letter formation, start/sequence and connections, and watch their handwriting skills take off!

Why draw?  Because some kids need more practice, avoid writing due to fear of failure, or simply need their pre-writing practice to be more fun than traditional worksheets.  Handwriting Without Tears (HWT) does a terrific job of teaching pencil control skills in their preschool and kindergarten books, but their pages often don’t offer enough experience or variety for kids that struggle with pencil control.  I tried using multiple copies of their worksheets, but the kids I treated in occupational therapy sessions got bored too quickly.

I decided to develop tracing pages that naturally expand into guided and independent drawing practice.  As an example, kids have more fun drawing multiple large volcanos that imitate the correct formation of the letter “A” (two diagonal lines that start at the TOP) than writing the letter “A” on a worksheet ten times.  Connecting the lines at the bottom is also an easier way to teach children that they are aiming to connect the diagonal strokes when they write the horizontal line, not slashing wildly across them.

Kids usually enjoy embellishing their drawings.  This gives me more opportunities to work with them on pencil grasp and control skills.  Lava rocks are drawn as circles, and dripping lava curves down the volcano like the letter “S”.  Exploding lava can shoot out of the top of your volcano, curve and drop down onto the ground.  This drawing stroke is very similar to the tricky initial stroke that forms a lowercase “f” (a letter that trips up more kindergarteners and first graders than I can count!).  Beginning a crayon stroke at the top of the volcano is actually an important motor control skill needed for all the letters with top connections such as “F”, “D”, and “P”.   Children will work harder to make this connection because they think it is so cool that volcanoes explode!!

I use gray tracing lines for my beginner drawings for the same reason that HWT uses gray crayon strokes in their preschool workbooks.  Tracing, not connecting dots, helps kids understand that letters and numbers are made of  a sequence of strokes.  The alternative?  I see four year-olds writing the letter “L” without creating a sharp angle at the bottom; it’s a swoop.  I also see the letters “A” and “M” starting at the bottom, then curving up and around in a single line.  Oops!

An important goal of learning uppercase letters first is that these larger, simpler strokes are required motor practice for the finer movements needed to execute the trace-backs and reversals of lowercase letters such as “a”, “b”, “d”, and “p”.  I know exactly what happens if a child doesn’t have the control necessary to learn lowercase letter formation.  If I had a dollar for every letter “a” made from a little circle placed next to a short line….!

Incorrect letter formation and poor control are two of the most common reasons that children in first or second grade are identified as slow or sloppy writers and get referrals to OT for handwriting.  Not every child is able to or interested in re-learning correct handwriting skills later on, and why should anyone have to re-learn handwriting?  Don’t teachers (and OTs) have better things to do?  Teach it correctly the first time!

Drawing gives kids the visual-motor practice they need while providing a fun, creative experience that adds depth to classroom lesson plans about nature, holidays and other subjects.  Try drawing flags, birthday cakes (always a favorite), ice cream cones and more!

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Should You Tell Your Gifted Child About Their Giftedness?

 

wout-vanacker-497472Your child is gifted.  Perhaps a school psychologist has formally tested your child, or you have engaged private testing that indicated advanced skills.  Or perhaps you watch your child on the ball field or in school plays.  She just blows her peers away.  Everyone knows that there is something very special about your child’s abilities.

What do you say to your child about his gifts?  Do you say anything at all?  Does it really matter how you discuss giftedness with children?

Many, but not all, gifted kids will figure out that they are different, even without formal testing.  By 5, children have started comparing themselves and their abilities to their friends, classmates and siblings.   Gifted children begin to notice that their skills in some areas exceed their peers.  They may also realize that they react differently.  The many “over-excitabilities” of giftedness can result in greater sensory sensitivity, emotional sensitivity,  a sense of justice far beyond their years, a quirky sense of humor, or a level of energy and movement that doesn’t match friends and classmates.

I think that kids benefit in two big ways from knowing about their gifts: they will not interpret “different” as “bad” or “exempt from challenge”, and they can learn to manage any sensitivities or intensity differences with confidence.  Can gifted traits be disruptive to the status quo?  Sure, but that’s not necessarily a problem when it is managed well.

I like Mary-Elaine Jacobsen’s personal management strategies in her book, “The Gifted Adult”.  I think that many of her suggested approaches to handling what she sees as a triad of constant brain traits (complexity, intensity and drive) in gifted adults can be applied to supporting a gifted child.

Young gifted children may ask questions constantly, want to discuss their passions without end, and strive for perfection when everyone else is satisfied with their first amazing effort.  They want to answer every question posed in class and may want to control a game because they are bored with a simpler strategy of play.  Telling a child that they are “too much”, when these behaviors emerge as the result of their brain’s makeup, is potentially harmful.  It is possible to teach children to manage the expression of their gifts without denying their nature.  It starts with telling them the truth: they are wired differently.  Acknowledging their frustrations and providing solutions isn’t always easy, but even an incomplete attempt done with compassion and optimism is better than telling them to fit in and stop causing problems.

Children who don’t have to work to receive high grades may not feel empowered by acing a test; they may feel like frauds when complimented for effort they didn’t expend, or even fear the loss of praise when they are encouraged to explore advanced studies.  Gifted children need to hear praise for the quality of their efforts even more than children who struggle. Telling a child that their creativity and depth of thought is what you find impressive, rather than their grade, communicates that the true nature of their giftedness is seen and appreciated.

There are other challenges that gifted children face, with the degree of challenge increasing when their abilities far outrun their peers or when areas of disability create the situation of being “twice exceptional”.  Take a look at  Gifted and Struggling? Meet the Twice Exceptional Student and How OT Can Help.  Supporting children is so important under these circumstances.  Being honest is just the beginning.

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