Five Tips to Keep Your Kids Safe Online this Summer

dhs.gov

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You teach your children to wear helmets when they ride bikes and sunscreen when they’re outside, but are you also teaching them to be safe online? June is Internet Safety Month, a perfect opportunity to talk with your kids about online safety.  

Summer break is here, which means kids are starting to spend more free time online and on mobile devices. Children run into all sorts of risks in the cyber world, including cyberbullying, inappropriate content, online predators, and cyber criminals seeking to steal their personal information. It’s important for parents to know how to keep their children safe from these threats online. As summer vacation kicks off, the Department of Homeland Security encourages you to share these five online safety tips with your children:  

  1. Don’t share too much information. Create a list of things your kids should never post or share online – like their birthday and year, full name, address, and phone number – and make sure they understand why it is important to keep this information private.

  2. Be careful about what you post. The Internet isn’t private. Once your kids share a post, picture, or video, they can’t control how others will use it, and it can never be permanently deleted. Teach them be thoughtful and cautious in what they post and share online.

  3. Only connect with people you know. “Don’t talk to strangers” is a good rule for the real world and the cyber world. Predators and stalkers can easily create fake profiles to hide their identities, so instruct your kids to only connect with friends they actually know in real life. Also check your children’s privacy settings to make sure strangers can’t see their profiles. Sometimes privacy settings get reset to default settings during program updates, so check their profiles regularly.

  4. Keep your location private. Many apps, networks, and devices have geo-tagging features which broadcast your location. This information could lead a stalker directly to your kids, so check that these features are completely off. 

  5. Protect your password. Show your kids how to create strong passwords and make sure they know to never share them with anyone (except their parents or a trusted adult).

If you’d like to learn more about protecting your children online, check out the “Chatting with Kids about Being Online” Booklet from the Stop.Think.Connect.™ Campaign.

The Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), a Stop.Think.Connect.™ Campaign National Network partner, provides a wealth of resources about being a good digital parent. On their website, you’ll find research, advice, videos, and guides to help you have impactful conversations with your kids about online safety. Visit www.FOSI.org for more information and resources for your family.

For more tips on how to stay safe online, please visit the Department of Homeland Security’s Stop.Think.Connect.™ Campaign at www.dhs.gov/stopthinkconnect.

Signs & Symptoms of Sexual Abuse

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Themamabeareffect.org

Sexual Abuse Is Not Always Obvious

Abuse is always the fault of those who perpetrate, but it must be a choice on our part to take responsibility to educate ourselves to better identify possible abuse. Often the signs and symptoms of sexual abuse are also associated with other issues that may affect a child during different phases of life, such as low self-esteem, mood swings, and anxiety. The important thing is to not disregard the possibility of sexual abuse when we notice a change in behavior, and to not be afraid to ask – even if everything seems fine.

Dr. Janet Rosenzweig, author of The Sex-Wise Parent, carefully warns parents to not put too much responsibility on children to be able to protect themselves as she states, “Never forget that young children are developmentally incapable of protecting themselves from a skilled pedophile. Even the best classroom-based prevention programs in the world are useless unless adults in the community recognize the dynamics of sexual abuse of children in general and pedophiles in particular.” Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for adults make the assumption that a child would tell if they were being abused. We can do as much as we can to educate our children, but we cannot guarantee our child will not feel guilt, shame, embarrassment, or fear that this happened to them – especially if the abuser is a family member, friend, or someone of authority. 

“Never forget that young children are developmentally incapable of protecting themselves from a skilled pedophile.- Dr. Janet Rosenzweig, The Sex-Wise Parent

Possible Signs of Sexual Abuse

Contrary to the belief of many, there may no visible physical signs of sexual abuse. Most often, physical signs may only be noticed when the abuse causes physical harm to the body. If sexual abuse is causing anxiety for the child, they may exhibit symptoms of stress that are often overlooked or misdiagnosed.

Some Children Show No Signs of Abuse

It may seem impossible to believe that some children will exhibit no signs of stress, fear, or depression of sexual abuse but it is not uncommon, which is why it is important that we talk about sexual abuse and on occasion, ask our children directly if anyone has ever acted inappropriately. Here are a few reasons why children may not exhibit any warning signs:

  • The child is too young or not educated about sexual abuse to know it is wrong

  • The child experiences dissociation and does not remember the abuse as the brain attempts to protect itself from the trauma by blocking out memories.

  • The child realizes the consequences of telling may mean being removed from the home, loss of a parent, upsetting their family, physical abuse, or other unwanted outcomes and therefore works to appear as normal as possible to avoid detection and attention.

Why Children Don’t Tell

There are many reasons why children don’t disclose abuse immediately or for many years, even after the abuse has stopped. Almost always, an abuser has mentally and emotionally manipulated the child to maintain control and secrecy. The innocence of children is often used against them when they do not understand what is appropriate or that they do not have a choice because of their age. It is not uncommon for children to recant a previous disclosure because talking about it becomes too stressful. 

Children with Mental and Physical Challenges

It’s estimated that children with disabilities are 4 to 10 times more vulnerable to sexual abuse than their non-disabled peers.

Children with special needs are often in settings where they encounter multiple caregivers, and are often targeted in and out of their home because of their vulnerability due to the challenges they face to understand and communicate about sexual abuse. Additionally, care agencies are often excluded from training and information about how to report concerns and manage incidents of sexual abuse that do occur. Sexual abuse of children and young people causes long-term mental health difficulties, and disabled young people are not immune from these consequences. Source: Sexual Violence Against Children, by Hilary Brown


Babies Who Get Cuddled More Seem to Have Their Genetics Changed For Years Afterwards

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David Nield | Sciencealert.com

The amount of close and comforting contact that young infants get doesn't just keep them warm, snug, and loved.

A 2017 study says it can actually affect babies at the molecular level, and the effects can last for years.

Based on the study, babies who get less physical contact and are more distressed at a young age, end up with changes in molecular processes that affect gene expression.

The team from the University of British Columbia in Canada emphasizes that it's still very early days for this research, and it's not clear exactly what's causing the change.

But it could give scientists some useful insights into how touching affects the epigenome - the biochemical changes that influence gene expression in the body.

During the study, parents of 94 babies were asked to keep diaries of their touching and cuddling habits from five weeks after birth, as well as logging the behavior of the infants – sleeping, crying, and so on.

Four-and-a-half years later, DNA swabs were taken of the kids to analyse a biochemical modification called DNA methylation.

It's an epigenetic mechanism in which some parts of the chromosome are tagged with small carbon and hydrogen molecules, often changing how genes function and affecting their expression.

The researchers found DNA methylation differences between "high-contact" children and "low-contact" children at five specific DNA sites, two of which were within genes: one related to the immune system, and one to the metabolic system.

DNA methylation also acts as a marker for normal biological development and the processes that go along with it, and it can be influenced by external, environmental factors as well.

Then there was the epigenetic age, the biological ageing of blood and tissue. This marker was lower than expected in the kids who hadn't had much contact as babies, and had experienced more distress in their early years, compared with their actual age.

"In children, we think slower epigenetic ageing could reflect less favorable developmental progress," said one of the team, Michael Kobor.

In fact, similar findings were spotted in a study from 2013 looking at how much care and attention young rats were given from a very early age.

Gaps between epigenetic age and chronological age have been linked to health problems in the past, but again it's too soon to draw those kind of conclusions: the scientists readily admit they don't yet know how this will affect the kids later in life.

We are also talking about less than 100 babies in the study, but it does seem that close contact and cuddles do somehow change the body at a genetic level.

Of course it's well accepted that human touch is good for us and our development in all kinds of ways, but this is the first study to look at how it might be changing the epigenetics of human babies.

It will be the job of further studies to work out why, and to investigate whether any long-term changes in health might appear as a consequence.

"We plan to follow up on whether the 'biological immaturity' we saw in these children carries broad implications for their health, especially their psychological development," said one of the researchers, Sarah Moore.

"If further research confirms this initial finding, it will underscore the importance of providing physical contact, especially for distressed infants."

The research was published in Development and Psychopathology.

Toddlers, Meltdowns and Brain Development: Why Parents Need to Ditch Traditional Discipline

Raisedgood.com

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Toddlers are brilliant. Aren’t they?

They live in the present moment.

They’re capable and innocent.

And perhaps my favorite trait – they’re authentic. They’re unfiltered. They’re among the most honest humans on the planet. They’re unapologetically themselves.

But, perhaps they’re also the most misunderstood humans on the planet.

We, adults, have forgotten what it’s like to be a toddler. To be small and dependent. To be constantly learning. To feel only one (strong) emotion at a time, yet not have the tools to regulate that emotion. To experience the most rapid brain development of one’s life.

Instead, what our culture chooses to see are toddlers ‘throwing’ tantrums. Pushing our buttons. Testing our limits. Acting clingy, uncivilized and impolite.

This perspective can make us feel as though we’ve lost control. As if we’re ‘bad’ parents. As if we’re failing.

And so, we’re encouraged to control our children; to leverage our size and power.

Mainstream parenting focuses on modifying superficial behavior and resorting to tactics like punishments, time-outs, threats, bribes and rewards under the justification that perpetuating a dominance hierarchy is somehow serving the greater good.

And when these scare tactics don’t work…we escalate the punishment.

But, what if, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with our children? Nothing to be fixed. What if the problem is a lack of knowledge, understanding, and empathy within our society? And what if these techniques threaten to erode the ONLY influence you truly have with your child – your relationship.

Western society expects a parenting approach based on an adult’s wants rather than a child’s needsBut, what if, through our relationship, an understanding of child psychology and brain development, and a shift in perspective, we could find a way to be in harmony with our young children and grow alongside them? Becoming better people ourselves.

So, let’s dig a little deeper into the science of growing up. Let’s seek to understand WHY young children behave the way they do so that we can feel confidence and gratitude as we stand beside them, guiding them with patience and compassion on this adventure called toddlerhood.

When does the brain grow up?

As humans evolved to walk on two legs rather than four, the size of the pelvis needed to shrink considerably. For women, childbirth became more challenging; we evolved to give birth to our babies at a much earlier stage of development so that a newborn’s head could safely pass through the narrower birth canal. Some say, compared to other mammals, humans are born only half way through gestation; similar to baby kangaroos.

The biological tradeoff? Undeveloped brain = immature, helpless, dependent baby.

Compared to other mammals, the human brain is tiny at birth; a mere 25% of its ultimate adult size. Animals born into hostile environments tend to have larger infant brains to help them survive. Zebras, for example, need to be able to run with the herd just hours after birth – their relatively mature brains help them run and respond appropriately when a lion appears.

But, mother nature always has a survival strategy in place. So, what is the survival strategy for human babies with such tiny brains? Easy. Mum and Dad. Babies (and toddlers) are designed to keep us close most, if not all the time in order to protect them.

We’re designed to form secure attachments for a reason – in order for our species to survive and thrive.

John Bowlby, British psychoanalyst and Founder of Attachment Theory, hypothesized that healthy attachment is crucial to promote emotional regulation and is vital for optimal brain development. Our interactions with our children, whether positive or negative, affect the way their brains grow.

The National Institute of Mental Health suggests the brain doesn’t fully mature until our mid-late twenties. The frontal lobe, responsible for judgment, planning, assessing risks, and decision-making is the last region to complete development around age 30. So, what does this mean for us, as parents?

It means we need to be patient and compassionate with our kids. It means children are often incapable of the unrealistic expectations we place on them. It means that no matter how smart we think our three-year-old is, no matter how much we wish he could rationalize and reason, he simply doesn’t have the brain of an adult. We may hope kids will behave with self-discipline and self-control, but until their brains mature, it is our responsibility to guide them (and ‘lend’ them our prefrontal cortex until theirs matures).

How positive parenting encourages healthy brain development

Albert Einstein once said the most important question for us to answer is, “Is this a friendly universe?” Infancy and childhood are when we begin to answer that question. As a species, we are adaptable precisely because we are unfinished at birth. Children “build” a brain, that’s best suited to the environment they experience. A staggering seven hundred new neural connections (synapses) are formed in the brain every single second, equating to over one thousand trillion synapses by a child’s third birthday.

But the process of brain development doesn’t end at age three; by the time children reach their teenage years the number of neural synapses actually halves from one thousand trillion to five hundred trillion in a process called neural pruning.

So why would the brain create more synapses than it needs, only to discard the extras?

The answer lies in the interplay of genetic and environmental factors. While genetics provides a blueprint, it’s a child’s environment and their experiences that carry out the construction, forming the essential wiring of the brain. Repeated use of particular pathways strengthens individual connections.

Synapse strength is vital in developing emotional regulation abilities. This is why it’s critical that we provide our children with experiences that contribute to healthy brain development. For example, a child who experiences excessive stress will develop a larger brainstem – the part of the brain responsible for the fight, flight, freeze response. These children are more likely to become adults who are overly reactive to stress. Why? Because their early experiences suggest that they need to be on high alert. That their environment is unsafe (and so are they).

On the flip side, a child who experiences nurturing and responsiveness is able to devote their energy to growing a larger prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation. These children are more likely to become adults who are calm and emotionally stable. Why? Because their early experiences of interdependence and responsiveness suggest that their world is safe and that they can rely on those around them.

This is the type of care humans are biologically wired to expect.

Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson proposed that healthy psychological outcomes are dependent on the quality of caregiving. When the balance of care is empathic babies and toddlers grow into children who naturally trust the world. And trusting children feel confident about venturing out and exploring independently. This is how true independence develops.

Why Toddlers Need Meltdowns

Toddlers build up stress hormones as they cope with the challenges of daily life. But the part of the brain, which allows them to express strong emotions verbally, the prefrontal cortex, still isn’t fully developed. This means that toddlers can experience an intense emotion, but they don’t have the ability to verbalize, nor deal with it.

So, mother nature designed toddlers with a foolproof method to release emotional overload: meltdowns (or tantrums).

Toddlers don’t enjoy tantrums. They don’t intentionally “throw” a tantrum to manipulate us. Tantrums are outside a toddler’s conscious control.

When emotions overwhelm a young child, their brain isn’t able to maintain rational control. Their physiology helps restore equilibrium by having a meltdown to release their feelings and frustrations.

Tantrums are an opportunity for us to connect and deepen the trust our children already have in us.

Tantrums are an opportunity to learn as parents.

Tantrums are an opportunity to dig deep, to lean in and to help your child in the way they need.

Tantrums are an opportunity to up your game as a parent.

As unbelievable as it may sound, once I realized this, I can’t say I looked forward to tantrums but I didn’t dread them. I didn’t try to stop them. I didn’t fear them. I started approaching them with curiosity and wonder. I started expecting them, just as I expected my son to be hungry or tired.

So, what’s the best way to deal with a tantrum?

Firstly, remember a tantrum is not a reflection on you. Let’s repeat that; your child’s tantrum is not a reflection on you or your parenting. What is a reflection on you is your response to the tantrum. Can you find the courage to disable generational imprinting and cultural expectations and be the calm in your child’s storm?  You cannot control another person, but you can choose your response.

“Release your attachments to how things “ought” to be and instead surrender to how they actually are.” Dr. Shefali Tsabury

So, remember tantrums are normal and healthy.

Take a deep breath. Close your eyes for a moment if you need to. Do whatever you need to do to center yourself. You are your child’s compass. You are their guide; they need to feel the reassurance that you are in charge, that you have their back and that they can rely on you when they feel like they are drowning in a sea of wild and unpredictable emotions.

Sit patiently with your child. Hold her close. Empathize. Observe.

What unmet needs could be underlying her strong emotions?

Say what you see, without judgment.

Give her words so she can understand her emotions. “You are so upset. You seem sad to say good-bye to Daddy. You’re crying…”

Remember, this is not about you.

Do not even attempt to rationalize or use logic – your child’s brain is all emotion right now. Connect on an emotional level first and then once she is calm, you can problem solve together.

Acknowledge her anger and frustrations, accept her emotions and wait it out.

By doing this (time and again) you’re strengthening your child’s belief that the universe is a safe place. That her parents accept and love her unconditionally. That there is no such thing as “good” or “bad emotions. That you will help her regulate her emotions and explore her feelings no matter how messy they may be.

Why Parents Need to Ditch Traditional Discipline

The mainstream approach may suggest a time out or walking away so that you don’t “reward” the behavior by acknowledging it. Or threatening or punishing your child in some arbitrary way. But this approach is short-sighted – it may get the parent what they want in the short term, but it is not helping the child.

Because when young children feel abandoned, unheard and invalidated, they become anxious. The tantrum may temporarily stop, but you risk creating deep insecurity. We wouldn’t dream of treating a toddler as a “failure” for stumbling as they learn to walk. So why would we treat them harshly when they stumble through their emotional growth?

Traditional discipline has become synonymous with punishment. The Oxford Dictionary defines discipline as, ‘the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.’ But, the original meaning of the word came from its Latin origins, disciplina, which means ‘instruction’. And disciplina derives from the Latin word discere, which means ‘to learn’. Traditional discipline techniques are, in my view, a lazy way of dealing with misunderstood behavior, which in most cases derives from a child’s valid and unmet need. They also put the bulk of responsibility on the child and very little on the parent.

“Every day in a hundred ways our children ask, “Do you see me? Do you hear me? Do I matter?” Their behaviour often reflects our response.” L.R.Knost

Compassion and empathetic guidance help toddlers develop a brain that can regulate itself emotionally within a few short years. By around the age of six, a child’s nervous system is almost completely wired. The ability to trust, self-soothe and empathize is established.

Children who’ve had compassionate, responsive and positive parents will come to understand and self-regulate their emotions most of the time. They’ll feel secure. They’ll build neural pathways within the brain to deliver soothing biochemicals that help to regulate emotions like fear and anger. They’ll grow into adults who feel comfortable in their own skin and with other people’s emotions, so they’re able to connect deeply with others.

It may feel overwhelming in the moment with a young child who is melting down, but take solace in the knowledge that the effort and sacrifices you are making are monumentally worthwhile. In years from now, your kids won’t remember what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.

“Either we spend time meeting children’s emotional needs by filling their cup with love or we spend the time dealing with the behaviours caused from their unmet needs. Either way we spend the time.” Pamela Leo

How to Stop Thinking Your Teen Is ‘Pushing Your Buttons'

Cheryl Maguire | NY Times.com

Do clothes on the floor make you crazy? Experts say that the tension is often about the way the parent responds.

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My 14-year-old daughter constantly abandons her coat on the floor and leaves half-eaten food in the living room and crumpled papers in the hall. I end up cleaning up after her, which I’ve repeatedly told her makes me upset.

She’s a smart, talented kid. So why does she keep pushing my buttons?

At some point most parents feel as if their teenager is acting in ways to intentionally make them angry. But experts say that the interaction is often more about the way the parent responds than about the teenager’s behavior.

Change the Language

“When a parent tells me their kid is ‘pushing their buttons,’ I let them know we need to change the language,” said Dr. Alexandra Solomon, a Northwestern University professor, clinical psychologist and author of “Loving Bravely.”

She said that thinking your child is controlling you is disempowering, which can lead to a battle of wills.

Such conflicts often fall into one of three categories, Dr. Solomon said.

The first is when the parents are thinking about their own teen behavior. Parents may project their fears, memories and challenges onto the relationship and can’t see their child as separate from themselves. Dr. Solomon gave an example: “The boy I dated when I was 16 cheated on me and broke my heart. My daughter should not date because all high school boys are immature and irresponsible.”

Another involves thinking of past mistakes they made as parents. Dr. Solomon said that if a teenager has trouble making friends a parent may think, “If I had taken my child on play dates when they were younger then they would have friends now.”

The last type is when a parent “fast forwards” to possible future behaviors. This is when a parent thinks, “If my kid is doing this at age 13 then what are they going to be doing at age 16?”

All of these patterns involve being ruled by fear instead of guided by love, Dr. Solomon said. Fear-driven parents often become controlling, creating strict rules, grounding their children or infringing on their privacy. “When these rules are created from a fear-based mind-set instead of what is necessary based on your teen’s developmental needs, an unhealthy relationship will develop,” Dr. Solomon said.

Control Your Reaction

“The reason to stay calm is because we co-regulate with our children — when we freak out, they freak out,” said Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, a physician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and co-founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication.

Dr. Solomon recommends avoiding this kind of overreaction by practicing mindful parenting, which involves pausing, regulating your emotions and staying present in the moment, without attaching a story or meaning to the behavior. Research studies have found that using this technique can improve the quality of parent-child relationships.

“It’s hard to control what your teen does, but you can control your reaction to it,” said KJ Dell’Antonia, former editor of The New York Times’s parenting blog Motherlode and author of “How to be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life, and Loving (Almost) Every Minute.” “If I walk away, it changes my experience.”

Be on the Same Team

Say to your teenager: “This isn’t working for either of us. What can we do to fix it?” Maybe the coat closet is near the front door and your kids don’t use it because they come in through the back door. Could you install a coat hook near the back door?

Once you have a plan, even if there is only a small improvement, praise your child for doing a good job and acknowledge that you have a better relationship because you are working together.

“Parents may want to think of themselves as coaches, helping their child practice instead of being disciplinarians,” said Dr. Carla Naumburg, a clinical social worker and author of parenting books including “Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness With Your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family.”

“Getting mad at your child isn’t going to change the behavior,” she said. “When you get angry, your attention is on the conflict instead of figuring out a solution to the problem.”

Trouble Shoot

If you have setbacks, ask your child, “Where do you think we went wrong?”

“Approach situations with curiosity. If your son doesn’t get out of bed, don’t say, ‘You are tired because you stayed up too late.’” Dr. Solomon said. Instead ask, ‘Why do you think you are tired?’ Hold back the urge to be right and instead stay curious by asking questions.

If you do yell at your teen, Dr. Naumburg recommended apologizing. “Some parents worry that apologizing will undermine their authority, but that isn’t true,” she said. “It’s a respectful way to be in a relationship and it’s modeling a behavior that we want our kids to do — take responsibility for their actions.”

Dr. Naumburg suggested ways I could help my daughter learn strategies to be more organized, such as breaking down a task into small steps.

I can accept that she will never be the next Marie Kondo, but I’ve seen progress for both of us. Now when I see a coat on the floor, I try to remind myself to see only a coat, not an affront to my authority.

My daughter has a sense of humor about it, too. When I told her I was writing about this she announced with a smile: “I left my jacket at tennis practice so it’s not on the floor today.”

Child Abuse Prevention: a difficult challenge, but child advocates see promise

Mark Fowser | WDEL.com

Photo: WDEL’s Mark Fowser

Photo: WDEL’s Mark Fowser

VIDEO: Blue pinwheels are popping up all over Delaware in April in recognition of Child Abuse Prevention Month.

Although there has been a steady rise in calls to a state child abuse hotline in recent years, advocates said Wednesday much progress has been made in recognizing one thing: abuse is never the child's fault.

"Tragically, sexual, physical and emotional abuse threaten too many children every day in communities across our nation," Dr. Stephanie Deutsch said at A.I. duPont Hospital for Children, where she is a pediatrician.

A variety of factors - some very familiar, some relatively recent - contribute to an abusive situation, according to Prevent Child Abuse Delaware Executive Director Karen DeRasmo.

"Those can include things like poverty and substance abuse. We know that the opioid crisis has created a lot of difficulties for families with children," DeRasmo said. "We have children being born addicted to substances." 

Poverty and financial stress can also play a part. DeRasmo added that in about 90 percent of child abuse cases, the abuser is a relative or someone known by the child.

However, strides are being made in recognizing and addressing the problem of child abuse. Delaware First Lady Tracey Quillen Carney is coordinator of First Chance Delaware, an initiative to help give children in The First State a chance to succeed.

"Our understanding of risk factors and trauma in general has increased so much over the last 30 years," Mrs. Carney said. "I think we're really at a tipping point where can make a difference in preventing child abuse through the multi-disciplinary approach."

DeRasmo added that all of us can be more alert for indications of possible abuse or potential abuse. Even if it's something as simple as a parent yelling at a child in a supermarket, consider initiating a discussion, perhaps telling the person how lucky he or she is to be a parent.

Also, if you feel yourself about to lose your temper with a child, DeRasmo says something as simple as taking a deep breath, counting to ten and smiling can go a long way toward calming you down.

"It's never a child's fault if they're abused or neglected."

I'm a Mom and a Child Psychologist: This Is the Behavior I Actually Worry About

Francyne Zeltser, Psy.D. | Parents.com

No one knows more about toddler milestones and social issues than a child psychologist. Francyne Zeltser, Psy.D. wants to help parents worry less and enjoy parenting more.

As a child psychologist, I speak with so many parents who are concerned about their child's development or behavior. Mostly my clients aren't sure what behaviors should raise a red flag for them—"Should I worry when my child does this" or "Is it weird that my child said that..." I've heard it all in nearly a decade of working with families.

I've even shared those same thoughts: When I became a mom to two boys, Hunter, 3, and Paxton, 1, my work only heightened some of the concerns I, like all parents, have. After all, I witness first hand how parenting can affect kids. Parents have a whirlwind of things to worry about, but we just can’t worry about everything. As long as we love our children and try our hardest to give them a happy childhood, we are doing the best we can. 

Here, I share what I'm not worried about when it comes to my kids, and what concerns I prioritize instead. While there's no right way to parent, it's possible to feel confident that you're making the best parenting choices for your little ones.

I don't worry...

If I am being a positive role model

As a working mom, I don't always get to spend all day with my boys. But what’s more important than the quantity of time you spend with your kids is the quality of the time you do have together. When I am with my children, whether for an hour or a full day, I am responsive to their cues and needs; I provide undivided attention whenever possible to set them up for success. During the work day, my children are with experienced caregivers who help teach them how to be resilient and adaptable to change. Even if you don’t go to work, time apart from you and your partner can help teach your child autonomy and independence. So invite grandma to babysit! A little me-time is healthy for everyone involved.

If they are meeting their milestones

Children meet developmental milestones when they are ready. There are ranges of what is considered appropriate and what may be considered delayed. My colleague Jaclyn Shlisky, Psy.D., mom of Piper, 4, and Harlow, 2, told me that she constantly sees parents comparing their children to others. Her advice: Stop! “Each child learns and grows at his or her own pace,” Dr. Shlisky says. “Focus more on how your children make progress by comparing them to themselves—if they are progressing each day, each week, each month, that’s what really matters. Every day try to find a small win.”

And if you do have concerns, share them with your pediatrician rather than in a mom group on Facebook. Your pediatrician is your expert parenting partner so if you don't trust your pediatrician, find a new one. Also, don’t worry if a delay is noted. Early intervention services are highly effective. If your pediatrician suggests that you follow up with a specialist or get an evaluation, I recommend doing so immediately. The earlier a problem is identified the more likely the issue can be remediated.

If there’s a change in our routine

Here’s a confession: I keep my children out late on holidays and will sometimes skip a nap to do a fun activity; I’ve even let my kids come into bed with us and watch cartoons on vacation.

So many parents feel they have to stick to a strict schedule or their children will fall apart. There's no question that children thrive from routine and benefit from clear expectations. Children, like most people, do better when they know what to expect. But changes in your daily routine or schedule will not break your children. Yes, you may have a minor set back or some out of the ordinary behavior as you attempt to get back on schedule. But that is OK. Schedules can be adjusted, sleep can be retrained, and bad behavior can be extinguished, but having ice cream for breakfast on his birthday is something your child will remember forever.

If my kids are picky eaters

As long as the pediatrician doesn’t have concerns about their weight or health, I don’t fight my kids on food. I typically offer two meal choices: what we as a family are eating and what is currently available in my fridge (no complaints here if someone finally eats the leftovers!). If they are hungry they eat, if they aren't they don't.

I’ve also seen parents successfully offer a meal with two or more food options. For example, a dinner that consists of a protein, starch, and vegetable should include at least one item that is preferred and another that is new or less preferred. This gives your child a chance to try new foods, but doesn’t force her to eat it. It also guarantees that she will be eating at least part of the meal without protest. I have found that when I try to force my toddler to try something new, he is resistant. However, when I give him the option by putting it on his plate with other familiar and comfortable foods, he is more willing to take a bite since the pressure is low and the choice is his.

If my kids have screen time

Like everything else, exposure to screens and technology can be useful, if it is carefully monitored and regulated by caretakers. Engage with your child while watching TV and discuss the characters and themes of the episode during commercials. Most devices have parental controls—take advantage of them! I love Guided Access on my iPhone, which restricts my son to only using the app that is open and can even shut my phone down after the allotted time is over. Once the phone goes to sleep, he knows it’s time to play with something else. If you have an older child with an iPhone, set up Screen Time, which lets you monitor how they are using their devices and set time limits on app categories like games or social media. 

Tablets can also be great educational tools. Many schools have individual iPads for students to use for assignments, and they are often a must-have on long car rides or in waiting rooms. Again, it’s all about how you engage. I’ve had my three-year-old use my phone for a virtual scavenger hunt while sitting in the waiting room for an appointment. I named items that I saw in the room that he would quietly find and photograph them using my phone’s camera. As long as you and your child interact with technology or the screen together, it can be an incredibly valuable tool that you don’t have to fear.

I do worry...

About who my kids’ friends are  

We go from deciding where our kids sit during circle time to dropping them off at school often without even being allowed to step foot into the building. How will I know if my son is making good friends and can advocate for himself?

Focus your energy toward getting to know your children’s friends and educating your children on how to make good friends. Set up play dates or enroll them in extra-curricular activities and talk to your child after the event about how he thinks it went. It's OK to suggest things he may want to do differently during the next playdate. For example, if you observed your child never getting to choose the activity, you can say “I noticed that you always agreed to play what Johnny wanted to play, what did you want to play?” Then help provide your child with a script of what he can say or do next time. Role-playing is a great way to help your child develop self-advocacy skills. You can pretend to be the friend or engage siblings in a social role-playing activity.    

I also try to encourage my son to do activities that are of high interest to him, as opposed to choosing an activity just because it's popular. Expose your child to a variety of activities and pursue the ones that your child seems to enjoy. This will teach him to be a leader and not always follow along with the crowd, and he will likely meet peers with similar interests.

If my child is kind

I sometimes observe children acting mean, not because they are actually mean, but because they have heard or witnessed others being mean. Kids are like sponges, they take everything in, even when you don’t think they are paying attention. I always try to teach my children to use kind language like “everyone’s included” and “kindness counts." I also have honest (age-appropriate) conversations with them about when they observe others being unkind. We discuss what we observed and explore what other options the person had that could have led to more positive outcomes.

Teach empathy: your children do not have to like everyone, but they should still be kind to everyone. Then model this behavior for your children. Invite the whole class to playdates that are held at the local park and greet other families with a smile, even if they don’t reciprocate. When my children and I observe someone being unfriendly we try to evaluate the situation from a different perspective: Is it possible that the person is just having a bad day?

If I am making the right educational decisions for my kids

As educational standards shift, so do societal expectations. So much so that it often feels like our kindergarteners are being prepped more for college readiness than social adjustment. As parents, we are constantly faced with the question of are we doing right by our children. Have we signed them up for enough extracurriculars? Should we enroll them in public or private schools, enrichment or intervention? The options are infinite and the future is unknown.

While I can't tell you what's right for your kids, I can confidently say that no decision you make for your children is set in stone. If you think you may be pushing them too hard, try pulling back and see how they do. If you’re unhappy with their school, class, or extracurriculars, call a meeting or make a switch. If your child is struggling and falling behind, request an evaluation. You are your child’s best advocate and the ball is in your court. There is no “one size fits all” to education, so trial and error is your best bet. 

If my child is happy

Sure, I know my toddler is happier playing than doing homework but is he really truly happy deep down at his core? This is something that feels so out of my control as a parent. Rather than just worry about it, ask your children directly how she is feeling on a daily basis, and try not to be dismissive of her concerns. It's important to validate your child's feelings and show her that you're here to listen. 

It's also important to realize that while it's common for a child to be nervous the night before a test, it could be a sign of a bigger issue if your child expresses constant worry about nonspecific causes, is hesitant to engage in activities which would otherwise be perceived as fun, and/or is constantly complaining of physical symptoms (stomachache, headache, etc.) that are not related to medical issues. If this is the case, talk to her about how she feels and try to get to the root of the problem. If there is something bothering her, suggest strategies for her to use. Then follow up with your child on how it went. If your child is still struggling, seek professional help. Low-level issues that are not addressed can turn into larger problems later in life.

Knowing what concerns to prioritize makes the parenting journey much calmer. If you're feeling worried or stressed, remember you are not the only parent to feel this way. You can turn to your friends, family, or professionals (like a school psychologist or pediatrician) for help.

How to Help Teens Weather Their Emotional Storms

Lisa Damour | NY Times

Trying to help a deeply upset teenager — perhaps one undone by a social slight or flipping out about an upcoming test — is among the most common and stressful challenges in all of parenting. Amid all that stress, it’s easy for well-meaning adults to make missteps.

More often than not, we jump in with earnest questions or suggestions: “Any chance you did something that hurt your friend’s feelings?” or “Would it help if I quizzed you on what you’ve studied so far?” But, despite our best intentions, these efforts often seem to only agitate our teenagers further.

Even though I’ve got years of training and experience as a clinical psychologist, for a long time I more or less muddled my way through the adolescent meltdowns that inevitably arose at my practice. Lately, however, I’ve managed to improve my approach, and I owe it all to a fateful trip to Texas.

I was chatting with the counseling team at a Dallas girls’ school a few years ago when the conversation turned to how we each handle students who become unglued during the school day.

“That,” said one of the counselors in a Texas twang, “is when I get out a glitter jar.” As I tried to conceal my immediate skepticism, she went off to retrieve one. While we waited for her to return, I sat there thinking that whatever she was bringing back, I hated it already.

First, as a parent with a neatness hang-up and kids who love art projects, I have come to loathe glitter. Second, if there was any psychology behind this, it seemed bound to be a little, well, poppy.

The counselor returned holding a clear jam jar. Its lid was glued on and it was filled with water plus a layer of sparkling purple glitter sitting at the bottom. “When a girl falls apart in my office, I do this,” she said, while shaking the jar fiercely, like an airport snow globe. Together we beheld the dazzling glitter storm that resulted. Then she placed the jar down on the table between us and continued, “After that I say to her, ‘Honey, this is your brain right now. So first … let’s settle your glitter.’”

Mesmerized, I watched the swirling glitter slowly fall to the bottom of the jar. Finally getting over myself, I was ready to acknowledge the brilliance behind this homemade device.

Sitting right there was an elegant model of the neurology of the distressed teenager. Early in adolescence, the brain gets remodeled to become more powerful and efficient, with this upgrade retracing the order of the original in utero development. The primitive regions, which are just above the back of the neck and house the emotion centers, are upgraded first — starting as early as age 10. The more sophisticated regions, located behind the forehead and giving us our ability to reason and maintain perspective, are redone last and may not reach full maturity until age 25.

While this process is underway, young people are put in a rather delicate position. Though they tend to be highly rational when calm, if they become upset, their new, high-octane emotional structures can overpower their yet-to-be upgraded reasoning capacities, crashing the entire system until it has a chance to reset.

I have enthusiastically recommended glitter jars to several parents and colleagues knowing that some teenagers will instantly benefit from having a concrete model of emotional distress. That said, I have come to appreciate that a glitter jar’s main utility is in the instructions it provides to those who are caring for the overwrought: Be patient and communicate your confidence that emotions almost always rise, swirl and settle all by themselves.

Not long after I returned from Texas, I ran into a visibly upset sophomore in the lunchroom of the school where I consult each week. She looked stricken, and her eyes were red from crying.

Urgently she asked, “Are you free?”

“Yes,” I replied, turning her toward my office.

Once there, she buried her hands in her face and broke into heaving sobs. Soon, she slowed her breathing and looked at me, even as tears continued to stream down her face. In the past, I would have taken that opening to quiz her about what had gone wrong. In retrospect, I now see this as the verbal equivalent of further shaking the mental glitter jar. Instead, I asked if she wanted a glass of water, or some time alone to let her painful feelings die down. She declined both offers, so we just sat there quietly.

Not a minute had passed before she relaxed completely. Then she volunteered that she had done poorly on a test that morning and had fallen down a rabbit hole of worries about what a bad grade might mean for her future. Now, with her glitter nearly settled and her mind more clear, she regained perspective on the situation. Within moments she decided that the low grade probably wasn’t such a big deal, and if it was, she’d figure out how to make up for it in other ways.

This is not to say that letting glitter settle is the solution to all teenage problems. But I have found it to be a better first response than any other. Every time I stop myself from trying to figure out what made a teenager upset, and focus instead on her right to just be upset, I find that doing so either solves the problem or helps clear the path to dealing with it.

It’s critical to recognize that when we react to psychological distress as though it’s a fire that needs to be put out, we frighten our teenagers and usually make matters worse. Reacting instead with the understanding that emotions usually have their own life cycle — coming as waves that surge and fall — sends adolescents the reassuring message that they aren’t broken; in fact, they’re self-correcting.

So, when you next encounter a young person in full meltdown, take a deep breath and think to yourself (Dallas accent optional), “First … let’s settle your glitter.”

Five Ways to Foster Purpose in Adolescents

Kendall Cotton Bronk | greatergood.berkeley.edu

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My research over the past fifteen years has focused on young people’s purposes in life. My colleagues and I have explored the things that inspire purpose in the lives of youth; we’ve studied the way purposes develop; and, we’ve investigated the difference it makes for youth to lead lives of purpose.

Over a decade and a half of work, at least two important findings have emerged. First, we’ve learned that leading a life of purpose is beneficial in more ways than one. Purpose is associated with physical health, including better sleep, less chronic pain, and longer lives; and psychological health, including hope, happiness, and life satisfaction. The second thing we’ve learned is that the experience is rare. Only about one in five high schoolers and one in three college-aged youth reports leading a life of purpose.

Taking these findings together—that leading a life of purpose is a beneficial but rare experience—members of my Adolescent Moral Development lab and I began to explore ways of fostering purpose among young people. In the process, we learned a lot about how young people identify meaningful, long-term goals that allow them to contribute to the broader world. Below I outline five empirically based approaches parents and mentors can use to help youth discover a personally meaningful direction in life.

1. Model purpose

Have you ever told your teen or twenty-something what gives your life purpose? Have you tried explaining how raising children fills your life with meaning, or how doing a job that has a positive impact on the lives of others gives your life direction? Rarely do we share the things that give our own lives purpose, but doing so is critical. Not only does it help introduce adolescents to the language of purpose, but it can also help them begin to think about the things that give their own lives purpose.

2. Focus on youths’ strengths and values

Help young people identify their strengths and consider the values that are most central to them. Purpose emerges when young people apply their strengths to effect personally meaningful changes in the broader world. For example, a young person who cares about the environment and is equally a good writer may find purpose in promoting conservation through journalism.

3. Foster gratitude

It may seem counterintuitive to foster purpose by cultivating a grateful mindset, but it works. Helping young people reflect on the blessings and the people who have blessed them naturally inclines young people to consider how they want to give back. At dinner each night, ask each family member to share at least three things from their day for which they’re grateful. Or use holidays, such as Thanksgiving, as a way of starting an ongoing conversation about gratitude.

4. Encourage youth to reach out to friends and family members

Young people may not know what their purpose is, but the adults in their lives may have a pretty good idea. Encourage youth to send emails to or strike up a conversation with at least five adults who know them well, asking: (1) What do you think I’m particularly good at? What are my greatest strengths? (2) What do you think I really enjoy doing? When do you think I’m most engaged? (3) How do you think I’ll leave my mark on the world?

You can help by encouraging the recipients of these emails or other friends and family members to respond. They don’t need to spend more than five minutes doing so; what you want are their gut reactions. The responses youth receive can be very eye-opening. Youth tend to learn quite a bit about their purpose when they hear what others think it might be.

5. Focus on the far horizon

All too often, our conversations with adolescents focus on the here and now. Did you finish your homework? Which colleges are you applying to? Are you ready for your physics test? Instead, broach conversations that focus on the bigger picture. Ask youth to imagine things have gone as well as they could have hoped, and now they’re 40 years of age. What will they be doing? Who will be in their life? What will be important to them? Why?

This long-term thinking helps youth focus on what it is they want out of life. And don’t forget the whys; purposes often appear in the whys.

Single mamas are raising awesome kids—and research confirms it

Annamarya Scaccia | Mother.ly

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Families come in all different shapes and sizes, and every single one deserves to be celebrated. But that unequivocal truth hasn't stopped some people from believing kids need two parents in order to thrive. We all know that's not true—shout out to all those amazing single parents!—and now research confirms children raised in single-mother-by-choice households excel just as much as their peers.

In July 2017, researchers from the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Belgium released a study that shows children raised by women who choose to be single mothers (women, for example, who became pregnant using a sperm donor), are as well off as kids in opposite-sex, two-parent households.

Here's what the study found:

There were no significant differences in emotional involvement or parental stress between family types. Single-mothers-by-choice showed significantly higher scores on the social support they received, but also on wanting more social support. There were no significant differences in the children's internal and external problem behavior (well-being) between both family types.

In other words: All of the kids are alright.

Of course, there's a lot of research talks about why single-parent households aren't ideal for children. But those findings could be contributed to dynamics, not make-up, investigator Mathilde Brewaeys, one of the study's researchers, suggests to Science Daily.

"The assumption that growing up in a family without a father is not good for the child is based mainly on research into children whose parents are divorced and who thus have experienced parental conflict," Brewaeys said. “However, it seems likely that any negative influence on child development depends more on a troubled parent-child relationship and not on the absence of a father."

More and more women are choosing to be single parents nowadays because they know they want kids and they refuse to let other people's stereotypes get in the way.

Of course, some family experts have raised alarm bells about the growth in single parenthood, but this new research starts to allay those concerns.

It suggests that if you become a single mother by choice—your kids are going to be just fine.

Really, in the end, every type of family is pretty awesome—whether you're a single parent, a blended family, in a marriage or just a really awesome aunt.

We live in a day and age that recognizes all the amazing ways that families are made—and that's so beautiful.