confident parents confident kids

FASHION ALERT! Confident Parents, Confident Kids Clothing for Women

Confident Parents, Confident Kids Heart Silk SleevelessClothing Made with Purpose for a Purpose

I’m excited to announce a partnership between VIDA and Confident Parents, Confident Kids. VIDA marries artists with makers with a social mission at the fore. Based in San Francisco, with a designer in Paris, and a maker in Karachi, VIDA provides living wages to textile makers along with an educational curriculum to help advance their careers. In addition they give artists like myself, the chance to design beautiful clothing with a purpose. Their mission is to connect the world through beauty and mindful, global citizenship. I am honored to be a part of this burgeoning organization. I hope you will check out my designs! They make perfect gifts for any mom or teacher. And if you don’t know sizes, there are beautiful scarves that will fit any and all. I have four designs I am debuting today and will be adding two more next week. Hope you will spend some of your shopping time visiting my designs with VIDA this holiday season! Happy holiday season!

20 Ideas for Involving Kids in Thanksgiving Preparations

Girl stirring with dough on face
To journey without being changed

is to be a nomad.
To change without journeying
is to be a chameleon.
To journey and to be transformed
by the journey
is to be a pilgrim.

– Mark Nepo

With a little forethought and supply gathering, you can set your kids on a mission to contribute to your Thanksgiving. Not only will they be entertained but also they will meaningfully enrich your celebration. Here are my top twenty ideas.

Food Preparations
Young children:

  • add ingredients to a bowl and stir
  • wash vegetables, throwing them into a pot of water
  • keep the kitchen timer and telling you when the time is up
  • add the marshmallow topping to the sweet potatoes (though there may be a few missing!)

Older children:

  • slice vegetables and arrange on a platter – or boil or steam
  • use the mixer with mashed potatoes
  • get items out of the refrigerator to place for you on the counter
  • move final dishes out to the table for serving

Table Setting
Young children:

  • put placemats and napkins at each place setting
  • put silverware on the napkins with some modeling first (adult do the knives)
  • take condiments or salt and pepper to the table

Older children:

  • place glasses at each place setting with some modeling first
  • fill glasses with ice and/or get drinks for individuals
  • place or move chairs


  • send to the yard or go on a neighborhood walk with Grandpa to collect kindling for the fire or collect fall leaves for decorating the table
  • put out construction paper and markers or crayons and make decorations to add to a centerpiece on the table. Have pictures of the first Thanksgiving available for inspiration

Add to the True Meaning of Thanksgiving

  • lay out paper and markers or crayons for making fall leaves of all colors. Make enough that each person can write some quality they appreciate about another person Happy Thanksgiving illus by Jennifer Millerat the celebration.
  • brainstorm and write out the things they are grateful for and display them on the table or in the house.
  • outline a foot on colored paper and cut it out and write a fact that is known or a question about your ancestors or family history. See if you can pave the way from the table to your front door. Allow it to spur discussions with relatives about your lineage.
  • research and learn more about the first Thanksgiving, Take it one step further and try and talk from the perspective of one of the first Thanksgiving participants.

“Promoting a Spirit of Gratefulness in Kids…” on NBC’s Parent Toolkit


Check out my article “Promoting a Spirit of Gratefulness in Kids – A Tale of Two Letters” on today’s NBC Parent Toolkit Blog. It recounts an experience with my own son, relates it to the research on raising grateful kids and offers a number of simple ways to promote gratitude. Why should we be concerned with promoting gratefulness in our kids? It can contribute to a child’s sense of well-being, desire to contribute to family life today and hope for their future. Why not seize the opportunity of Thanksgiving to begin a thankfulness ritual or routine in your family? Here’s how the article begins and I hope you’ll visit Parent Toolkit for the full article. I am so grateful for your participation in this community of parents who value social and emotional learning! Happy Thanksgiving!

Promoting a Spirit of Gratefulness in Kids – A Tale of Two Letters

In the past week, my eight year old son E has been busily writing letters and researching their content. “What excellent academic practice!” I might typically think. But in this case, I did not. Instead the “Dear Santa” letter followed by “Dear Grandma, Mom, Dad and Guy-down-the street, I want the following presents…” turned my happy boy into a grumpy one. I noticed his mind was consumed with what he wanted and didn’t have. He was coming down with a pretty intense case of the “Galloping Greedy Gimmies” as the Berenstain Bears so aptly refer to it. And I began to worry that it might turn into a seasonal trend over the coming weeks.

I was hoping a family ritual would protect him against the “gimmies.” Each November, we take time out in the evenings as a family before bedtime to talk about what we are thankful for. We write down our specific thoughts for the day and put the notes into a felt tree that hangs on our wall as we countdown to Thanksgiving. That nightly tradition gives us the chance to talk about the spirit of giving and gratefulness for the season. We all have hopes for toys or gifts that may come. But if we really want to join in the spirit of the season regardless of what holidays we celebrate in the coming months, the themes are universal. They are to feel the love we share between family and friends and to celebrate the goodness we already enjoy in our lives. Read the full article.


Exploring the Past to Appreciate the Present; A Simple Family Thanksgiving Experience

Thanksgiving Experience Jennifer Miller
Everything that is past is either a learning experience to grow on, a beautiful memory to reflect on or a motivating factor to act upon.

– Denis Waitley

It’s not unusual for our family’s thoughts and conversations to turn to those who are missing at our Thanksgiving table. A small family to begin with, it has become smaller through the years with the loss of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. So we appreciate all the more the family that we have and enjoy being together. Thinking about your own mortality and the death of loved ones can add to your sense of gratitude finds leading gratitude researcher, Robert Emmons. We acknowledge that time is precious. We focus on the moment at hand and the experience of spending time with the people we love. This led me to think about our ancestors. How much do we really know about them and their stories? Is it important for me as a parent to explore our family histories with my son to contribute to his sense of identity?

In fact, my research into these questions proved that it is indeed important to all family members including our children to explore our past for multiple reasons. Robert Thanksgiving in OwensvilleEmmons explains that understanding the trials and difficulties of generations that went before us can help us appreciate our current circumstances. Further, researchers in Berlin and Munich have shown that students who spend a short time thinking or learning about ancestors actually performed better on intelligence tests. They dubbed this the “ancestor effect,” the idea being that thinking and learning about the multitude of adversities our genetic lines had to overcome makes us feel empowered, more competent and in control. It gave students a sense of grit, or persistence to stick with problems. If their ancestors could deal with hunger, poverty, war and the like, certainly they could master the tasks in front of them. There is also a sense of belonging and connection to a line of people who stayed strong despite their struggles.

Many schools recognize the benefits of students learning about their families’ stories and understanding history from multiple cultural perspectives. Some engage programs such as, Facing History and Ourselves and integrate learning about historical events with understanding who students are today and how the past can inform their present and future. This particular program has demonstrated outcomes in improving students’ critical thinking skills, their sense of ability to contribute to the world and their connectedness to their school community.

There are ways to combine this background knowledge with the practical aspects of hosting or attending a Thanksgiving celebration. Involve them in the following project and let them lead questions with grandparents and other relatives to uncover stories from the past. You need do very little to prompt this engagement but it could lead to rich sharing amongst young and old over your turkey dinner.

Miller Ralich TrailSet up materials for kids to create. Put out colored construction paper, pencils, markers or crayons and scissors. Have kids trace their Smith Woeste Trailshoe on the paper and cut it out. Be sure to have enough supplies available that if grandparents or others want to add information to the cut-out feet, they have their own patterns to write on. Have some pictures and maps available to look at former generations and the places from which they came.

Brainstorm what is known and what questions you have about family members that lived before you. For example, I know my son’s great, great grandmother was a Navajo Indian but I am unsure of her name or where she came from. So on one foot pattern, he’ll write “Great, great grandma – Navajo Indian.” He can write the questions, “What was her name? Where did she come from?”

Create an ancestral trail. Designate the family lines with signs (see picture right). Kids can line up the ancestral path on the floor perhaps leading to the doors of the house. They can engage in conversations with each adult at your Thanksgiving gathering to see who might be able to contribute to the stories that are forming.

Share together. Perhaps after the feast is over and your tummies are properly full, follow the trails made together. Also use the maps to get a sense of where in world your ancestors lived. Read through, comment and see if there are any additions to the information shared. Or are there questions unanswered that you want to explore?

I am looking forward to this exploration into our family history this Thanksgiving. Cultivate gratitude for the people who have gone before you by exploring their stories and honoring the past. Surely, it will deepen your appreciation of the present.

For child-friendly photos and brief descriptions of the clothing worn, food eaten and typical daily life of those who were present at the first Thanksgiving, check out Scholastic’s “The First Thanksgiving.”


Emmons, Robert. Gratitude Works! A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Fischer, P., Sauer, A., Vogrincic, C. & Weisweiler, S. (2010). The Ancestor Effect: Thinking about our Genetic Origin Enhances Intellectual Performance. European Journal of Social Psychology. DOI: 10. 1002/ejsp.778.

Elements of a Confident Kid… Coping Skills

Elements...Coping Skills by Jennifer MillerElements of a Confident Kids by Jennifer Millercoping

  • to maintain a contest or combat usually on even terms or with success
  • to deal with and attempt to overcome problems and difficulties

About Coping Skills:

Though all babies are born with a brain rigged for the flight or fight survival instinct, the interpretation of sensory input determining what is a real threat does not form until four or five and logical reasoning is still forming throughout childhood. Though young children may find ways to cope in stressful situations, they are more likely to exercise and develop healthy self-regulation skills with adult support. In research studies, those preschoolers who were able to show the strongest self-control when tested were those who had parents who were responsive to needs but did not over-control the child’s environment or experiences. 1 Coping requires bravery and kids need to be allowed to experience safe risk-taking. For example, a child who is prompted to find solutions to a conflict with a friend and try them out on their own is more likely to use those problem-solving skills in the future. A child whose parent “fixes” and solves difficulties for them will not learn those skills. Those children cope in one of two manners: they distance themselves from the parent (and have slightly more successful coping ability because they are asserting their independence but without support) or others will cling to the parent and become dependent on the parent to do their coping for them. These children can have difficulty with self-regulation so that when the parent is not there to save them, they may struggle.

Tian Dayton, a Clinical Psychologist and author wrote,

No situation need be inherently traumatic. It is how we experience the circumstances of our lives that determines whether or not we will find them traumatizing. The presence of caring adults who help children decode the ever unfolding situations of their worlds is a great protective buffer for the child. Needless to say, when the parent is the source of stress it’s a double whammy. Not only is the child scared but the person they would normally go to for comfort and comprehension of what’s happening is unavailable to them.

Promoting Coping Skills:

Our reaction to a child’s emotions is critical in helping them understand what they are feeling and how they can cope. Here are some specific ways you can help yourself become a facilitator of these essential skills.

Name emotions. Practice expanding a child’s awareness of her feelings by naming them whenever they arise. Do this for joy, boredom and anger giving her experience with a range of emotions. Ask, “How does your body feel?” or “What does the feeling make you want to do?” to help expand her understanding. Including the naming of emotions in your ongoing dialogue with your child can help raise self-awareness at any age. Use the emotions list (right) to assist you.EQ Fitness Handbook feelings table

Practice your own emotional honesty. So often when kids or other family members asked, “Are you okay?”, we say “Fine,”as a way to deflect attention to our real emotions. Pledge to yourself that you will help your children by being emotionally honest. You need not go into detail but saying, “I’m sad. Someone at work was hurt today.” can be enough to explain to a child why your face is somber. For more, check out “Emotional Honesty.”

Determine your own coping strategies. Do you have a plan when you get really angry or have high anxiety? What will you say? What will you do? Don’t count on having a moment to think since your brain will be emotionally hijacked. Make a plan in advance and share it with your family members so they know how you will cope when you are feeling out of control. For more, see “Family Emotional Safety Plan,” an article that includes a simple, one-page template to help you develop a plan.

Practice coaching. Coaches must make decisions often in the heat of the moment about whether or not to step in. Mostly they facilitate others taking action. Ask, “Can she handle this?” and “What’s my role?” If it’s a situation in which she is not in serious danger, then asking good questions can prompt her to figure the problem out on her own. “Yes, I saw he stole your pillow. What are your choices in responding? What choice might help you and also not harm him?” For more, check out “Coaching as a Tool for Raising a Confident Kid.”

Practice ways to express emotion. Do you have a particularly verbal child? Then she will need to express herself verbally. Find ways she can do this without harming others. For example, one girl growls and her family knows she will do this to get her anger out. It does not harm anyone and she needs that outlet. If you have a physical child, what can he do to express his emotion? Run? Squeeze a ball? Tense his muscles? Punch a couch pillow? Help your child find what feels right and then offer practice. Make it a game. That practice will pay off so that he can use his chosen mode of expression in times of great stress.

Practice calming down. Deep breathing is probably the best way to restore calm to your brain. You can teach your child to breathe through blowing bubbles or hot chocolate breathing.

Remind him of his practice. In the heat of the moment, sometimes you can redirect a young child’s attention. But often when there is great upset, you need to deal with the problem at hand. First do what you can to remove your child from the situation to a private area if possible. Then, remind him of your practice. How can he appropriately express himself? How can he calm down? Give her the power to do it for herself while you are there to keep him safe.

All individuals will need to cope with intense emotions at some point. Often these self-regulation skills will be needed at school in order to focus on learning. This could be one of the most important ways you can contribute to preparing your child for academic and life success. But it will require you to reflect on your own ability to discuss emotions and analyze how you react in the heat of the moment. With reflection, planning and practice, you can prepare your child with the coping skills to meet any challenge with bravery and emotional intelligence.


  1. Mischel, Walter. (2014). The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control is the Engine of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Without Saying a Word

Nonverbal baseball signals by Jennifer Miller

What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

When I silently hold out my hand in a high five signal toward my son while I am on the phone, he understands that I need five more minutes to talk and then I will find out what he needs. He knows because we’ve worked this system out ahead of time. I taught him that signal in preschool and we have used it with much success ever since. It’s power lies in the fact that I am communicating with him nonverbally. Body language has five times the impact as verbal communication according to Allan and Barbara Pease, authors of The Definitive Book of Body Language. And because nonverbal signals are such strong communicators, we can use body language to better understand our children’s feelings Give me 5 illustr 001and motivations and also communicate and inspire cooperation.

Parents have used sign language with much success in helping their babies communicate before they are ready to speak. And even if you didn’t use the formal sign language, you likely pointed and gestured your way through communicating with your nonverbal baby. It happens naturally. And because it is such a natural part of how we express our feelings and thoughts, it can be an effective tool to use with children in gaining cooperation and helping routines play out smoothly through the day.

Interestingly, there are very few cultural differences when it comes to basic body language signals. Animals and humans alike sneer when they are displeased for example. People smile to signal genuine happiness or approval. They turn away from offensive sights or smells. And they shrug their shoulders when they don’t know something. We can tell children are lying when they immediately cover their mouths after they’ve said something untrue. And though the body language may change slightly as they grow older and are

President Clinton testifies in front of the grand jury
President Clinton testifies in front of the grand jury

more aware of those reflexes, it never goes away. The more obvious signals become “micro-gestures” but still can be read. Adults tend to place a finger by their mouth when lying, trying to cover it up. Pease’s book uses the following picture to illustrate their point beautifully.

The Definitive Book on Body Language suggests that there are three aspects of reading body language that are critical to getting it right.

1. Read the movements in clusters – One move could be misinterpreted but several are typically indicative of a particular feeling or thought.

2. Look for congruence – Do the gestures support what the person is saying? If the body language is in conflict with the words coming out, then there is typically an untruth being told. Also the authors claim that body language cannot be faked because although bigger gestures may reinforce your words, but the micro gestures, like eye glances or twitching, will give away the truth.

3. Read gestures in context – There are multiple meanings to any one body movement. Shrugging your shoulders could mean you are freezing cold or you don’t know something or you are confused. Take the context of the situation into consideration when “reading” signals.

We can heighten our own effectiveness with our kids, inspiring thoughtful reflections and choices, by becoming more aware of our own postures and facial expressions. Trained coaches use what’s called somatic awareness to heighten their listening abilities. You too can recognize what signals you are sending to your child by simply noticing in the moment your child is speaking how your face and body are oriented. If your thoughts are miles away and face is clenched with tension, she is receiving a clear message that you are either not listening or you are disapproving. So practice. The next time your child is recounting a school story, notice your facial muscles. Notice your body position. Ask yourself, what message do my gestures send? And then relax and adjust yourself according to how you want to appear when listening and inciting positive behaviors. Here are some further ideas for using body language in your parenting. The key to success with all of these is agreeing upon and practicing the signal first so you are ready to use it when the moment is right.

Waiting for Your Attention – Particularly with multiple children, giving kids the attention they need can be a challenge. Kids can begin to misbehave as they seek any means – positive or negative – to fill their need for your attention. Agree together on a signal for the need for them to wait for a few minutes while you finish what you are doing and then later turn your attention to them. You could use the high five sign like we do or point to your eyes and his eyes acknowledging his need for you and your need for a few more minutes. Another option would be to place your hand on his shoulder and smile as if to say, I’ll be with you in one moment. Then make sure you respect the signal and only take those few more minutes to turn your attention.

Gaining Attention – When you need to gain the attention of a crowd at play, you might use an instrument to make a sound. You may turn out the lights as teachers have done for ages. Teacher also use a clap pattern with those who are listening repeating the pattern until all are listening. Or you could raise your hand with the peace sign with the expectation that others will give you the peace sign in return.

Inciting Cooperation – When you need to gain a child’s cooperation even in moments when there’s time pressure, get down on their level, remain calm and make direct eye contact. That move signals you are serious about gaining their cooperation.

Getting Quiet – When you need silence, you can put your palms down and sink to the ground in a sitting position. You could use the traditional index finger to mouth with eyes open wide, mouth shut. You could also raise your hand or use the peace signal.

Reinforcement for Positive Behaviors – Whether I am noticing a positive behavior I want to reinforce or I’ve corrected my son for a poor choice and I can see he is trying to do the right thing, I make eye contact and give him a thumb’s up. He knows I recognize his actions and I don’t need to say a word.

Listening – Practicing and modeling body language that supports active listening can be helpful for all family members. Make eye contact. Check that you have an open body posture (versus arms closed over your chest). Also use the “Me Too!” rule so each person can complete a thought without interruption. Agree with family members that when someone is saying something that is true for them as well, they make the “Me too!” sign – shake your thumb pointing back at yourself and pinkie pointing out at the other person.

Imagine your family communicating with one another as intently and effectively as a pitcher on the mound does with the catcher signaling the type of pitch. Sometimes words just can’t do the job that a signal or gesture can. Utilize the power of body language in your parenting and enjoy the experience of feeling in tune with your family members without saying a word.


Pease, Allan & Barbara. (2004). The Definitive Book of Body Language. NY: Bantam Books.
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Tone Tuning

“Fall” In Love with your Family in November

Raking Fall Leaves for Parents by Jennifer Miller“If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” – Abraham Maslow

If you only have kindness and compassion, you see every person with love.

Recently I read about a Kindergarten teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary, where one of the school shootings occurred, and her response to that tragedy. During the horrible event, she hid all of her students well and as a result, their lives were saved. But after mourning took place, they had to return to the classroom. She struggled with a sense of hopelessness and fear and wondered how she might lead her class while feeling such despair. Then the class received a package of toys from some caring person in the U.S. who wanted to help them through the sorrowful time. It was that package that offered her a way to cope and help her students cope. “When someone does something nice for you, you have to do something nice for someone else in return,” she told her students. And so they began doing good deeds for one another and for others in the school – holding doors, writing positive notes and complimenting others. Parents were asked to donate to reward the good deeds. With this, Kaitlyn began to put together donations for other classrooms outside of their school and began a nonprofit with a social network to grow the work called Classes 4 Classes. She has a new book out about her experiences entitled Choosing Hope and is a great inspiration.

Kindness is contagious. When you experience it, you want to share it and pass it on to others. But in our busy lives, we naturally tend to see problems. With a critical eye, we look for what needs fixing so we can get to work. And at times, we see our children with that same critical eye. This can serve us well to a certain extent as we are able to define and solve our own challenges. But it can overwhelm our focus. So in order to shift our lens to the positive, we need to be intentional about it.

Here’s a proposed simple experiment to try out in the next few weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and also in celebration of Worldwide Random Acts of Kindness Day on November 13th.

Choose a weekly kindness buddy.
Pick one night a week when your family is typically together. Perhaps you have a dinnertime when you can count on each member being present? Ask each person to write their name on a piece of paper and throw it in a hat. Pick names (throw back your own if you pick it). Keep it a secret! (It’s a better game that way!) Now do one random act of kindness for that person in the coming week and if you can keep your identity a secret, so much the better. Little ones can play this game but may not be able to keep the secret! That’s okay. They will benefit from the experience without anyway.

Guess your Kindness Buddy and Recount Stories.
One week later, guess your kindness buddy. It may be obvious or your family member may have made it difficult to guess! Tell the stories of the kindness that was done for you from the past week. Make sure your stories are specific. Ask questions of your kids to prompt details.

Each week leading up to Thanksgiving, pick a new person to be your kindness buddy.

Bring It to Your Thanksgiving (If You Celebrate) OR Count It As Your Participation in World Random Acts of Kindness Day
If your Thanksgiving includes extended family or friends that have not participated in your kindness experiment, use the chance to involve them. At your meal, share the stories from the random acts done for you in the past month. Then consider the others at your table and tell stories about how they have shown kindness to you. What a rich meal it could be if all individuals around the table could share an specific appreciation of another at the table.

Be sure and reflect on the experience. Ask, “How did you feel when the kindness was done for you?, How long did that feeling last? Did it influence your thoughts and feelings throughout that day? Throughout the week? How? Did you do anything in response?” Through reflection, we deepen our learning.

This experiment will help you look back on a month where you have, in a small but significant way, shifted your family’s focus toward kindness. Do you feel it’s made a difference in the culture of your family? Do you see relationships as a bit more connected and trusting? Kindness does not have to be an elusive concept. But it does require focus, practice and intentionality. It doesn’t take much to make a difference in the feelings and attitudes of the ones we love.


Roig-DeBellis, Kaitlyn. (2015). Choosing Hope. NY: Penguin Books.

How Do You Cultivate Gratitude in your Family?

Family playing in the leaves illus by Jennifer MillerThis month, in preparation for the Thanksgiving holiday, I am focusing on gratitude and how a family can instill gratitude in their daily lives. Help me with my research and contribute to our community!


  1. In what ways do you promote a sense of gratefulness in your family?
  2. Do you have any rituals that you do daily, weekly or seasonally?
  3. How do you prepare children for receiving gifts graciously?
  4. How do you combat a sense of entitlement yourself, with your children or with any family members?
  5. When do you feel gratitude and how do you express it?


I hope you’ll write in and share your ideas, thoughts, photos if you have some that are relevant, stories, traditions, questions and challenges on the this important topic! I’ll take what you are willing to give and share with our community. You can post in the comment section or write to me directly at Most importantly, I am incredibly grateful to you for engaging in this critical dialogue about ourselves and our children! 

Final Day for Discount + BONUS!


Don’t miss out! Webinars begin in early November. Today is the LAST DAY to register as a member with the discount. And today ONLY, I will offer two bonus items that will be sent to you FREE in addition to all of the deep learning supports of your membership.

For the SILVER and GOLD Members, you’ll receive a Morning Routine Poster (18 x 24, shown right). Kids will be able to draw on it as you work together to create a smooth morning routine.





And for PLATINUM Members that sign up TODAY ONLY, you’ll receive the first 2016 Confident Parents, Confident Kids Desk Calendar FREE! Enjoy the illustrations along with helpful tips and reminders all year long. Check out the month of October (left) and the calendar cover below.


CoverCPCKDeskCalendarWhat is the value of a CPCK Membership?

Each membership has been priced as a two-for-one on the webinars and tools and coaching. You could not hire a parent coach or counselor for that price but through membership, you will get a full range of learning supports. The journey your membership will take you on has the potential to TRANSFORM your parenting and family life for the better. Parents who have gone through webinars and workshops with Jennifer Miller have attested to the power of these sound research-based strategies. Feel confident in your range of options for addressing the most pressing or challenging issues in family life! I’m so excited about this next step and I hope you’ll join me and other smart, caring parents on this learning adventure! SIGN UP TODAY!

Parents are saying:

“…a great springboard for changing our family dynamics!”
“…excellent and very helpful.”
“…I was good but this helped me become even better.”

True Terror – Helping Kids Deal with their Fears

Helping Kids Deal with their Fears by Jennifer Miller

Courage is mastery of fear not the absence of it.

– Mark Twain

It’s flu shot day. I have a feeling that today will go smoothly. But two years ago, it didn’t. And I notice a sense of dread creep up on me like a zombie in a haunted mansion. E asked about whether shots would be involved with his upcoming doctor’s appointment well in advance. And when we got to the doctor’s parking lot, he started bawling and refused to get out of the car. I took deep breathes and watched the clock. An astonishing half hour later (seriously, I timed it), he finally emerged from the car to go in to his appointment. After his shot that day, he seemed traumatized and it took the whole evening to recover. That next week, I took him with me when I got my flu shot at the local drug store. I let him watch and I asked a number of questions of the pharmacist who administered it about all of the safety factors involved while E was listening. The next year we talked about why flu shots are important and what can happen as a result of not getting the shot. And he, though scared, went into the appointment. This year was similar but E set out to prove how brave he truly was. Though I could tell he was nervous, he didn’t resist any step of the way. And I am proud he was able to face his fear.

Understanding fear and how it impacts our children can help us be more responsive and empathetic parents. We can learn how to raise kids who are courageous. Fears begin in infancy when babies under a year cry when they encounter strange people or things that they do not recognize. The emotional response serves as a key biological function to help babies and children survive. Danger is a possibility in something or someone unknown and so a baby seeks your help in those moments. Toddlers may fear loud noises, separation from parents and large objects. While preschoolers may fear storms, the dark, monsters, supernatural or magical forces or noises. And school-age children begin to fear issues we fear as adults such as failure, death, peer rejection and natural disasters.

Fear is experienced differently by every person. There is no predicting what particular fears your child will have or develop. The key is to pay attention to fears and work to understand them. Modeling is a critical teacher so first take note of your own reactions and anxiety. We can unwittingly contribute to and escalate any fear if our child reacts and we respond with anxiety. So becoming self-aware and practicing our own self-management over anxiety in those moments is fundamental to helping our child. I notice that I can hold greater patience in those times of struggle when I put my “teacher hat” on. All of a sudden, instead of being an annoyed parent, I become an intelligent and empathetic adult whose role is guidance, modeling, facilitation and support.

We can learn a lot from a study done at Virginia Tech with expert scholars who have had a 60-75% success rate with tackling severe child phobias. I have summarized their steps here for addressing a child’s fears adding in my own perspectives and context for parents.

Promoting Resilience and Courage with Kids in the Midst of Fear

Unpack the fear. Talk through the emotions with a child in an open time slot when you don’t have other pressures. List out all aspects of what they are afraid of. If it’s the dark, what parts of the dark don’t they like? What do they see? What do they imagine? What’s the worst thing that could happen to them in the dark? Find out all of the aspects of what’s worrying them and be sure to discuss their worst case scenarios.

Begin with the least scariest on the list of fears and become informed together. Provide education and safety information about that topic and the more interactive, the better. For example, what causes the dark? Are there more safety risks in the dark? What are they? How can you address them? Do you need night lights in the bedrooms and in the hallways? If there are issues you can research in children’s books together, that is a great process for exploring a high anxiety topic. Or else go and pick out night lights to serve as a safety measure. Involve your child in addressing the issue.

Take small steps toward facing the fear. Ask your child first with each step forward. And make it a fun. The experts at Virginia Tech made it a game with the kids with whom they worked. They did not push but stopped if children were getting upset. They “proceeded slowly through the fear hierarchy and did not move on without the children’s consent.” 1 For example you might throw dice and take the number of steps rolled toward the chair. Or you could advance stuffed friends along with your son to see who might be brave enough to step forward.

Continue small steps as your child consents. With each small step, your child will learn to trust working with you on his fear (because you are not pushing but allowing him to set the pace). You will offer practice in facing his fear through these small steps, inching closer to the darkness until he is ready to turn out the lights altogether.

Practice in varied settings. Even if your child has been able to face turning out the lights and has come through it triumphantly, he will better internalize the lesson if you practice in a few settings. So go to your living room, ask his readiness and perhaps take a smaller step first in the new setting by turning out one light in the room.

Return to safety. If you have struggles along the way, you can always return to safety. Turn on the lights. Talk more about safety issues such as checking to see if all of the doors are locked so no strangers could possibly get in your home. Help your child feel comfortable at each stage of the process.

Astonishingly, these researchers at Virginia Tech had a 60% rate of extinguishing debilitating phobias in merely a three-hour session doing what I’ve listed above. They claimed their success rate would increase to 90% if parents did follow up practice over time and in various settings with their child. If this method worked for serious phobias, then a process of modeling, defining, educating, taking small steps, practicing in a variety of settings and following a child’s pace can work for you and your child’s fears. Imagine the courage he will feel when he no longer gets tummy aches and sweaty palms when you turn out the light. Most importantly, the experience he has had in conquering his fears will equip him to face larger challenges down the road.

Debunking the “Toughening Up” Myth

First and foremost, we want our children to survive and thrive in what sometimes may seem like a cruel world. It is a common belief that we must toughen up our kids for what they must face in life. Sometimes that belief translates into pushing kids beyond their coping capacity. We may force them into petting a dog they are terrified of approaching because it is our belief that they have to face their problem. Indeed it does make children strong for them to face their fears but the only way they can truly conquer them is on their own terms. No amount of pushing, forcing, punishing or yelling on our part is going to help. In fact, it will do the opposite. Children may squash their fears so that they are not pushed by a parent anymore or don’t have to disappoint them again. But as a result, they might not only increase their fear but also become shameful, angry and hurt in the process. That shame will contribute to an inability to take healthy risks which directly impacts their ability to achieve success. “Toughening up” in its many forms, whether it involves ignoring a child’s upset feelings or pushing them into his fears, places a child in crisis. And that feeling of crisis results in a fight or flight mental state. The child may become more defensive and trust you less. This method works in opposition to its intended goal.

One of the greatest challenges we face as parents is to watch our children suffering whether its from fear or pain. We want to fix it – and quick. But because fears are about how an individual perceives the unknown, it is utterly personal. The only way for a child or any person to move through a fear and come out with confidence and bravery is for that individual to control how he faces the fear. You can play a critical role by facilitating that process and in turn, preparing a child for life’s challenges. Happy Halloween! May you conquer your own fears and have patience as your child bravely works to conquer his own.

Why Smart Kids Worry; And What Parent Can Do to Help by Allison Edwards, LPC

The Highly Sensitive Child; Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D.

Dingfelder, Sadie F. Fighting Children’s Fears, Fast. American Psychological Association. July/August 2005, Vol. 36, No. 7.



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