Deck the Halls with Mental Well-Being

Fa, La, La, La, La…

This is an oldie but goodie (and frankly I needed it today!).

My son burst into tears as his friends waited at our door to play. He had fallen up our stairs and gashed his shin on the metal rims of the hall steps. I plopped on the floor to comfort him and as he turned to me, he said, “Mom, you told me to hurry.” Why? Why did he need to hurry? In my mind, I had a million tasks to accomplish including facilitating his tasks – homework, dinner, and holiday preparations. I had thought it could be good for him to get outside and run around with his pals for a short time. But I was pressuring him to hurry up and why? Quick, go examine bugs under the rocks?! As he ran out and the door shut, I noticed the quiet in our house and really stopped for the first time that day. What was I doing?

With the holiday season upon us – no matter what holiday you are celebrating – you may be feeling similarly – fully in the throes of too much to do with too little time. And the knot in your tummy may be growing as mine has been. In a time when I want to produce joy for my family, I realize I am a lesser version of what I can be because of stress. I know I will get to this stressed- out place well before it happens. And somehow I feel powerless to stop it. There’s still work to get accomplished before taking time off. There’s still the same amount of presents to buy for others (and actually, more as E’s friends and connections grow). There’s still cookies to bake, decorations to hang and packages to send.

And so I write this post to help myself as much as you, dear reader, think about and deal with the situation we find ourselves in. In the very midst of the chaos, how can we keep our calm center? And how can we recall that our state of mind and being will impact the way others experience our celebrations together? Our stress will show. And whether we like or not, it’s contagious. It spreads like a virus and others get snappy and agitated – not conducive attitudes for cooperation more less jubilation.

Whether you celebrate Hannukah, Christmas or Kwanzaa, all of the major holidays this season celebrate light in the darkness. And that’s the gift I most want to give my family and the one I think they will appreciate beyond the “stuff.” Yes, I’ll bring gifts. But more importantly, I am setting an intention to prepare myself for the experience of celebrating with family and friends. I plan to deck our halls with a feeling of peace and joy and appreciation for our abundance. And I know that has to begin with me. Here are a few things I plan to do that, maybe, you’ll consider for yourself.

Engage in deep breathing each day. I was in the habit of taking ten deep breaths before I launched into work each morning but my routine fell away as the season crowded my moments. So I plan to return to this practice to set a tone for my day.

Get exercise and fresh air. The routine of breathing outside and getting to the gym could easily also fall away with the season. But I know these are the activities that keep me centered, focused and feeling resilient. So I plan to make special arrangements while my son is home over the extended break so that I am sure to keep my routines sacred for the benefit of my whole family.

Mentally prepare before events. My sparkling outfit is not as important as the demeanor, the tone or the mood I bring to any celebration. Whether it’s in my own home, at a friend’s house or in a restaurant, the way I engage with others matters significantly. It can mean the difference between really connecting or “phoning it in” without true interchange. There may be individuals that you celebrate with only one time a year. This is that moment, that unique opportunity to bring your focused attention to them. I will set my own intention to focus on the present before I go so that when I arrive, I am ready to fully engage with whoever comes my way. I’ll stop and take a pause before leaving the house or answering the doorbell. This small step can have a ripple effect on my own and my family’s experience of the holidays. I know this will set an example and tone for my child. I notice when I’m stressed, he’s stressed. But when I’m calm and engaging with others, he does the same.

Set goals for connection. When you go to a party, you likely anticipate who you’ll see. Sometimes that anticipation creates anxiety if you’ve had challenges with individuals in the past or if those individuals view you in ways that you do not view yourself. Those interactions can be opportunities for your own growth in social and emotional competence. Instead of dreading those who challenge you, ask yourself three important questions.

  • What can I learn from this individual who challenges me?
  • How can I begin to understand her perspective and feel compassion for her?
  • How do I want to show up in that conversation?

I know that if I model curiosity and compassion, that will have a direct impact on how my child interacts with others. I want to leave a party feeling like I know more about the individuals that I met than I did when walking into the room. And what if I also learned more about myself by attempting to relinquish worries about what I’m saying and what messages I’m communicating about my life but focus on learning about others, finding common ground and sharing my ability to be empathetic and show care?

Say “no” when it’s too much. Instead of cramming each activity into every space of time in the few weeks left in the year, consider what might be too much. Have you accounted for quiet rest time? Have you considered how the pace will impact family members? We rarely plan our schedules for our mental well-being but particularly in this season of over-commitment, it can be worth asking, “What do we really want or need to do?” “When can we get in rest time?” and “Are there plans we need to say “no” to?

Express gratitude daily. The holiday season is a time of high contrasts – tremendous sorrow missing loved ones that have passed on or reflecting upon our tough circumstances and then, also feeling the magic, imagination and sheer bliss of children’s experience of the traditions surrounding the holidays. It’s an emotional time. So it requires us to become more planful about our big emotions. One way to balance out our adult angst is to express gratitude with our children daily. Whether you mention your gratitude over breakfast, during the ride home from school or at bedtime, kids will benefit by actively appreciating all that they have. And you will benefit by recognizing the goodness in your life. It will assist you as you set a tone with your family.

Carving out time and space for your mental well-being may seem like another “to do” to add to the list. But consider the fact that paying attention to the tone of your family and setting an example will give you energy and motivation as you gently experience your days. The gift of your attention certainly is one of the most important for your children and indeed, your whole family. Consider how you might deck your halls with psychological well-being this season! Happy holidays!


Originally published on December 16, 2016.

On NBC Parent Toolkit… “Make Your Hopes for Your Kids Reality with Social and Emotional Skills”

Research partners, Shannon Wanless, Associate Director of Research in the Office of Child Development at the University of Pittsburgh and Confident Parents, Confident Kids’ Author Jennifer Miller share findings from their latest study on the direct alignment between our hopes for our children and our parenting with social and emotional skills on NBC’s Parent Toolkit. It begins…

My four-year-old son became hysterical kicking and screaming in the store’s checkout line when I said “no” to buying candy. What was I supposed to do when we were in the middle of a crowded public place and my child was having a major meltdown?

My sons were arguing and just wouldn’t stop. They were mean to one another and nothing I did seemed to help. Eventually, I led each to bed to end it. But how could I have helped them resolve their problem and stop their meanness to one another?

My twelve-year-old lied to me and when I confronted him with it, he didn’t seem to understand why lying was wrong. He thought all his friends did it and it was perfectly fine. How could I help him understand the severity of what he’d done?

For all parents, these situations are familiar and challenging. Those of us who work in child development aren’t immune to these situations either. We are all faced with daily dilemmas where we have to consider how to stop an undesirable behavior, teach an important life lesson, and be responsive to our kids’ changes. We know what we hope our children will be and become, but in those daily tough moments, it’s difficult to figure out what we can do to achieve those hopes. Our angry child isn’t showing kindness or confidence in that moment. But can our reactions help him manage the emotions he is struggling with and move him any closer to those qualities we hope for?

Recently, my colleagues and I surveyed nearly one hundred educators, who also happened to be parents, about their own parenting experiences. We wanted to see if their hopes for their children and their hopes for themselves could match up with skills that can be built through small, teachable moments. Parents shared that they wanted to raise children who were happy and fulfilled, confident, empathetic, kind, loving and responsible. Similarly, when we asked parents what they wanted to be like as parents, they said they wanted to be happy, patient, encouraging, loving, and kind. The good news? All of these traits can be built through practicing certain skills. READ FULL ARTICLE.

To learn more about the research behind this article, check out the Confident Parents, Confident Kids’ Research page.

Special thanks to the third co-investigator on this project, Roger Weissberg!

Featured In Youth Connections Magazine… “A Parent’s Greatest Gift: Self-Management”

Check out the following feature article in “Youth Connections” magazine by Confident Parents, Confident Kids’ author, Jennifer Miller. This was written in partnership with Montana State University’s Center for Health and Safety Culture, one part of a multi-media campaign launching this January 2019 entitled Parenting Montana focused on parenting with social and emotional learning. Here’s how it begins…

“My teacher wants you to sign my test,” my son said as he placed a paper quickly on the table nowhere near where I was sitting and walked out of the room. My curiosity rose. Clearly, he was not eager to show it to me. Glancing at the content, it was immediately recognizable – the science test for which he had genuinely studied. But it appeared as is if he hadn’t cracked his book. How was this possible?

I asked what happened. And I began to understand when he said: “Mom, it was ‘bring-your-pet-to-school’ day.” My son is allergic to all animals furry. It’s an intense allergy that often ushers in a two-week sickness with wheezing and misery. Yet, and perhaps not surprisingly, there’s nothing my son loves more than animals. So, on “bring-your-pet-to-school” day, it’s a painful reminder of his heartache over not having a dog or a cat. He came home that day and ran straight to his room – upset. It’s no wonder that a test he was well prepared to take resulted in failure. He couldn’t focus. The acute sadness about his unique position among his classmates – that he remained pet-less – took over his ability to think.

The ability to manage our most intense emotions can challenge even the most studious child making it impossible to focus. Children are faced with this issue not only in the midst of an important test but even on the playground when they are stopped in their tracks unable to respond after a classmate taunts them with cruel words like “No one likes you!” Or, at home, our child may run away from you, shut her door, and refuse to come out when we need her to attend a family-obligated event.

This inability to focus on a test, to respond to a bully on the playground, or to constructively communicate about an undesirable event is evidence of what is happening in a child’s brain – indeed anyone’s brain – when they are highly emotional. Read the full article here which includes simple strategies for parents to help build the skill of self-management in children at various ages and stages. It just may be a parent’s greatest gift.



What Holidays Are Celebrated Around the World?

Expand your Children’s Social Awareness by Learning More Together

This post has become an annual favorite! Because of the numerous holidays celebrated through the fall and winter months, it is an ideal time to discuss how people celebrate around the world – both the uniqueness of traditions and also the many commonalities. When doing the research, I was struck by the number of similar themes and symbols for the following world holidays. Most notably, the major holidays celebrate light in the darkness, show gratitude for food, family, and life and pause for reflection or prayer. I was so enriched by learning about the beautiful traditions of celebrations around the world. I hope you will take a moment to share these with your family. Happy holidays!

Cultural or Religious Origin: Judaism
Purpose: To celebrate a miracle that one day’s worth of oil lasted for eight days in the temple.
Symbols/Practices: For eight days, Jews light a special candleholder called a menorah.
Traditions: On Hanukkah, many Jews also eat special potato pancakes called latkes, sing songs, and spin a top called a dreidel to win chocolate coins, nuts or raisins. Families also give one gift each of the eight days. Learn more:

Cultural or Religious Origin: African-American
Purpose: Started in the United States to celebrate African heritage for seven days based on African harvest festivals and focused on seven African principles including family life and unity. The name means “first fruits” in Swahili.
Symbols/Practices: Participants wear ceremonial clothing and decorate with fruits and vegetables.
Traditions: They light a candleholder called a kinara and exchange gifts. Learn more:

Chinese New Year
Cultural or Religious Origin: China
Purpose: Celebrate the new year.
Symbols/Practices: Silk dragon in a grand parade is a symbol of strength. According to legend, the dragon hibernates most of the year, so people throw firecrackers to keep the dragon awake. Each new year is symbolized by a Zodiacal animal that predicts the characteristics of that year. 2016 is the year of the monkey and 2017 will be the year of the rooster.
Traditions: Many Chinese children dress in new clothes. People carry lanterns and join in a huge parade led by a silk dragon. People take time off of work for seven days and celebrate the feast with family. Learn more:

Cultural or Religious Origins: Hindu, India
Purpose: The festival of lights honors Lakshmi, India’s goddess of prosperity. It celebrates the inner light that protects all from spiritual darkness.
Symbols/Practices: Millions of lighted clay saucers with oil and a cotton wick are placed near houses and along roads at night.
Traditions: Women float these saucers in the sacred Ganges River, hoping the saucers will reach the other side still lit. Farmers dress up their cows with decorations and treat them with respect. The farmers show their thanks to the cows for helping the farmers earn a living. Learn more:

La Posada
Cultural or Religious Origins: Mexico and parts of Central America, Christian
Purpose: Reenacts the journey Joseph and Mary took to find shelter to give birth to their son, Jesus. It is a festival of acceptance asking, “Who will receive the child?”
Symbols/Practices: Candles are lit, songs are sung, prayer are offered and, actors dress as Mary and Joseph.
Traditions: People celebrate through song and prayer doing musical re-enactments of the journey. In Mexico and many parts of Central America, people celebrate La Posada in church during the nine days before Christmas. It is a reenactment of the journey Joseph and Mary took to find shelter before the birth of their child, Jesus. Learn more:

Boxing Day
Cultural or Religious Origins: United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Holland
Purpose: To share gratitude and give to the poor.
Symbols/Practices: Alms boxes are placed in churches to collect donations for the poor.
Traditions: Servants were given the day off as a holiday. Charitable works are performed. And now major sporting events take place. Learn more:

Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr
Cultural or Religious Origin: Islam, Muslim
Purpose: An entire month is spent re-focusing on Allah (God) and participating in self-sacrifice to cleanse the spirit.
Symbols/Practices: The crescent moon and a star are shown to indicate a month of crescent moons in the night sky. Participants pray daily in mosques. On Eid al-Fitr, they break the fast by dressing in their finest clothing, decorating homes with lights and decorations and giving treats to kids.
Traditions: Not only do celebrants abstain from food, drink, smoke, sexual activity and immoral behavior during the days of Ramadan, they also work to purify their lives by forgiving others and behaving and thinking in positive, ethical ways. They break their fast each day by eating with family and friends after sunset. Breaking the fast on Eid al-Fitr involves making contributions to the poor and gratefulness.

Cultural or Religious Origin: Japan
Purpose: This is the Japanese New Year.
Symbols/Practices: Families thoroughly their clean houses to purify it.
Traditions: People remove any clutter and clean their homes to purify them for the new year. They have a giant feast with traditional foods. There’s a national talent competition that families watch until midnight. Bells ring at midnight symbolizing the many forms of human suffering and people go to pray at Shinto shrines.

St. Lucia Day
Cultural or Religious Origin: Sweden
Purpose: To honor a third-century saint who was known as a “bearer of light” through dark Swedish winters.
Symbols/Practices: With a wreath of burning candles worn on their heads, girls dress as Lucia brides in long white gowns with red sashes.
Traditions: The Lucia brides wake up their families by singing songs and bringing them coffee and twisted saffron buns called “Lucia cats.”


Cultural or Religious Origin: Christianity and Secular
Purpose: To celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, believed by Christians to be the son of God. For the non-religious, the purpose is to give gifts, receive gifts from Santa Claus and celebrate with loved ones.
Symbols/Practices: Santa Claus was originally named after St. Nicolas, a bishop in Turkey, who was a giver of gifts to children. The evergreen tree was originally a German tradition believed to ward off evil spirits. The star is the guiding light that led to the animal manger where the baby was born.
Traditions: Presents are delivered in secret by Santa Claus on Christmas Eve while families are sleeping. Families and friends exchange gifts. Learn more:

Learn more about these beautiful and meaning-filled world holidays with your children and open their eyes to different beliefs and ways of recognizing the season and passages of time. Here are a couple of children’s books to take the next step.




Children Just Like Me – Celebrations by Anabel Kindersley – Contains beautiful photographs along with descriptions of traditions from numerous world holidays.





Kids Around the World Celebrate! The Best Feasts and Festivals from Many Lands by Lynda Jones – An illustrated guide to many different celebrations around the world.



Other Related Articles:

How Can Giving Become More Meaningful? 

How Can You Guide Your Kids to Become Holiday Helpers?

Do Your Kids Get Upset When Leaving Parties? Try the Snowball Goodbye.

Have You Tried Hot Chocolate Breathing? Teach Your Children about Deep Breathing during this Busy Season.

Video Short: Creating an Enjoyable Family Dinner.


Essential Conversations to Prepare Children for Life

By Guest Author, Jenny Woo

“What are the most life-defining pieces of wisdom and memories that I could leave with my children and be in peace knowing that I have prepared them for life?” I’ve been pondering over this question nonstop. With the sudden passing of yet another friend, I felt the looming urgency to “figure it out” for my twins and tween.

If only life decisions consisted of a finite set of multiple choices. And with such a thing as the right answer!

As parents and teachers, we strive to celebrate the unique identities of our children, yet their diverse needs also challenge us. I have three incredibly different children. Different personalities, preferences, and trajectories. My husband and I have learned to adjust our language and expectations based on the needs and developmental stages of each of our children. At the same time, the educator in me wondered: what are the common denominators of life’s core wisdom that will prepare all children for life? How and where would they get this bottled-up essence of life?

My research in early childhood at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and my former experience coaching thousands of adults in companies and schools led me to advocate for the importance of social and emotional development. Whether it’s coaching a high-potential Vice President of a Fortune 500 company or developing a recent college graduate, I noticed that the most detrimental barriers that prevented them from realizing their potentials were their lack of self-awareness, self-management, and relationship skills. I am not alone. Eight in ten employers identify social and emotional skills as the most important to success yet also the hardest skills to find.1

Many of the seemingly “well-put-together” executives and parents I had coached looked perfect and well-rounded on paper. They were in a branded career, went to an excellent university, and had several extracurricular talents. Yet, as the executive educator, Marshall Goldsmith had famously coined: “what got you here won’t get you there.”2 I saw some of the best and brightest struggle to get promoted to the big role at work or to reinvent themselves in life. It wasn’t that they lacked knowledge or capabilities. It was that their emotions and egos got in the way.

Academic success does not equate to life success. In the real world, when do we ever only work with people our age (aka grade level) and sorted ourselves by IQ (aka class level)? To be prepared for life, we need a much broader understanding of our internal (self-awareness) and external worlds (social-awareness).

Here are three practices that we, as educators and parents, could do today that will not only prepare our children for life but for ourselves too.

Embrace failure

What does the little voice in your head say when you make a mistake? How do you respond when your child comes home with a bad grade on a test? Research shows that how parents perceive and react to failure predicted their children’s view of failure.3 Imagine, even if you had the best intention of supporting your child’s growth, when you regularly blow up when your child makes a mistake or mishap, you could be inadvertently giving off the signal that mistakes are the end of the world. In the workplace, I’ve seen clients who, despite ample resources and support, struggled to make the next career leap because their fear of failure stood in their ways — imposing self-saboteurs — that were mentally and at times, physically debilitating.

Ask for Help

All too often, I see children fail a class or employees fired at work because they remained silent for too long, either because they were too embarrassed to ask for help or they didn’t know that asking for help was an option. People who “made it” in life are more often than not portrayed as those who overcame the adversities of life through sheer grit. As a result, asking for help can be seen as a sign of weakness. In reality, it’s about recognizing your strengths and needs, and in response, utilizing available resources accordingly. Practice asking for help in front of your child. Show your child that asking for help is a responsible thing to do, just like giving help to others when you can.

Share Power

Allow others, especially your child, to have a seat at the table, literally and figuratively. Value the voice and opinions of your child. Parents and children fight when there is a perceived imbalance of power dominance, in which case, feelings are hurt and harsh words are exchanged. Sharing power starts with mutual respect. Instead of starting from a place of positional differences, start from a place of shared appreciation for each other’s dignities.

Want help with more actionable conversations that prepare children (and adults) for life?

Check out 2018 Parents’ Choice Award winner, 52 Essential Conversations, a social and emotional skills building game available on Amazon ( and Mind Brain Parenting ( created by Jenny Woo.


1Cunningham, W., & Villasenor, P. (2016). Employer voices, employer demands, and implications for public skills: Development policy connecting the labor and education sectors. Washington, DC: World Bank Group.

2Goldsmith, M., Reiter, M., Bunn, C., & Clester, S. (2011). What got you here won’t get you there (1st ed.). Mundelein, IL: Writers of the Round Table Press/Round Table Comics.

3Haimovitz, K., & Dweck, C. (n.d.). Parents’ Views of Failure Predict Children’s Fixed and Growth Intelligence Mind-Sets. Psychological Science27(6), 859–869.

About the Author:

Jenny Woo is a Harvard-trained educator, mom of 3, and founder of Mind Brain Parenting. She has dedicated her career to developing small and big people, holding roles such as parent coach, cognitive neuroscience researcher, school administrator, university lecturer, HR manager, and human capital consultant. Her social-emotional learning game, 52 Essential Conversations was featured by Harvard University and won the 2018 Parents’ Choice Award.

CPCK Note:

What an absolute treat to learn from the wisdom of Jenny Woo! She integrates her professional knowledge of children’s social and emotional development with her role as a Mom seamlessly. My family played the 52 Essential Conversations Card Game and we laughed together and cried together (truly!). It inspired deep and meaningful conversations and I know we will return to it time and again. This goes on my giving list this holiday season!

Check out the Nationwide Children’s PediaCast…

Hope you’ll give a listen to the Nationwide Children’s Hospital PediaCast, an award-winning podcast for parents and families to learn about children’s healthy development hosted by Pediatrician Mike Patrick, MD. Confident Parents, Confident Kids’ author, Jennifer Miller joins Christine Cully, Editor-In-Chief of Highlights Magazine to discuss with Dr. Mike what a representative sample of U.S. kids told Highlights for Children in their State of the Kid survey. We discuss multiple takeaways for parents and educators from what kids told us about their influencers, their worries, what they like about themselves, and how they feel when they see injustice.

Listen to Influencers and Worries…According to Kids! Pediacast 419 and check out this high-quality podcast! Thank you, Highlights and Dr. Mike for this opportunity!

Bringing Gratitude to Thanksgiving

“I have amazing friends
,” “I am grateful for our home and our community,” and “Grateful for E and Dad’s day in nature.” These were some of my son’s reflections that showed up in our Thanksgiving tree where we write notes on each day of the month of November to share what we are grateful for as a family. We have been writing these notes in November since E was in preschool and each year, we get excited to open the past year’s gratitude notes to learn what we were thinking this time last year.

Noticing, I recently learned, is a critical step, but only one in completing a full circle experience of gratitude. Gratitude scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Angela Hussong and her colleagues teach that gratitude is a process of noticing, thinking (or reflecting), feeling, and then doing – or taking action. 

As I talk to other parents about their hopes for their family, they want to raise kids who are appreciative of their lives and their hard work. So we know it’s a parenting priority. But if that weren’t enough, there are numerous benefits to encouraging gratitude in family life. In fact, research studies show that a regular sense of gratitude contributes to a person’s health and well-being including their happiness, their ability to sleep at night, and their sense of self-worth. In addition, gratitude nourishes our relationships improving partnerships and friendships and lowering stress even in our toughest times. We gain a sense of optimism and hope that impacts how we interact with others.

In this season of thanking and giving, it may just be the opportune time to reflect on your own gratitude practices. After all, these do not only impact you but your entire family. Why not use this Thanksgiving as an opportunity to begin to notice, think, feel, and do gratefulness in your family life? In addition to the green bean casserole or the rolls, this is what I plan to bring my family’s Thanksgiving gathering.

Here are some simple ideas for each of the areas of noticing, thinking, feeling and doing. Pick one that might feel right and good. Try it out and see if you might fall in love with the practice along with your family members so that you continue it well beyond the holidays.


Appreciative Travel – Many will be hitting the road or the friendly skies this holiday season to visit family and friends who live elsewhere. Instead of plugging into media and tuning out each other, why not use some of that time to notice and reflect on the goodness of this past year? You might ask, “What were some of the highlight moments for our family?” “When do you recall laughing together?” “What was a pleasant surprise?” or “In what moments did you feel most grateful?

Food Origins – Have you ever considered all of the individuals that were involved in getting the food on your table from the farm to you? What if you introduced that reflection at your Thanksgiving table this year. How many individuals can you notice, think about and name who were involved in and responsible for growing the green beans, packaging them up, shipping them to your local store, displaying them, and selling them to you? Trace the origins of one of your favorite foods and appreciate the people who worked hard to contribute to your bounty.

Everyday Goodness – It’s easy and typical to take our day-to-day experiences, interactions, and contributions to our household for granted. Those small actions are the way we get through our days. But what if we began to notice those little ways that each family member adds goodness to our lives? Did your son take his dishes to the sink without prompting? Did your partner rake the leaves while you were out? What if you began to start the phrase “I notice…” and added in those small acts of goodness. Family members might feel truly appreciated and I’ll bet you’ll feel good too! 


Appreciative Mindset – As we enter larger family or friend gatherings, we might bring worries about judgments of our own lives or be tempted to dread those little aspects of others that bother us. But we don’t have to enter in this way. What if you did an inventory of the people who will be around your family table and pointed out each of their best, more generous and contributing qualities? This is another reflection you could do during the time you are traveling or getting ready. Family members are likely to feel your sense of appreciation for them as you sit with them and focus on their best. This can be an outstanding model of preparing your mindset for success for your children.

Acceptance Mindset – But of course, there are always those aspects of family or friend gatherings that you might anticipate will be stressful or undesirable. Perhaps you know you will be judged by your appearance, by your parenting style, or your lack of progress at work? Instead of dreading those interactions, when those thoughts arise, decide to accept where others will be – their thoughts, feelings, and conversations realizing you always have a choice to politely move on, change the subject, or move away. This thought can help you feel empowered as you know you can face any challenge by setting healthy boundaries for yourself and your children in kind ways and accepting where others are as they are.


Pitch-In – Yes, contributing your time, energy and sweat equity to any endeavor will enhance your appreciation for it. So plan to pitch in. Whether it’s helping to entertain the kids, caring for a family baby, doing the dishes, or divvying up leftovers, there are more than enough jobs to go around your holiday celebration.

Serve – Gratitude can best be shown and experienced by connecting with and contributing to others’ lives. So look around at the needs in your neighborhood, school, and community this season. How can you involve your family in contributing to others’ lives? This question more than any wrapped presents you plan to give will offer your children the authentic experience of “doing,” showing, and enacting gratitude.

As for me, I need to express my gratitude to you, dear reader, confident parent, lifelong learner and contributor to this dialogue. Our learning community enriches my family life and my own sense of well-being every day and for that, I am so grateful for six years of community with you! 

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours for those who celebrate it! And for those outside of the U.S., your participation in this community is vital and continues to enrich our perspectives. I am grateful for you! 



Hussong, Andrea (2018). Raising Grateful Children. Retrieved from on November 21, 2018.

Hussong, A.M., Langley, H.A., Coffman, J.L., Halberstadt, A.G., & Costanzo, P.R. (2018). Parent socialization of children’s gratitude. In J. Tudge and L. Freitas (Eds.), Developing Gratitude, (pp. 199-219). Cambridge University Press.

Helping Children Find Their Voices – Tips for Teachers and Tips for Parents

It was so heartening to learn from the 2,000 children, ages 6-12, who were questioned through the Highlights State of the Kid survey. They said they feel like parents and teachers really listen to them and care about what they have to say. But how do we help our children use that voice in healthy and giving ways?

Here are three simple ideas for parents…

  1. Give your children something to care about.

Kids said they want to reach out and help others when they see pain and suffering. Give them the opportunity! Service starts at home so be sure that your children are contributing to your household in developmentally appropriate ways. Then, in addition, notice what issue they are concerned about or they mention needs help. Follow up and serve together. How can your family serve the needs of a shut-in neighbor or a homeless community member? Take small steps together and build empathy by reflecting on the interaction and the thoughts, feelings, and experiences that occurred because of it.

For tips on caring for your household as a family team, check out Involving Our Kids in Household Responsibilities — At Each Age and Stage.

For tips on how to take simple actions to serve your community as a family, check out Citizen Kid or How Do We Cultivate Compassion in our Kids?

2. Start each day with a loving connection. 

This is the time of year when schedules get chaotic. We can fall into the trap of rushing our children to get ready and flying out of the house in the morning. It only takes mere minutes to focus on your child, to notice what he/she is feeling, and to share a hug or loving connection. If you do, you can leave each other knowing that you’ve done your best to prepare your child’s mind for a successful day of learning at school. And by the way, you’ll also set yourself up with a grateful mindset for your work day to come! 

Want to create a smooth morning routine that’s collaborative? Check out this video short! 

Why are hugs so important for our kids each day? Check out the research connection. Deepening Parent-Child Relationships through Loving Touch

3. Embrace what your child loves.

How do you follow your child’s curiosity? How do you follow their passions – particularly when you don’t necessarily share those passions? Listening and noticing is an important place to begin! My partner and I don’t know the first thing about fishing but when my son expressed a genuine interest, we discovered a summer camp and also, set up time throughout the year with his Grandfather to nurture that passion. Take steps into that unknown passion and you and your family can learn together by pursuing your child’s desires. 

For more, check out this article on time spent out of school entitled The Extras.

And for teachers, Confident Parents, Confident Kids’ partnered with Highlights to create this printable fact sheet: 3 Research-based Strategies for Helping your Students Find Their Voice.

Parents’ Hopes for Confident, Happy Kids are Realized through Social and Emotional Skills

New Research Supports the Essential Connections between Parenting and Social and Emotional Learning

“What are your hopes for your child?” we asked nearly one hundred parents who also happen to work in the field of social and emotional learning in schools. They responded similarly to what we’ve heard from parents around the country and indeed, the globe. Parents agree: they hope their children will be confident, empathetic, kind, happy, responsible, independent, honest and compassionate.

We also asked those same parents, “What are your hopes for yourself as a parent?” Parents said they wanted to be patient and understanding, loving and
encouraging, nurturing, fun, and supportive.

Interestingly, as we examined parents’ hopes for their children and for themselves and looked at how those ideals might relate to social and emotional skills, there was a direct alignment. We wondered – since there is a lot known by educators on how to develop children’s skills for success, could we use that broad knowledge base to translate it into the informal messy world of our family lives?

Our new research makes clear the essential connections between parenting and social and emotional learning and shows how that focus leads to parenting with competence and parenting for competence. Through our study, we learned:

  • Though language differs, parents’ hopes for children like confidence and happiness directly align with social and emotional skills, the very ones that experts and educators’ study and work hard to integrate into schools.  (See illustration above and table below.)
  • Parents also require social and emotional skills. Though not the same, parents shared similar hopes for their own roles as parents. The definitions of parents’ hopes for their own parenting map directly on to the skills educators build in teachers. For example, acting with compassion can relate directly to building responsible decision-making skills. Raising a child who is loving and can translate into parents’ developing strong relationship skills. 
  • The disparities in terminology between researchers/educators and parents could be creating unnecessary barriers for advancing knowledge and skills in parenting. What if educators talked to parents about how they are practically working on building their child’s confidence and competence, for example? Teachers, researchers, educational leaders, and others are working hard to figure out the best strategies to integrate social and emotional development in the academic curriculum. Educators’ jobs may ease if they use parent terminology, engage in dialogue on promoting children’s development,
    and share strategies to multiply their impact on the same children both care about.
  • Though parents can learn from educators who build children’s social and emotional skills, parents’ own culture and values are vital in helping inform educators. How can parents best share their social and cultural knowledge with schools?
  • Parents can learn from the extensive research and practice knowledge that has been built by educators on social and emotional learning in schools.
  • Parents are unique in that they must use responsible decision-making skills regularly to respond to their children’s changes with each age and stage and often, multiple ages within a household. 

Parents shared specific examples of challenging issues they faced from a three-year-old’s tantrums to dealing with a tween who lied, to a teenager struggling with her body weight and self-image. These challenges required parents to use social and emotional skills like self-management (patience, self-control), social awareness (empathy, understanding), and relationship skills (listening, coaching).

Simultaneously, these challenges offered a chance to build social and emotional skills in their children such as, self-awareness (identifying feelings, positive self-image), self-management (not harming self or others when angry), and responsible decision-making skills (how to repair relationship harm that’s been done through lying).

If you are a reader or follower of Confident Parents, Confident Kids, you’ve known this all along. Yet, it’s empowering to know and reinforce that there are simple, research-based ways we can all achieve our hopes and dreams with and for the children we love by focusing on nurturing their development.

More to Come!

In the coming year, we intend to bring this research to life with examples and illustrations to extend and deepen our learning together. So be sure you’ve followed the Confident Parents, Confident Kids’ site to stay posted on the latest!

Learn More

For more on this study, visit our permanent Confident Parents, Confident Kids’ research page and check out the Research Brief or the full journal article in The School Community Journal.


Jennifer Miller of Confident Parents, Confident Kids, Shannon B. Wanless, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Psychology in Education, Director of the Office of Child Development, School of Education, University of Pittsburgh, and Roger Weissberg, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, NoVo Foundation Endowed Chair in Social and Emotional Learning at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), Chief Knowledge Officer for the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning collaboratively investigated this question together.

* Very special thanks to Co-Investigators Shannon Wanless and Roger Weissberg, both confident parents and confident educators and researchers who believe in this mission and worked collaboratively on this project.

How Children May Perceive Loss and Death at Various Ages and Stages

And Ways We Can Support Them…

On The Day of the Dead – or Dia de los Muertos, it seems appropriate to think about children’s understanding of one of life’s greatest mysteries at their various ages and stages.

Vrrrwow… the sound of a lightsaber comes close and pokes me in the back. I have been play-killed by my son, sometimes seen as Darth Vader, on a typical morning in our house. “You’re dead,” he says. Yet he expects me to get up and engage in another duel with him. I realize my five-year-old is attempting to understand death and conquer his anxiety through his pretend play. We have had three family members die within the past three years. All of them knew E and allowed for special times to play and connect with him at family gatherings. Though I suspect E would be wielding a weapon regardless of these experiences, I see him trying to understand but not yet grasping what it means when a person dies. In the midst of my own emotion dealing with the loss of someone I love, I notice it becomes challenging to remember that children are processing the experience of losing someone in different ways than I am and may need supports related to their level of awareness in order to cope with the loss.

As parents, we face the challenge of explaining the death in the news to our children like the recent shooting in the Tree of Life Synagogue. When a death occurs in our own personal circle, there is typically a flurry of activities whether it’s preparing for the travel to a funeral, calling loved ones or making arrangements. In addition, you are experiencing your own complex of emotions that may include sadness, grief, guilt, fear, shock, confusion, anger, or disgust. Often there is not the time or the ability to consider what children might be thinking and feeling in the situation and how they may need to be supported.

Our instinct might be to protect our children. Book a sitter and don’t take them to the funeral might be our quick reaction as we are taking care of details. Reading, reflecting and considering how we might support our children when we are not in the midst of a crisis can better help formulate a plan so that when we face those difficult situations, we have already thought through how we might handle it. The Day of the Dead’s beautiful tradition of gathering the family together to remember and reflect on each relative who has passed on is one from which we can learn. If you happen to be in the middle of dealing with a painful loss, then this guide may provide helpful counsel to walk you through how you might consider supporting your children.

Though all ages – infant through adolescent will feel a sense of loss, children begin to gain an awareness of death between the ages of 3-5 depending upon their life events and exposure. Similar to any developmental milestone, awareness arises around the same age but differently for each child depending upon their maturation process. In the first stage of awareness, they do not have a sense of the permanence of death. They begin to understand that someone is gone and can also understand that the biological processes have stopped but there may be a sense that they will return eventually.

Children have a natural interest and curiosity about death which is accompanied by anxiety, worry, and confusion. Why? Part of being human is dealing with mortality and the fact that change is constant. Children begin working on that understanding very early in life. Children begin to grapple with separation when left with a babysitter or going to preschool but they also engage in games to assert their own control and work on understanding mortality. Parents play peek-a-boo with a baby convincing them that even though they disappear for a moment, they will return. Games like freeze tag and hide-and-seek allow children to “play dead” or practice separation in order to help deal with some of their confusion and worry in a fun way.[i]

The Children’s Grief Association provides a detailed, helpful guide to understanding death from a developmental perspective.[ii] The following are some of the developmental awareness milestones they note along with my own adaptations. It’s helpful to know and remember that a child of any age may show regressive behaviors when dealing with the death of a loved one.

Children’s Understanding of Death at Various Ages/Stages

0-2 Years Old

At birth to two years of age, babies can feel the emotions of their caregiver and sense the absence of a person but cannot understand that the person will not be returning. Because of an infant’s mirror neurons (the way our emotions are hard-wired), the feelings of loss will exist because of their experience of the feelings of those around them. But infants will not understand why they are feeling the way they are feeling. Additionally, they may feel concern for their own security when they see or sense that you are regularly upset.

3-5 Years Old

Between three and five years of age, children will begin to understand and become curious about death. They will still not understand the permanence of death and will expect that person or animal to return. Often children’s pretend play involves battles, illness or death, a healthy way for a child to face his fears. Because this is the magical thinking stage, children may imagine thoughts that are worse than the reality and fear that another will die. Fears may arise that have not come up prior including separation anxiety from care providers or they may begin to experience nightmares.

6-9 Years Old 

At six to nine years of age, children generally understand that death is final and they will not see the person again. A child of this age may be interested in understanding death caused by sickness or an accident. A child may think that death is punishment or that he is the cause of a person’s death in his life. The child may have anxiety about who will take care of him if the caretaker dies. Also, he will think of important milestones whether it’s holidays or a graduation without that person who has passed. Reactions could include acting as if the death did not happen, social withdrawal, concentration difficulties including declining grades, being overly protective of loved ones and/or acting out aggressively.

9-12 Years Old

Between the ages of nine and twelve, in addition to the reactions and understandings of a six to nine-year-old, children may have a heightened awareness of death and worry that others may die. Children at this age understand the finality and are forming their understanding of spiritual concepts. Children may worry that they were the cause of the death. They may be particularly curious and anxious about the physical aspects of an illness or death. They may seek to avoid experiences of or discussions of death or become generally anxious while a family is grieving a loss.

12-18 Years Old

Tweens and teenagers understand that everyone dies at some point. They may feel that their death and the death of others is impending. They may worry about being seen as weak if they show their feelings. They may have a sense of conflict between wanting to become independent and their need for dependence upon adults in their life. They may engage in higher risk or impulsive behavior as a coping strategy. In addition to mood swings, they may change their peer group, isolate themselves more, and/or not perform as well in school. They may be more aggressive and could change their eating patterns.

Keep in mind that even as adults, it is the rare individual who has processed the reality of their mortality nor do any of us truly understand the nature of death. For children of any age, the unknowns of death are scary. Count on emotions to become more intense, more sporadic and behavior to potentially become unpredictable to go with it. Your efforts toward understanding your child’s feelings will go a long way toward easing children’s burdens. Be ready and open to listen when your child wants to talk. The following ideas are ways to help children deal with their loss and help them feel supported during the death of a loved one whether it is a relative, friend or a pet.

Things You Might Say:

  • Help her to know what you think and feel about the death to make it an acceptable topic to discuss. You may say, “We are sad that we are not going to see Grandpa Jim again. We loved him and we will really miss him.”
  • Teach empathy for others who are sad. Help him with concrete actions he can take to help. “I see you are noticing that your older brother is sad. Why don’t you pat him and tell him you are sorry he is so unhappy.” Writing a letter, drawing a card or offering tissues are all small ways your child can take steps to help others in their grieving process and at the same time, help self-soothe.
  • Use feeling words as you reflect on what’s happening around you and how you are feeling. This helps normalize talk of emotions for a child (and for young children, it helps build their emotional vocabulary around loss). If this is a new experience, children will not know how to express their feelings so by articulatiing your own, you are helping them with their own self-understanding.
  • Listen and reflect back her feelings to her. “You sound sad about Uncle George. I understand. I feel that way too.”
  • Offer your perspectives on how a person lives on. Do you believe the value and qualities of the person live on through the lives they touched? What kind of legacy of character did your loved one leave? Be sure and share that. It can be another specific way a child can take action by loving music as Uncle George did, or by acting kindly to others as your dear babysitter did.
  • Especially with younger children, reassure them that others are healthy and stable and they will be taken care of. For example, death is not contagious like a cold. Others will not die because their friend died. If you can and feel it’s appropriate, tell the story of the person’s death to alleviate questions, worries or worst-case scenarios that might be imagined.
  • Do share your beliefs about death if they are positive (and don’t share if they are not positive and will make the child worry). Do you believe that the person’s spirit, soul or consciousness lives on? You might say “I believe that Grandpa Jim is in heaven – a good place – and though we cannot see him, we can talk to him whenever we want to and tell him we love him. I think he is listening even though he will not be able to talk to us in return.”
  • Talk about the circle of life whether its animals or plants and how the earth regenerates. Reassure that death is not a punishment but a part of the circle of life.
  • Reflect on gratitude. Death offers numerous opportunities to be grateful – grateful for the person we knew and loved and the memories we have, grateful for the values we learned from that person, grateful for our own good health, grateful for the gift of our family and friends and for the treasure of time to live the good life we have before us.

Things You Might Do:

  • Do maintain your usual routines as much as possible. Routines give children a sense of safety, comfort, and stability.
  • Do include your child in the mourning process. They do not have to participate in every step with you. But allow them to participate in some part of the grieving process with you so that they have the advantage of the supports that a ceremony or ritual brings. For children six or older, ask how they might want to remember the person or express sorrow for their passing and help them follow through on those ideas. Allow them some choices in how they mourn the loss.
  • Allow children to regress. If they are showing behaviors that you haven’t seen since toddler days, keep in mind that this is normal. Empathize and allow them comforts of their earlier developmental days – stuffed animals, blankets, toys.
  • Encourage children to play and have fun. If they choose to engage in play related to death, be sure and allow it such as a funeral for a doll. Pretend play can be a constructive way for a child to gain control over her anxiety.
  • Do make sure that the child has a photograph of the person or pet that is their own to keep. When they are sad and missing the person or pet, have them talk to the photograph.
  • Invest in some one-on-one connecting time with your child each day during this time even if brief. You don’t need to discuss death or you can if you like. But invest some extra showering of love and attention with your child since she will need the reassurance. It can also help with our own adult grieving process if we focus on empathizing with and helping others through their sadness.
  • Drawing, doing artwork and writing in a journal or diary can also be a good way to express feelings and deal with sadness and anxiety. But be certain to offer expression opportunities without pushing them. A child will gravitate toward an expression form that feels right to them.
  • Recognize that emotions will run high and not just when you are dealing with funeral proceedings. Mourning is a process for children as well as adults and the emotions and reactions to emotions associated can strike during inconvenient times and in unexpected moments. When a child is upset, be sure you first, pause and breathe to calm yourself. Don’t attempt to react immediately. Then, reflect back the feelings you see your child attempting to express and allow her the chance to calm down and soothe.
  • Tell a teacher and school counselor. If a close friend or relative has died, be sure and let your child’s teacher know. There can be significant changes in how your child behaves at school. You’ll help the teacher better empathize, understand, and offer caring support. In addition, a school counselor can offer valuable additional emotional support for your child during the school day.

Particularly if the person who died was important in the life of your child, create a ritual that will help your child deal with the passing and help with saying goodbye. Maybe you could plant a tree in the backyard with his grandpa’s or pet’s name on a plaque or simple label beneath it. Maybe you place a valuable object of that person’s in a box and bury it in your backyard. Or give the child an object that was the person’s to hold onto in a special place to remember him. Also if your child is dealing with the death in self-destructive or aggressive ways, you may want to seek the support of a family or child counselor to help your child deal with the many difficult emotions.

Most importantly, when your family is coping with the death of a loved one, realize that your children’s understanding and experience of it will be different from your own. Seek support so that while you are emotional, you are able to receive guidance on how to support your children through their own grieving process.

For more helpful information, check out the Children’s Grief Education Association’s site,

The following are some children’s books that can help guide a conversation.

Picture books:

Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing with Loss (Elf-Help Books for Kids) by Michaelene Mundy (Author) , R. W. Alley (Illustrator)

When Your Grandparent Dies: A Child’s Guide to Good Grief (Elf-Help Books for Kids) by Victoria Ryan (Author) , R. W. Alley (Illustrator)

Grandpa Loved  by Josephine Nobisso (Author) , Maureen Hyde (Illustrator)

This is a recollection of the special times a young boy spent with his grandfather in the city, in the forest with the animals, at the beach, and with his family. Although the boy misses his beloved grandpa’s presence he feels assured that his passing has brought him to a better place and he knows that his grandpa’s love will always be with him.

I Miss You: A First Look at Death (First Look at Books) by Pat Thomas (Author) , Leslie Harker (Illustrator)

Mending Peter’s Heart by Maureen Wittbold (Author) , David Anderson (Author) , Larry Salk (Illustrator)

Mending Peter’s Heart is a book designed to help a child come to terms with the emotional issues raised by loss. In this case, it is through the loss of a beloved pet, Mishka, that Peter has to face the realities of death and dying. A sensitive neighbor comes to Peter’s aid and places the loss of Mishka into a larger understanding and compassionate framework.

Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children, by Bryan Mellonie with Robert Ingpen. 1983. Bantam.

Using examples of humans, trees, and sea creatures, this book explains that all living things have a lifetime with a beginning, an ending, and living in between. This simply-worded book is a good resource for explaining the life cycle to young children.

There is a video on YouTube for Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children. It is read and illustrated and may be another helpful tool for using with children.

The Saddest Time, by Norma Simon. Illus. by Jacqueline Rogers. 1992. Albert Whitman and Company.

A child experiencing the loss of a loved one is the subject of these three gentle stories. While each presents a different scenario (death by illness, accident, or old age), all of the stories address children’s sad feelings and present different coping strategies.

Samantha Jane’s Missing Smile; A Story about Coping with the Loss of a Parent by Julie Kaplow and Donna Pincus

The PBS Kids site lists good chapter books for tweens and teens. Check it out.

Check out the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s recommendations on children’s books on death.

[i] Children’s and Adolescents’ Understanding of Death. From the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. Retrieved on 9-19-13.

[ii] Lyles, M. M. (2004). Navigating Children’s Grief: How to Help Following a Death. Children’s Grief Association.

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