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Struggling to Keep Anxiety Out of Your Parenting? 5 Tips to Help

parent-anxiety-by-jennifer-millerBy Guest Writer, Child Therapist and Author of Anxiety Sucks! A Teen’s Survival Guide, Natasha Daniels

I have a confession to make. I sliced my daughter’s grapes way past toddlerhood. I hovered over my fearless child, as she climbed the monkey bars. I never allowed popcorn or peanuts to touch my young child’s lips. She was never out of my eyesight, even for a minute. To put it simply, I was an anxious mom.

Being an anxious mom was easy for me. I had been an anxious child. I had been an anxious teen. It seemed only natural that I would be an anxious mom. But now I not only had myself to worry about. I had a small, bundle of love to protect.

Unfortunately, the deck was stacked against my little person. Anxiety was in her genes. It was looming in her DNA waiting to sprout. It was a genetic ticking time bomb.

Was my anxious parenting helping? Was I doing more harm than good by hovering, waiting for the next catastrophe to happen? Probably.

It occurred to me very early on that I needed to reign in my natural inclination to excessively warn her about risks and dangers. I needed to reign in my knee-jerk reaction to gasp when she fell or to hover too closely when she went beyond my own comfort zone.

I knew I couldn’t do anything to alter her genetic pre-disposition to anxiety. But I could control how she viewed her world. I had a choice. I could flood her with worries or arm her with skills. I chose the latter.

I know I am not alone. Many anxious parents struggle to keep their own anxieties in check while trying to give their children a better, worry-free life.

As a child therapist, I knew I had to do better. I knew I had to parent in a less anxious way. I actively worked on it. It took time. It took tons of restraint. But change started to happen. By the time my second and third child came into the world, they were fortunate to experience a much calmer, more relaxed mom.

If you are struggling with your anxiety, I feel your pain and I want to help. Here are some tips to prevent your anxiety from oozing into your parenting:

#1. Watch your reactions around your children.

When kids fall, they look to us to gauge the seriousness of the injury. We are their anchor. Our reactions set into motion their reactions. When we gasp or overreact with our own anxiety, their fears grow.

I have had to muffle many gasps in the last thirteen years. I have had to muster up the words “You’re okay,” all the while secretly making sure my statement was really true.

Be kind to yourself. It isn’t easy to always control those reactions. In time, though, it will become more natural.

#2. Be aware of your own irrational worries and do not verbalize them to your children.

Our comments and observations paint our children’s perceptions of the world. As anxious parents, we have to be aware of what we are saying out loud. Anxious young minds will file what we say and incorporate it into their own worries.

Try to filter what you say in front of your children. Ask yourself, is this a rational worry that I really want to instill in my child’s little mind?

Instead of saying things like, “Watch out! You’re going to fall!” You can say something like, “Hold the bars as you climb.”

How we say things can shape our child’s level of fear.

Early on I was guilty of saying things like, “Get that out of your mouth, you might choke!” And “Chew better! You might choke!” I realized (with the help of my rational husband) that I was putting my own choking anxiety in how I parented. I had to purposely bite my tongue when I had my reflexive worries. I had to calmly remove objects that were choking hazards from my children’s mouths. I reframed how I spoke with sentences like, “We don’t put small things in our mouths.”

#3. If you have to take precautions to ease your own anxiety, do so without your children knowing.

Anxiety is insidious and no matter how hard you work on your anxiety, it will pop up from time to time. If you need to take steps to reduce your level of anxiety, do it without highlighting it for your children.

Do you have to double and triple check your children at night as they sleep? Don’t tell your child things like, “Don’t worry, I check on you when you sleep to make sure you are okay.” Although this can seem like a reassuring thing to tell children, it inadvertently sends the message that they are potentially not safe when they sleep.

You want to hear a confession. I sometimes cut my seven-year old’s hot dog lengthwise. You know, that choking anxiety is such a beast! I don’t make it a big deal and my son doesn’t notice, but it makes me feel better.

#4. Have a non-anxious friend or partner tell you if your parenting worries are irrational.

It is really helpful if you have someone loving in your life that gets you and your anxiety. If you aren’t sure if you are overreacting, ask them. Sometimes getting a rational perspective can put your anxiety in check.

My husband has been a wonderful gauge for my parental anxiety. He has offered silent stares and quiet reassurance that lets me know when I might be going a bit overboard.

#5. Get help for your own anxiety.

Last, but definitely not least, get some help for your own anxiety. If your anxiety is out of control, your parenting will feel like it as well. Surround yourself with supportive people. Take care of yourself, so you can effectively take care of your children. Seek a therapist, life coach or helpful book to develop your own skills. When you help yourself, you help your children too.

There is a silver lining. You can’t have rainbows without rain. I know anxiety can be so frustrating and parenting is no cake walk either. Add the two together and you can feel completely overwhelmed. In my therapy practice, anxious parents shine. Not because of their anxiety, but because of their ability to care and love so deeply. They shine because of their deep empathy and their commitment to raise kind hearted, considerate children. They shine because the sensitivity that holds them back, also makes them some of the best parents on earth. And really, who wouldn’t want that?

How about you?

What do you do to keep your parental anxiety in check? Leave a comment and share with us. Do you know someone who struggles to parent with anxiety? Share this article with them.

Natasha Daniels

Natasha Daniels is a child therapist and author of Anxiety Sucks! A Teen Survival Guide and How to Parent Your Anxious Toddler. She is the creator of AnxiousToddlers.com and the parenting E-Course How to Teach Your Kids to Crush Anxiety. Her work has been featured on various sites including Huffington Post, Scary Mommy and The Mighty. She can be found on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest or making parenting videos for Curious.com.

 

Thank you so much, Natasha for sharing your expertise with our readers! For more, check out Natasha’s excellent book, Anxiety Sucks! A Teen’s Survival Guide. I highly recommend it. I learned so much. The writing style is perfect for teens! Check it out!

 

Natasha and I swapped articles this week so check out mine on her excellent Anxious Toddlers site entitled, Gratitude and Compassion; Powerful Home Remedies for Anxiety.

Let Your Love Flow

Happy Valentine’s Day! What a celebration of love! Don’t miss this awesome music video from my hometown Columbus, Ohio’s Harmony Project! (and my partner, Jason Miller, is one of the many in the choir!).

#GivekindnessColumbus

 

Deepening Parent-Child Relationships through Loving Touch

good-morning-hug-by-jennifer-millerWe tend to recognize the fact that babies need lots of loving touches. We hold them against our skin. We carry them next to our heart. We soothe them by gently smoothing their hair or massaging their tiny hands and feet. But as they grow, we may not consider how often we touch, how we touch, and the importance of touch.

In fact, there’s research that shows that positive touch can have powerful effects and those findings have significant implications for family life. Touch can deepen intimacy in any relationship creating safety and trust and a sense of well-being. It offers health benefits as well. A study found that those who hugged more were more resistant to colds and other stress-induced illnesses. 1 They found that the support felt particularly through caring touch helped boost immunity. Another study measured the brain activity of participants who were lying in an fMRI scanner anticipating a blast of loud white noise. Those who experienced it alone showed that the regions in the brain that are responsible for threat and stress were highly activated. But the participants who had their romantic partner alongside them stroking their arm didn’t show a threat or stress reaction at all. 2 As we assist our kids in dealing with the day-to-day stressors of life, touch needs to be on our radar as a strategy that works.

In previous generations, touch was limited since there were worries too much might spoil a child. My Mom recalls reading about the importance of touch and holding babies in the early 1970s when she was raising me while she feverishly read the only parenting guide available at that time, Dr. Spock’s “Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” that sold over 50 million copies. Her mother had been advised to keep her distance. And because my mother wasn’t held or touched much as a child, it felt unnatural to her as a newborn-w-mom-and-dad-by-jennifer-millerMom. Yet she knew it was important to me. So she made a daily hug a part of our routine. And I certainly benefitted from the love and closeness we maintain to this day.

Teachers have long used touch as a way to redirect students who are daydreaming or off task. A simple touch on the shoulder can be enough to help a wandering mind focus on the present. Parents can use this as well. Instead of correcting a misstep your child knows she’s not supposed to be engaged in, try a shoulder touch instead and see if you might communicate through touch alone.

Touch can also be a direct communicator of emotions. In fact, researchers tested this theory with an interesting experiment. They had a participant put his arm through a hole in a wall so that the other interacting participant could only see his arm. The one extending his arm was asked to communicate emotion only through his hand. And the other had to guess the emotion. Though there were gender differences (men interpreted men with greater accuracy and women interpreted women with greater accuracy), the guessed emotions for the same gender  were up to 78% accurate. 3 Can you tell what your partner or child is feeling just by touching his hand? It could be fun to try!

Kindergartners need hugs just as much as third graders, eighth graders, and those tall Juniors in high school do. Here are some ways to incorporate loving touch into your daily family routine for the benefit of all.

Create a routine time for hugs. Perhaps you already initiate hugs before you go off on your separate ways in the morning and before bed at night. Think about the routines throughout the day in which you see your family members – morning, after school, homework, sports practice, dinner, bedtime? Begin inserting a regular hug into one or more of those times and it will become an expected part of your routine. I counted up my routine hugs with my son and we hug in each of the major transitions of the day. I know that benefits my well-being just as much as his. Try it!

Find snuggle time. Instead of relegating yourselves to different chairs during movie watching time, why not snuggle together under one big blanket? Or snuggle while reading together before bedtime? It will set the tone for a good night’s sleep.

Initiate a quick homework massage. Athletes get massages to work out their tired muscles and help them relax in between games. Homework can be a stressful time for kids. They may be anticipating challenges and can feel frustrated by difficult assignments. Giving a quick shoulder massage before or during homework time can help ease the tension and may even speed up homework completion!

Reward with hugs instead of candy. So often we use candy in celebration. And though kids would never write down a hope for your love and attention on a holiday wish list, they appreciate it and benefit from it more than a whole store of candy. Shower your love with hugs when you are celebrating positive choices.

Hearts by Jennifer MillerPerhaps, use Valentine’s Day to kick off your very own hug campaign in your family to make sure you are getting your one-a-day despite family schedules. A snuggle before bedtime, a touch on the arm while playing, or a shoulder massage while getting through homework are all ways you use touch to promote trusting relationships and offer the benefits of well-being that come with it.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 
References:

1. Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D. Turner, R.B., Doyle, W.J. (2014). Does hugging provide stress-buffering social support? A study of susceptibility to upper respiratory infection and illness. Psychological Science, 26, 2, 135-147.

2. Hertenstein, M., & Keltner, D. et al. (2006). Touch communicates distinct emotions. American Psychological Association, 6, 3, 528-533.

3. Keltner, D. (2010). Hands on research: The science of touch. Retrieved on February 9, 2017 at http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/hands_on_research.

Mark Your Calendar for Kindness Next Week – Random Acts of Kindness Week

February 12-18, 2017!

Participating can be as simple as looking for an opportunity each day to do a small kindness for another. Our family will be joining in the kindness and we hope you will too! #RAK #RAKweek

Kindness by Jennifer Miller

Seize the Moment! Random Acts of Kindness Week

Once there was a tree and she loved a little boy…

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

When my son E turned seven in September, we hosted a party with all of his friends at our local park. I created a treasure hunt with clues hidden behind the many trees so that children could run, enjoy a game and find treasure at the end of their searches. In my party planning, however, I hadn’t considered younger siblings who might be along with their parents. As the older children discovered their goody bags with their names carefully printed on the front, a young girl emerged from the pack with tears welling in her eyes. “There’s no bag for me.” she uttered. While I swiftly and silently began to beat myself up mentally for not planning ahead, for not thinking this through, for not creating extra favors, I heard, “Here, you can have mine.” I stopped my panic long enough to look over and watch one of E’s dearest friends, a girl whose imagination, legs and mouth rarely stop (“How does she breathe?”) gently offer her bag to the little girl whose face lit up. She skipped around in elated happiness while I stood dumbstruck. I think I uttered, “Wow, thank you.” to our good friend. And then I returned to beating myself up. But in retrospect, I realized that if I had planned extras, there would not have been this opportunity for our friend to shine like a star. That moment has stayed with me. It was a gift.

There are opportunities all around us to be kind in the everyday mundane nature of life if we would only notice and seize the chance. Next week is Random Acts of Kindness week, February 12-18, and when the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation got in touch to ask if I would write an article, I began researching kindness and thinking about it from a parents’ perspective as I tend to do with most topics. But it was hard to pin down. Can we teach it? What are its origins? Do we have a natural inclination to kindness or must we force our motivations and behaviors to serve others? And isn’t parenting itself an act of kindness – giving of ourselves to another human being each day?

Research claims that we are more likely to help a stranger in need (called “the bystander effect”) if we see similarities in others versus differences – if we feel compassion. In fact, some schools focusing on bullying prevention teach children how to be “upstanders,” to speak up when another is being hurt emotionally or physically. They teach children specific language to use (“You are hurting him. Stop!”) and ways to seek help. Children are taught to take other’s perspectives, to appreciate differences, to find similarities and through those efforts, feel compassion which is at the very root of kindness.

But to me, kindness is less of a head activity (a cognitive topic) and more of a heart-filled one. The classic story by Shel Silverstein came to mind, The Giving Tree. Upon first reading, I considered it a tragedy – the tree had given so many parts of herself to the boy that in the end, she was merely a stump. But I hadn’t fully understood. That instead of the tree giving everything of herself and ending up with nothing, she created much more. The tree created a living legacy. She expanded far beyond her physical limitations to become a part of the boy’s life affecting exponentially more lives through her own.

Just as the tree suffered when limbs were removed, each individual is nursing her own wounds. If we run from them, we tend to judge others and create walls to protect ourselves. However, if we accept our pain, we are surprised with new insights. We are capable of feeling compassion, seeing the similarities in others and reaching out to them in our connectedness. Leaving a legacy is not limited to the retired and elderly who have time to consider such issues. It’s for us all and for today. And compassion is possible if we lift our heads up long enough to see others in need around us and seize a moment to ease it.

And so I ask myself as I ask you, “What if I didn’t have another day? What would I be doing?” Perhaps your answer might be similar to mine. I would love and appreciate those around me. I would be kind to anyone with whom I came into contact. What would you be doing?

As I’ve written before, it’s the quality of the little things in our everyday lives that contribute to significant change. In that spirit, here are my ideas for promoting kindness in your life and in your family.

Practice self-compassion. I am an expert at beating myself up about any imperfection. But I know in order to be my best self in all of my roles, I have to forgive myself. And frankly, I know I’m nicer to be around when I do. When you catch yourself doing the mental battle, gently stop and redirect yourself as you would a young child.

Read. There is no greater source of diving into other lives and perspectives as in stories. Follow other’s stories that are different from you own and find out how you are similarly connected. Frequent your local library with your children. Hold reading parties (meaning a snack, a good book and maybe a cozy blanket or pillow). Read together and uncover empathy in you and your child.

Be present. One of the most difficult and underrated tasks of our time is to be present to one another. But focusing on those we care most about can help us become more than we thought we could. Remember the expectant parent in yourself. Recall when you were expecting a child. What were your hopes and dreams for yourself and for your child? Go over those thoughts. How are you living your hopes today?

Talk about similarities. Catch judgments. Recognizing the ways we are alike leads us to kind actions. Picking out our differences leads to separation. So discuss similarities to neighbors, teachers and local leaders with your partner and your child. When you catch yourself judging others, stop. We all do it. But catching yourself doing it is the trick. Then redirect yourself. The challenge when you stop yourself is then asking, “In what ways are we alike? What can I learn from this person? In what ways can I find compassion?”

Practice forgiveness and making reparation. When any one person in a family makes a poor choice or hurts another, practice forgiveness. Find ways to make reparation whether emotional or physical. Certainly, if a sibling’s toy is broken, you can work together to fix it. But similarly, if a sibling’s feelings are hurt, how can you guide a child to help heal the emotional wound? Maybe a sincere apology and a hug are enough. Maybe doing an activity together that favors the sibling who is trying to heal.

Be open to opportunities. There are chances all around us numerous times a day to act in kindness toward others whether its our own family or the stranger at the gas station. Look for opportunities to demonstrate kindness. For example, hold a door, pick up a dropped pencil or pack a love note in your child’s lunch. Keep them small and in the moment. You may never know how your choice to smile at someone may impact the rest of his day and every other person with whom he comes into contact.

Kindness begets more kindness. So for you and me, I’m wishing for the multiplier effect. That we hold our heads up long enough to notice one another. Next week – Random Acts of Kindness week – is a helpful reminder to me that there are opportunities everywhere to be kind if I just seize them.

Check out the Random Acts of Kindness website for many more ideas, stories, and inspiration! https://www.randomactsofkindness.org
References
Silverstein, S. (1992). The Giving Tree. NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
Judah, S. (October 2, 2013). Making Time: Can We Teach Kindness? BBC News Magazine. Retrieved on 2-3-15 at http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24363845

Raising Kids Who Can Cope With Tough Times

coping-strategies-by-jennifer-millerBy Guest Writer, Janine Halloran of Coping Skills for Kids

When you think of the word childhood, what comes to mind?

Perhaps you think of carefree times, playing games and giggles, stomping in puddles, scribbling crayons, or running on a playground.

But things aren’t always sunny and perfect in childhood. There are times when challenging events happen in a child’s life. Sometimes these events are small, like a favorite toy breaking, or having an argument with a friend. But sometimes they can be much bigger events, like a loved one dying or parents getting divorced.

As parents, we want to try to protect them from these experiences, and while it’s tempting to do, that wouldn’t be helpful. The truth is that kids will feel sad. Kids will feel frustrated. Kids will feel stressed. Kids will get mad. That’s part of life. Life isn’t always going to be perfect and fun all the time –  there will be storms that happen.

We can’t always control what happens but, as parents, we can help our kids learn to navigate through these tough times in their lives. We help them navigate by teaching them healthy coping skills.

Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, in his book, Building Resilience in Kids and Teens, mentions the impact positive coping skills has for children and their future:

Children with a wide range of positive coping strategies will be prepared to overcome almost anything and far less likely to try many of the risk behaviors that parents fear.

Short term and long term, kids benefit from learning positive coping skills. Where do we begin?

Talk about feelings.

Start by simply talking about feelings. How do they feel when they earn an “A”? How do they feel when their sister wins at Connect 4? How do they feel when they’re about to go to a birthday party? Help them talk about and start to identify how they feel as part of everyday conversations.

Use teachable moments during the day as opportunities to have these conversations too. When you’re reading a book or watching a television show with your child, ask them how they think the characters feel.

Let them know that they can’t expect to be happy all the time. It’s completely normal to feel angry, or feel sad, or feel frustrated at times. It’s what they do with those feelings that matters.

It also helps kids to understand that they can feel more than one feeling at once. Movies like Inside Out or Home demonstrate this perfectly. There can be one event in a child’s life, and they may have a variety of emotional responses to it. For example, moving can be exciting, scary, and sad all at the same time. Feelings are complex!

Help them identify what they are feeling.

It can be hard initially for some kids to figure out exactly what they are feeling. Talk with your child about how their body reacts when they feel different ways. For example, when they feel worried, they may feel butterflies in their tummy or trembling in their legs or warmth on their neck. When they feel angry, they may feel energy rushing to their arms and legs. They may feel hot, and they may feel like their face is red.

It’s really helpful for kids to know the signs their bodies give them about what they are feeling. Once they have that knowledge, they can take the next step, channeling those feelings in healthy ways.

Brainstorm together and make a list of coping skills they already use.

Talk with your child and figure out what helps them feel better. They might be able to identify a few things that help them relax when they are having a bad day.

If they are stumped, start with what they love. Ask them to think about their interests, their hobbies, and their favorite things. If they could do anything with free time, what would they do? What do they love to do on the weekends? What are they interested in? Use this information to help them identify things they can do when they are having big feelings.

As you’re talking, make a list that you both can reference. The neat part of this list of coping skills is that it will grow and change over time as your child grows and matures. Your child may discover that they really like painting and that it helps them relax. Add it to the list! You’ll discover over time that a coping skill that was effective before doesn’t seem to be working as well, so take it off the list.

To get you started on this brainstorm, here are 20 common coping skills kids use that may be helpful for your child:

  • Imagine your favorite place
  • Take a walk
  • Get a drink of water
  • Take deep breaths
  • Count to 50
  • Jumping Jacks
  • Stretches
  • Play a game
  • Talk with someone you trust
  • Use a fidget
  • Draw
  • Write in a journal
  • Blow bubbles
  • Read a funny book
  • Color
  • Build something
  • Listen to relaxing music
  • Take a break
  • Take a shower/bath
  • Use a calming jar

Connect feelings to coping skills

Pick one big feeling to focus on and identify some coping skills your child can use. Talk with your child about what coping skills on the list might help them calm down when they feel that way. For example, you may want to work with your child on managing their frustration in a healthy way. Talk with them to help them identify which coping skills they can use when they feel this way.

When I feel frustrated, I can….

Take a walk
Take deep breaths
Listen to relaxing music
Talk about it
Use a calming jar

The coping skills a child may choose to use will vary based on where they are and what they are feeling. For example, you can’t listen to relaxing music for a few minutes at school when you’re feeling frustrated, but that’s perfectly acceptable at home. This is an important reason why it’s good to have a variety of coping skills to choose from.

Gently remind them to use their skills.

As a parent, you are a great detective. You know instinctively which situations cause your child to have a hard time and you can pick up on your child’s feelings. You may notice them getting frustrated way before they are able to recognize it themselves. When you know that your child is going to be facing a situation that makes them frustrated, gently remind them of the coping skills they can use.

When you notice your child is starting to escalate to big feelings, that’s another time to gently remind them of things they can do. You could say something like “It looks like you’re getting frustrated, what about using your calming jar?”

Childhood is often full of giggles and play, but there will be tough times too. Help your child figure out healthy ways to cope. With your love and support, your child can learn to weather the storms of life and enjoy the fun, playful, and happy experiences of childhood.

 

CPCK Note: Sincere thanks to Janine Halloran for sharing her wealth of knowledge, experience, and strategies on how to help kids cope with tough times!

 

headshot-janine-halloranJanine Halloran is the Founder of Coping Skills for Kids where she provides products for parents to help their kids cope with stressful situations in healthy ways. She is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and has been working with children, adolescents, and their families csk_workbook_print_image_book_2000x2000_grandefor over 15 years. Janine and her family are currently exploring California. When Janine isn’t working, you can find her in her garden or doing an arts and crafts project. To learn more about Coping Skills for Kids, follow on Twitter, Pinterest or Facebook.

Double Down on Self-Care

morning-coffee-by-jennifer-miller

Use the smell of your morning coffee or tea to remind you to take some deep breaths to start your day.

When there is global and national unrest, we all experience a nagging anxiety that just won’t seem to go away even when we are not consciously thinking about the conflicts around us. It’s important to recognize that stress so that you can take extra care. What happens when social stress abounds is that those emotions tend to bubble just under the surface and we expend significant energy trying to manage the worry we are feeling. Because we may be pushing it down, it can bubble over and result in an explosion. We can explode at our partner, or our children when one incident, even if small, pushes us over our boiling point. And we can’t know our exact boiling point threshold.

That’s why in times that are particularly stressful, it’s critical that we look for ways to take extra care to manage our stress. There are numerous small ways we can engage in daily self-care. Most of us know what those things are that we can do but it’s easy for us to brush them aside as unimportant. Be assured that now is the time to take those small extra steps to care for ourselves. We don’t want to have regrets later during this time of excess stress. See if you can’t just begin to notice tension in your body. And when you notice, pause and take some simple actions to reduce it. Here are some reminders of ways we can take care.

1. Breathe deeply.

How can you remind yourself to take ten deep breaths each day and solely focus on your breath during those moments? Put a sticky note on your computer. Wear a bracelet. I remind myself each morning with my hot cup of coffee. I love coffee so much that I know each morning, I’ll smell it before I drink it. With that smell, it’s my small reminder to breathe. I walk out of my front door and take ten deep inhales of fresh air. It takes a couple of minutes but serves to preserve my calm throughout the day.

2. Get outside.

This time of year – winter – it is so easy to burrow into our holes and not come out. Bundling up and walking out into a natural setting whether it’s a backyard or a nearby park among trees doesn’t have to take much time. But it does change our perspective. Researchers at Stanford University found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression. 1 The study proved that nature can have a direct impact on our ability to regulate our emotions.

3. Get active.

We know exercise has a significant impact on brain and body performance. Exercise helps the brain cope better with stress, according to research into the effect of exercise on neurochemicals involved in the body’s stress response. “Preliminary evidence suggests that physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people.” 2 Kids can be a terrific motivator. Think together of ideas that will get you moving together. Tag? Hide and seek? Biking? A walk around the block?

4. Express gratitude.

“Expressing gratitude may be one of the simplest ways to feel better,” begins Harvard Medical School’s Mental Health Letter. 3 Psychologists have done research on gratefulness and found that it increases people’s health, sense of well-being and their ability to get more and better sleep at night. Do you have a home, a job, a healthy family? Simply articulating to others or writing down what you are grateful for can improve your sense of well-being. Find a daily way to express gratitude for the little things in life.

5. Gain positive, expanding perspectives.

If you are watching the news regularly, you are certainly getting your daily dose of anger, fear, and stress. Consider balancing those experiences with a dose of positivity. Watch a short video of an act of kindness. Look at artwork that inspires. View images or videos of natural beauty. Listen to calming, uplifting music. Watch videos or read about others’ acts of kindness and compassion in other cultures to expand your empathy.

6. Plan for heated emotions.

If you haven’t yet talked as a family about your Emotional Safety Plan, do it now. What will you say when you feel overcome with anger or fear? What will you do to calm down? Take these critical measures to plan ahead and keep your family safe.

If you are a parent change maker and believe, as I do, that your role as a parent can change the world, then consider taking these small steps to ensure that you are well-equipped to play your role to the best of your abilities.

If you want to take your self-care a step further, check out these excellent exercises with self-compassion expert, Dr. Kristin Neff.

References

1. Hamilton, J.P., & Hahn, K. (2017). Nature Experience Reduces Rumination and Subgenual Prefrontal Cortex Activation. Laureate Institute for Brain Research, Stanford University.
http://news.stanford.edu/2015/06/30/hiking-mental-health-063015/

2. American Psychological Association. (2017). Exercise Fuels the Brain’s Stress Buffers. Retrieved on January 31, 2017 at
http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/exercise-stress.aspx

3. Harvard Medical School. (2016). In Praise of Gratitude. Harvard Mental Health Letter, Retrieved on January 31, 2017 at http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/in-praise-of-gratitude

And Baby Makes Four, Five, or Six? Preparing New or Experienced Siblings for a Baby

preparing-for-a-new-baby-by-jennifer-miller“I hope she cares when the baby is here because I keep telling her about it, and she doesn’t seem to react or connect with the fact that a baby in on the way.”

“My son is super excited about the birth of his baby sister. He gently pats my growing tummy every day.”

“My daughter shows me all of the ways she is going to be a good sister by swaddling her baby doll and carrying her around, talking to her.”

In those nine months of preparation, while you are physically and emotionally preparing for another person to join your intimate household, your child is also anticipating, in his or her own individual way, the baby to come. He may be thinking as you may be, “What will life be like? And how will my life change?”

With your first child, perhaps you had work pressures finalizing projects in order to allow for time off. And then, you probably focused on each step of your pregnancy reading about your body’s changes and the baby’s rapid development. But now, with one, two or more children already living in your bustling household, you are likely not relishing in your body’s and the baby’s changes but multi-tasking in preparing the items you need and the space the baby will occupy all the while keeping up with work and a full family’s set of needs. It can feel like a hectic time. But it’s worth considering how you will prepare yourself and your children for the arrival of the baby and their new role as a sibling.

Adding a new family member represents a significant life change. And as such, there are ways you can support yourself, your partner and your children to a.) understand how adults and children tend to react in times of transition, and b.) consider what temporary supports you can create in order to pave your way. Here are some considerations in adjusting your own expectations and perspectives related to your children’s feelings and resulting behavior during and especially after the baby is born.

Emotions will be more intense. Though having a baby is a joyful experience – and for some individuals, they may expect you to only feel joyful about the experience – in truth, the anticipation, and experience of having a baby is highly stressful and will produce a multitude of complex feelings. Adults and children alike can feel sadness over the loss of the life they had as just three, for example. They may worry about the time they will not have to spend solely with the others as the baby divides attention. They may actively fear the change. They may feel guilt for those aforementioned feelings. And they can become frustrated as the encroaching preparations for the baby replaces some of the focus on their goals, needs, and desires. Seemingly small, insignificant occurrences – like temporarily losing a small toy – can trigger great upset because of the bubbling emotions just under the surface about the bigger family changes.

Children typically show regressive behaviors. If you have a preschooler that has recently mastered potty training, she may fall back into old habits and have accidents. If you have a fourth grader, her desire to focus on friends and her newly found independence may quickly revert to needing more focused attention from Mom. Her actions may resemble what you remember from her earlier years when she needed you in order to feel safe.

Children will feel more vulnerable. Their survival instinct – fight or flight – will kick in more frequently. We are hard-wired to need our parents’ attention for our very survival. Children feel that sense of need to a greater or lesser degree throughout childhood even into adolescence with the deep realization that they have not yet learned how to survive without your support. When you recognize that your child is in survival mode, in other words, feeling threatened and upset, know that you will be able to communicate little if anything until they have calmed down and been reassured.

The way you prepare your children can differ relative to their age, stage, and understanding of your growing family. The following are ideas of simple ways you can help your child at multiple ages and stages adjust to the idea, deal with this big life change and embrace his or her new roles as an older sibling.

Reflect together on what babies are like by remembering your child’s baby days Get out the photo albums or gather around the computer to revinewborn-w-mom-and-dad-by-jennifer-millerew baby pictures of your daughter or son. Reminisce about the wonderful aspects of having a baby. As you flip through pictures, discuss a typical day for a baby. What’s it like? Does your son remember taking naps four times a day? Does he remember waking up every three hours at night to be fed? Talk about and raise your own questions about why babies act the way they do. If you don’t know the answers, look them up together. Begin to acclimate your child to a baby’s needs and day-to-day experience.

Read children’s books together about being a sibling and having a baby too. I’ve listed of few favorites as recommendations below.

Help your child define her new identity with roles and responsibilities. As you scurry to prepare, your child is watching. In addition to becoming a big sister or brother, how can you help your son or daughter understand what specific roles he or she can play. How can she contribute? Having specific helping roles to play will allow your child to take some ownership as a family member. And instead of directing your child away when you need to focus on the baby, you’ll have already considered a number of roles she can play to help out as a big sister.

No matter the age or stage, role playing can assist your child in understanding how she can substantively make a contribution. Use a baby doll or stuffed friend and practice swaddling. Practice different ways of holding the baby and involve all family members. If you have older children, try changing diapers as a game. Who can do the best job with diaper changing – gentlest, cleanest? And what if the baby is crying? If it’s upsetting for sleep deprived parents, you can bet that a crying baby will be upsetting for your child too. So what can she do when she’s crying? Can she gently pat her. Practice. Can she gently shush? Or can she sing a lullaby? Practice together.

Brainstorm a list of big brother helper actions. Get out a plain poster board and markers or your child’s favorite drawing materials. Label it “Big Brother Helper.” Now consider together, what can a big brother do when the baby is here to help? Think small. Can he go get a plush toy from the basket? Offer ideas and let him come up with his own. Be sure he has the opportunity to draw and write on the poster to represent his roles and ideas. And use this conversation to talk about safety issues. If he proposes something unsafe or unrealistic, this is a chance to reframe it before the baby arrives. “Your baby sister will be too little to play on the floor on her own when she’s born but we could lay her in her crib and see what she does.” Post it somewhere in which you can refer to it when the baby is present. Use the list to remind your child of his helping behaviors. And be sure and reinforce when he does them such as, “I notice you brought over the baby’s blanket. That’s being a helpful big brother!”

Create a plan for calming down. You can expect they’ll be a time when your baby and your child are crying at the same time both needing your attention. So why not plan for some supports to help you in that challenging situation? Before the baby is born, create a calming down plan. Is there a soft, comforting place your child can go to calm down preferably in a family room or common area so that he feels the safety of you nearby? Read more about Creating a Safe Base. But sending a child out of the room when she is feeling threatened by the new baby and needing your attention can escalate the problem. So if you anticipate being in that situation, when she needs you and you need to be with the baby, what alternatives can you plan for? Can she snuggle at your side? Can you share a blanket between your child, you and the baby? Practice getting upset, deep breathing together and calming down so that your child knows what you are reminding her to do when the situation arises. Also, consider getting a calm down tool for both your child and the baby that your child could take charge of to give him a sense of ownership. For example, could your child bring over a music box with calming music or offer a toy fish tank where you can watch the fish swim or play nature noises on a sound machine?

Plan for one-on-one attention with your child each day (even if brief). Designate with your child (and if more than one, each child in your family) a special only-for-them time each day that you can snuggle or share focused attention with one another. Perhaps it is a time to read a book at bedtime. Create a secret code and or call that time a special name, “Mom and Tom’s Awesome 20” for your twenty minutes together. Make certain that whatever you commit to, you are able to stick with over time. Gain your partners’ support in doing this. You can use this time as prevention! When you run into problems with an upset child needing your focus, you can always point to looking forward to that sacred time that you have together. And your child can know for certain that he will have your full attention at that time each day.

Enlist a team to support with attention for your older children. Do you have friends in the neighborhood that might spend some time with your child after school? Do you have a grandparent who could lavish attention on the new older brother? As you think about planning for the weeks after you bring baby home, schedule “focused attention dates” for your child in which other significant, caring adults offer him support and focus.

Keep consistent routines. Before the baby is born, go over your daily routines and any changes that will be necessary once the baby is present. Then, work together as a family team to keep morning, homework time, dinner and bedtime – or whatever your daily routines are – consistent. The rhythm that routines offer will help your child feel safe and secure in a time of great change.

Use feeling words and talk more about feelings. Generally, we tend not to be in the habit of expressing our feelings. That’s because it makes us feel vulnerable particularly when our emotions are anything other than happy. But because this transition time for your family is going to be highly emotional, it helps to normalize communicating feelings. Your child will get valuable practice expressing herself. And she’ll feel better understood as she is able to more quickly communicate her feelings with practice. Over time, experience with expressing feelings can de-escalate upset because your children feel like they are heard and valued when their emotions are understood by others. Discuss with all family members the fact that it will be a more emotional time. Perhaps work on a project with your children to draw faces with a variety of emotions to hang on a door or wall as a reminder and guide to point to when expressing themselves.

Use a timer. When the baby is born and you are settling into your daily routines, use a timer to avoid power struggles. Set the timer for the amount of time you need with the baby until you can attend to your child. Or set the timer when you need to limit screen time. Children five and up can take charge of the timer, set it for him or herself and own the responsibility of sticking to the timer. This takes the chore away from a parent of managing time.

Explore places, people, and plans together. Though you may be in a rush to check items off of your list, remember to include your children in planning. If you tour the hospital where you are delivering, take your children along with you and allow them to learn and experience the new environment with you. If you are interviewing sitters or day care providers, spend time with the new person and your child. Your efforts to get to know the new caregiver will help build trust with your child through the process.

Acknowledge that this will be a period of trial and error. Children and adults for that matter are trying on a new identity as a Mom or Dad of more children and a sibling of a baby. Kids can be particularly sensitive to any feedback you give during this time period. If you do give feedback, positive or negative, focus on the behavior. Help your child understand that there is always a chance to make a next positive decision.

Emphasize and recognize kind behaviors when you see it. “I notice you gently patted the baby. That’s a wonderful way to show love as a big sister.” You’ll help set the stage for kindness between siblings from the start. And offer lots of hugs, assurances and “I love yous” as your children work toward the realization that you will always be there for them along with the rest of your growing family.
Children’s Book Recommendations

unknownA Pocket Full of Kisses by Audrey Penn
For Ages 3-7
After the baby Raccoon arrives, the older brother, Chester, feels sad that his Mom is giving the new baby love and worries there won’t be enough for him. Ultimately, Mom shows Chester there that he is loved deeply along with the new baby.

 

unknown-1There’s A House Inside My Mummy by Giles Andreae
For Ages 1-7
A delightful explanation of what a Mom’s body provides for the baby while it’s developing in-utero.

 

 

unknown-2unknown-3I’m A Big Sister and I’m A Big Brother by Joanna Cole and Rosalinda Knightly
For Ages 1-7
These books give a helpful look at being a big sister or being a big brother and the fact that she or he is still loved just as much with the new baby but also, has a special new role.

 

 

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Sisters by Raina Telgemeier
For Ages 8-12
This is a humorous look at becoming a sister twice to a girl and then, a boy and the relationships they develop as siblings.

 

I struggled to find a book for tween/teen boys about brothers. Please recommend if you know of a good one! This one looks excellent and is the closest one I could find. 🙂

unknown-5Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel
For Ages 13 and up
This is the wonderful story of a thirteen-year-old only child whose parent, a scientist, brings home a chimpanzee and treats him as a son and expects the main character to treat him as a brother.

How Can We, As Parents, Live the Values of Martin Luther King Jr.?

hand shake for MLK Jr post

When we think of the civil rights movement, we may think of a country divided. But Martin Luther King Jr.’s message and the vision that galvanized so many to act bravely in the face of fear, consisted of values that any person in any corner of the world can aspire to. They are values that, when lived, have the potential to unify. So when you are talking with your children today about why we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., be sure and include those values that he articulated and modeled and that so many were able to demonstrate through their actions. Think about small ways in which you might demonstrate those values in your day-to-day life. If you do so, you will be honoring the memory of all those throughout time whose lives and livelihoods were threatened and despite that, made choices that aligned with the best of who we can be.

Martin Luther King Jr. valued:

Equality. He said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” We can share with our children the value of equality. Though there are differences among every one of us, there are more aspects of who we are that unite us. Every person has the right and responsibility to express who she or he truly is.

Ask: How can you demonstrate equality in family life? How can you help children understand equality not as sameness but as appreciation and respect for all? How can you teach your children inclusion?

Small Actions: Work on observing your own informal talk around your home. Are you expressing critical judgements about others? If so, children learn that judging others is acceptable. How can you begin to notice your language? And when you do, how can you incorporate the language of acceptance of differences, perspective-taking and compassion? When others challenge you, search for ways to learn more about yourself, others, and the experience. For more, check out the article, “Expanding the Circle, Teaching Children the Values and Actions of Inclusion.”

Hope. He said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” It’s incredibly easy to complain about our life circumstances. But if we view ourselves as individuals with choices who can learn from our mistakes, we begin to take responsibility for our actions. And we can work on forgiving those who have hurt us. We can reflect on and evaluate our mistakes so that they become our curriculum. And with that learning mindset, we have hope. Because there’s always a chance to grow wiser and make better decisions. We want our children too to learn that there’s always a second chance. There’s always room to grow and give our best. And there’s always an opportunity to contribute who we are to better the world around us.

Ask: When we approach a problem with our children, do we show hope (or do we show a resignation or feel they might let us down)? How can we incorporate expressions of hope? How can we increase encouraging words and our show of confidence that each family member can make positive choices?

Small Actions: Your reactions to your children’s problems model how they will learn to deal with problems so it’s worth reflecting on those reactions. Consider one time you had a problem with your child. For example, perhaps she got frustrated with her math homework and refused to do it. Think about how you reacted. Now re-imagine that same scenario with you expressing and demonstrating hope. Think through exactly what you might say instead. For example, “I hear you are frustrated. But I know you are capable of doing it and more. It just may take some time and focus.”

Character. He said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” Character is the true expression of an individual, their integrity. It means knowing and expressing who we are – self-awareness – which requires regular reflection. It also means regularly examining ways we can fine-tune who we are and how we express to benefit ourselves and others. So morality or ethics is a critical part of the equation. We only pursue the ways in which our lives can contribute to the deepening of our individual expression and measure that in terms of how it also contributes to the growth and development of others and the environment.

Ask: What are ways in which we promote the character of our children in our family life? How do we encourage responsibility? How do we offer choices to give our children practice with thinking about consequences? How do we guide our children to consider others’ perspectives in any given problem? How do we offer a model of empathy and compassion by expressing others’ viewpoints ourselves?

Small Actions: Though children may experience an inner voice, they do yet have an understanding of their inner moral compass and how it may steer them. In addition, that sense of ethics is constantly changing in all of us – being informed by our environment and by learning from past challenges. So consider how often you guide reflection with your children. Do you ask them questions about their thinking? Do you ask them about their choices and the impact on themselves and others? Those reflections will help promote a child’s thinking skills so that they learn to go through those mental processes on their own when faced with difficult decisions. Find ways to practice reflective thinking with them and those experiences will significantly contribute to their ability to handle problems at home, at school and in the future lives.

Peace. He said, “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” We still live in a world in which many believe that violence can teach, that violence can solve problems. Martin Luther King Jr. taught that it’s impossible to use violence to end violence. Instead peace must be the vehicle for establishing peace. So many of us have inner turmoil we are actively managing day to day. As we work on dealing with our own pain and suffering, we make regular choices about how we cope and process those feelings. If we stuff them down and allow them to build and finally explode, then we are putting our loved ones in danger. Instead, we can set boundaries for fighting in family life such as, “We will never use violence or physical harm of any kind in our arguments.” And we can plan for our upset emotions ahead of time so that we never risk hurting family members. We can find ways to express and let go of our hurt in safe, constructive ways over time.

Ask: How can promote peace in my family life? How can my words become more empowering and less accusatory? How can my tone of voice become one of inspiration, not condemnation? And how can my smallest actions particularly when angry show that I value peace as the vehicle for promoting peace in the world?

Small Actions: The best way each of us can promote peace in the world is by starting in our family lives by not harming those we love through words or actions. Becoming planful about how we manage our emotions can save us from ever regretting our reactions in heated moments. Please visit the Family Emotional Safety Plan to download a simple template you can use for yourself and to start a conversation with family members on this critical issue. In addition, take the Fighting Fair Family Pledge which articulates clear boundaries for arguing while maintaining respect for others.

Service. He said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ The theme of service – of doing for others – is a core value for all of our greatest moral leaders including Mahatma Gahdhi, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Theresa. We have an epidemic in the U.S. of depressed teenagers who could not be so if they knew how their unique qualities could significantly contribute to the world around them. Giving offers us a sense of purpose.

Ask: How do we develop a service mindset among each of our family members? Do we promote and cultivate a culture of kindness, help, and support in our family life? How could we do more to appreciate others and offer regular gratitude for the abundance in our lives? How could we, as adults, model noticing needs and offering care for others?

Small Actions: Notice and appreciate kindness when you see it happen around your home. “You took care of cleaning up your mess and I didn’t have to ask you. That’s taking responsibility and I see you doing that.” Point out kindness when you see it in the world. “Did you notice that woman help that older gentleman through the door at the grocery? How kind of her to notice he needed help.” Do it enough and you will begin to hear your child finding examples of kindness for herself.

Love. He said, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

He said, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.

He said, “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.”
So if the only vehicle for peace is by acting out of peace and love, then forgiveness is core to our task. And our job as parents becomes to equip our children to learn to forgive. They will encounter pain despite our best efforts. But we will give them the tools of resilience, of strength if we offer them guidance on the process of healing and forgiving those who have hurt us.

Ask: How do we forgive in our household? Do we find ways to make reparation for harms done? And do we find words and actions that show we are asking for forgiveness? And are we able to grant pardon when someone harms our feelings? Are there new ways we can go about including forgiveness as an expression of love in our family life?

Small Actions: Consider how you model owning your role and responsibility in any family problem. How do you articulate your area of responsibility? When you do, it opens the doors for others to take responsibility for their roles and it knocks down the wall of “me versus you.” Find times to have honest conversations without judging your children’s actions. Allow them to tell you their problems while you listen with compassion. They will come to you with bigger problems down the line if you offer this kind of small support in day-to-day situations. Consider how you handle hurts whether your own or your child’s. How can you model the language of forgiveness? How can you guide your child to think through actions they might take to make up for harm they have caused? For more ideas, check out my article on “Second Chances – Teaching Children Forgiveness” on the NBC Parent Toolkit.

Of course, love is at the heart of it all. Though outwardly, some may choose to hurt or exclude others, we can be certain that inside, they too feel pain and are convinced they are not loved yet require love desperately to soothe their wounds. Children can acquire their own pain not just by yelling or spanking parents but also, by parents ignoring their needs – whether physical or emotional. Show your love through your attention. Put down devices. Turn off the television. Take their hopes seriously. Take their fears seriously. Really listen to what they are telling you. That is the small, slow but powerful way you can best teach your children to love.

Thank you, Martin Luther King Jr. and all those nameless individuals who have demonstrated their values through their daily courageous actions. May we all attempt that show of strength.

Learning from “Building Powerful Learning Environments From Schools to Communities”

from-earth-to-the-stars-by-jennifer-millerAll parties – schools, families, and community members – share the responsibility for building trust. But those who hold the official power within schools and classrooms have to set the tone and lead by example.

-Arina Bokas, Building Powerful Learning Environments From Schools to Communities

In both roles – as a parent and as an educator – it can be difficult to understand why there are not stronger partnerships between those three entities – families, schools and communities – who all impact the same children’s lives and care deeply about their learning. In theory, it sounds right. We should work together, communicate with one another and coordinate for a more powerful impact on the development of our children. But the reality of making that happen is quite different. “Feeling voiceless and powerless is likely to resonate with many parents who tried to advocate for their children in schools,” writes Arina Bokas. And for educators, we are often told what we have to do without consideration for our own professional expertise and wisdom. Teachers and administrators can shy away from parents because of accusations and attacks they’ve received in the past. And frequently, community members are unclear whether or not they are welcome in schools and if they are, what roles they can play.

The newly released book, Building Powerful Learning Environments From Schools to Communities by Arina Bokas builds a solid case for a focus on creating true 41xn2ebj5l-_sx331_bo1204203200_partnerships between schools, families and communities and gives specific ways we can move toward collaboration no matter where our starting point may be. Our children’s experience of learning has changed drastically from the time we were in school. They are not only trying to understand their sense of self in relation to their school and neighborhood but now, because of our digital environment, they must also understand themselves and their relationship to the greater global community. Learning must then be supported by all of the adults involved in every environment in which children play and engage including their virtual spaces. And if learning isn’t reason enough, our current workforce demands social and emotional skills in order to function and grow. Empathy, communication, collaboration and creative problem-solving are at the top of the list for skills most required by today’s employers.

Though we may hold a desire to collaborate, the author paints a clear picture of the underlying beliefs that have become embedded in our assumptions of how education operates. She also tells the bigger story of American education in a global context. Whereas we typically see one data set showing other countries with higher performing students without the greater context of what measures were used and more importantly, what the education system looked like at all levels so we truly understand the best practices involved in promoting student learning. She shows how one country, for example, had the highest testing scores internationally but upon further examination, was providing intensive daily after school tutoring for all students to perform well specifically on the test. Yet we know “skill and drill” is not the highest form of learning and a sole focus on testing sets educators up for teaching in ways they know is not in the student’s best interest. Arina offers examples of using testing for accountability while also ensuring that the learning environment is supporting the whole child’s physical, social, emotional and academic development.

This book also shows how any partner – whether its a parent, teacher, administrator or community member – might practically go about raising awareness and taking steps toward building trusting relationships between those who impact children’s lives. From opening classroom doors to parents to asking questions about potential roles in education, there are numerous big and small steps suggested for brokering partnerships.

It was an honor to contribute my example to this book to showcase one small partnership between a parent and a teacher that made a significant difference in my child’s education and indeed, our family connection to his school community. Check out the following example from the book. And then, check out this outstanding contribution to thinking that is sure to spur action on strengthening school-family-community partnerships!

Feedback That Matters:

Using Self-Assessments to Connect Parents to Children’s Learning In School

by Jennifer Miller excerpted from Powerful Learning Environments From Schools to Communities by Arina Bokas (2017). Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield.

“I feel with my whole body that I won’t learn to read,” muttered my almost first-grade son with a furrowed brow, a look of disappointment and a hint of expectancy. “Say it isn’t so.” was included in the subtext of complex emotions. This from a child who couldn’t enter a room in our home except for the coat closet without encountering a bookshelf filled with stories of dragons, buried treasure and fantastic adventures.

Perhaps precisely because E, my son comes from a family of readers, he assigned tremendous weight to the process of learning to read. “If it’s an essential part of our lives, what if he just couldn’t?” he worried. My first thought was “Not possible.” But then, a second thought crept in. “What if he has a learning challenge like dyslexia? What then?” My third thought wiped worry away. “We’ll deal with it. Whatever the challenge. None is so great that it would prevent him from reading eventually.”

And so it goes with our children’s learning challenges. As parents, we often don’t fully understand what they are going through and what supports they are getting at school to help them reach their learning goals. So we do the best we can to reinforce those goals from home. For this particular challenge, I knew I could help. But how? We’ve read together every day since he was born. So what else could I do to encourage his desire to read?

First, his emotions were key to his success. How he felt about his ability to learn, his self-efficacy, was impacting his motivation to put in the practice time, the hard work required to learn anything worthwhile. And the twice a year parent-teacher conference that lasted all of ten minutes did not seem adequate feedback for me to understand and support his progress. I couldn’t count on his verbal reports since he offered little to no details of his school day when asked, “What’d ya do today?” There had to be another way of regularly connecting to his reading progress and supports in school without overburdening the teacher.

During our first parent-teacher conference in October, I communicated these concerns and his teacher shared with me a simple self-assessment entitled, “How Do You
how-do-you-feel-first-grade-self-reflection-by-jennifer-millerFeel? Self-Evaluation”. On this worksheet, there were illustrations of fish to be colored labeled, “Making Friends,” “Math,” “Reading,” “Listening,” “Writing” and “Science.” The directions read: “Color green for ‘I am good at this.’, yellow for ‘I am pretty good at this.’ and red for ‘This is hard for me.’ As I suspected at that time, he had colored his “Reading” fish red.

When I brought the self-evaluation home, sharing it with my son gave me an opening to begin a conversation about his worries. I offered my predictions of what they might be and he let me know if I was right or wrong. Yes, he was concerned that his friends were reading faster than he was. No, he didn’t worry about knowing basic words. He knew them. Yes, he was worried about getting through the text quickly and tended to skip words because of it. No, he didn’t need help sounding out most words. This offered such rich insight into how we might practice together at home. I quickly contacted the teacher via email complimenting her for her helpful assessment and asked for more frequent access to my son’s evaluation of his own progress. It was a simple step for her to give out self-assessments each Friday, have students complete them in a matter of seconds and send them home in their folders. But for me, it meant regular access to specifics regarding my son’s thoughts and feelings. With little effort, it achieved three levels of connection:

  • It connected the child to his own feelings and thoughts reflecting on his learning
    goals.
  • It connected the parent, me, to the classroom curriculum, the teacher and my
    child’s relationship to both.
  • It connected the parent to her own child’s feelings and thoughts about his learning goals.

Teachers have been improving their classroom practices through self-efficacy evaluations based on research for decades. “Personal goal setting is influenced by self-appraisal of capacities. The stronger the perceived self-efficacy, the higher the goal challenges people set for themselves and the firmer the commitment to them.” (Bandura,1993)

For students, research has demonstrated that explicit instruction in meta-cognition—the ability to monitor our own thinking and learning—can lead to learning success across subjects from primary school through college (Wilson & Conyers, 2014). Though students are assessed by schools on learning standards, it is a rare opportunity for them to reflect regularly on their own thoughts and feelings related to their learning goals though it can have a positive impact on their motivation and progress.

As for my son and me, the weekly feedback allowed for more detailed conversations about how he was learning. That insight assisted me in becoming more sensitive to problems and at times, avoid areas that might make him defensive. And I would focus on the small interventions I could provide at home that supported his goals. For example, I refrained from quickly providing the word when he was struggling with sounding it out. Instead, I would wait until he asked for help.

Often he would struggle through and figure it out himself. If he asked, I would only sound out a syllable to get him started. I found our time reading together became less of a power struggle and more of an opportunity for real connection. I watched as his “red-colored fish” (“This is hard for me.”) turned to “yellow” (“I am pretty good at this.”) at mid-year. And by the third quarter, it was a definitive “green.” “I am good at this.”

 

You can find Building Powerful Learning Environments From Schools to Communities at this link.

References:

Bandura, A. (1993). Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning. Educational Psychologist. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 28(2), 117-148.

Wilson, D. & Conyers, M. (2014). The boss of my brain. Educational Leadership, Association of Supervision, Curriculum and Development. 72, 2. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct14/vol72/num02/£The-Boss-of-My-Brain£.aspx

Setting Goals for the New Year

new-year-goal-setting-by-jennifer-millerThe quiet of falling snow, the start of the year and the lull after the pile-up of holiday season events offers an ideal time for reflection. Whether or not you set new year’s resolutions, using the winter months for envisioning your best self and setting goals just makes sense. My partner handed me a deck of cards after the new year with values and goals written on them called “Purpose” cards. I sifted through the cards and picked out the ones I most wanted to cultivate in my life – presence, forgiveness, and parenting with love and wisdom. It gave me the idea that maybe I could use cards to help me consider and think through some of my goals for parenting. Certainly, parenting is a top focus in my life. And there are many values related to parenting that I’d like to adopt and pursue. But there are so many, at times, I lose track of where I should focus my improvement efforts. So with a helpful model, I created my own parenting cards for your use and my own. It wasn’t difficult thinking of 52 different ways I want to be, act and live as a Mom. And I find being clear about exactly what qualities I want to cultivate in my life helps me achieve my hopes and dreams for who I want to be. I share these ideas below for your own reflection. You can simply use the following list or print off the cards and sort through your own pile. Check out the questions that follow the list to prompt your thinking while you sort through them.

 

Here are the 52 potential goals for parenting. I narrowed down to my top five to work on for 2017. Try narrowing down to your own top five. Then consider the “how.” How will you do this in the coming year?

  1. Model kindness.
  2. Seek joy.
  3. value-hard-work-and-practice-card-by-jennifer-millerBe playful.
  4. Find laughter and fun.
  5. Extend patience.
  6. Learn about development.
  7. Forgive.
  8. Be present.
  9. Take time to calm down.
  10. Get out in nature.
  11. Plan for anger triggers.
  12. Deep breathe more.
  13. Be quiet together.
  14. Prioritize trust.
  15. Trade judgment for compassion.
  16. Recognize positive actions.share-grateful-thoughts-card-by-jennifer-miller
  17. Provide wait time.
  18. Facilitate sibling kindness.
  19. Listen with empathy.
  20. Ask open-ended questions.
  21. Learn about others who are different.
  22. Name feelings.
  23. Own role in conflict.
  24. Align hopes with daily actions.
  25. Delegate decisions.
  26. Take a child’s perspective.
  27. Stay healthy.
  28. Think creatively.
  29. tell-stories-card-by-jennifer-miller-1Gain fresh perspectives.
  30. Reflect on actions.
  31. Express love regularly.
  32. Offer choices.
  33. Step back to allow for discovery.
  34. Use simple, direct language.
  35. Demonstrate love through actions.
  36. Practice home routines.
  37. Accept mistakes for learning.
  38. Respond to old problems in new ways.
  39. Trust child’s intentions.
  40. Seek to understand before rushing to fix.
  41. Practice self-care.
  42. Express frustration constructively.
  43. Confront fears.
  44. Hug more.
  45. Show generosity to neighbors.dream-with-your-family-card-by-jennifer-miller
  46. Serve community together.
  47. Be kind anonymously.
  48. Focus attention on each child daily.
  49. Value hard work and practice.
  50. Tell stories of failures and comebacks.
  51. Dream with your family.
  52. Share grateful thoughts daily.

After sorting through the cards and selecting your top five, consider these questions.

  • Why is this a focus for you this year? What makes it important to you?
  • What are some specific ways you could demonstrate this quality or value in your life?
  • How will you hold yourself accountable to your goal? How will you remember?
  • It’s next January and you are reflecting on the year 2017. What can you imagine you did to incorporate these goals to improve your parenting and your life?

Let me know if these are useful to you! And here are the pdf files of the cards if you want to print and use them. If you love them, let me know. Is it worth creating and printing a deck of cards to offer on the site?

Happy New Year to you and all those you love!

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