Household Responsibilities – A Defensive Conversation and a Productive Conversation…

And Tools and Tips!

It’s a Sunday afternoon. Mom and Dad have decided that at ten years of age their daughter, Molly, could be taking more responsibility for her contributions to the household. They attempt to set the stage. Mom puts out a snack for family members. She grabs a clipboard, paper, and marker to create a list together. And all family members sit down for a reasonable discussion. And it begins well. Mom says, “I’ve noticed you consistently making your bed in the morning now after we talked about it a few weeks back and that’s great. That’s exactly the kind of contribution we want to encourage. We thought, since you are getting older and more capable, we’d look at all the ways you can contribute to our household.” Dad agrees, “Yes, we’d like to help you be successful in taking care of your belongings.”

And then, it happens. She leans back in her chair – as she often does while eating meals – and her snack dribbles down onto the floor. Dad, witnessing this, says in a frustrated tone “Lean! You’ve got to lean!” which is a refrain he utters frequently at dinnertime as the dining room carpet becomes dotted with food crumbs. Mom and Dad watch Molly’s face as the red hue seems to advance from her chin to forehead. And that’s it – conversation over. She springs out of her chair and off – up to her room.

Perhaps this is a familiar scene to you. Though Mom and Dad attempt to communicate as a team, your child may feel outnumbered. Though you may approach the conversation with the best, most constructive intentions, defensiveness may creep up and when it does, your chances of influencing your child’s behaviors are slim to none. It may end in a power struggle. It may end with scolding or yelling, crying or silence, and certainly with frustrations on all sides.

Yet the importance of these discussions throughout your child’s development remains. Yes, they’ll grow more and more capable of taking on responsibilities that they could not attempt in previous years. And not only do you want to make sure that the tasks get accomplished (and you don’t turn into the family nag) but also, you want your child to internalize the desire and skills associated with taking responsibility. So the question becomes, how do you help a child learn to take increasing responsibility for contributing to your household?

There are numerous ways. And I’ll share those tips and helpful tools too. But first, I’ll share the second, far more successful attempt this family took with the responsibility conversation later that day. After Molly stormed to her room, Mom and Dad refilled their coffee (yes, this was a necessary next step!) and sat down to talk with one another about what worked, what didn’t and formulate a game plan.

They framed some aspects of the conversation really well. The snack and sitting together was nice. The clipboard ready for their plan was helpful. Recognizing the ways in which Molly already contributed was key. And Molly seemed pleased and responsive to that recognition. They weren’t scolding nor were they acting like they were starting from scratch. She had a history of positively contributing and her parents were noticing those contributions. But the minute Dad shifted to scolding, the power dynamic changed. Before the comment on leaning, there was shared power. But after, there were sides – the parents versus the child. So the team approach they were trying for failed. As Mom and Dad reflected on this, they talked about how to sustain shared power throughout the conversation. How can we approach Molly so that we invite her feedback and ensure that she’s heard, understood and given a voice and a choice to take ownership of her contributions?

When ready, Mom and Dad went to her room. After ample cooldown time, they asked if they might talk with her again. Mom and Dad sat down lower than Molly to visually show that they were not attempting to dominate her in this conversation. Dad apologized for the nagging and said this was precisely why they were talking about this – so they wouldn’t be tempted to nag her about anything. “How can you decide on the ways you can contribute and we agree as a family?” they asked. “And how can you find ways to remember so that we don’t have to nag?”

Molly was eager to find a way not to be nagged so she helped with creating a list of ways she could take more responsibility. They went through each idea and discussed how she would remember in the moment. The ideas all came from Molly. For leaning over her food at the table during meals, Molly wanted to make a little reminder sign that read, “Please lean” with a smiley face. (Clearly, she wanted a friendly reminder!) And she put a pillow behind her to push her forward in her chair. For screen time limits, she was going to set a timer and shut down the iPad when the timer buzzed. For each responsibility, Molly figured out a way that she could remember either with a sign or an alarm. Mom, Dad, and Molly ended their family conversation with the agreement to work together to make signs and set alarms to get her prepared to be successful.

And so far, Mom and Dad report it has been highly successful (true story!). Molly is keeping up with her chores. And Mom and Dad are making sure to notice and share their appreciation for her actions when they see those helpful behaviors.

Engage intrinsic motivation.
Children and adults alike are intrinsically motivated by feeling a sense of autonomy, belonging and competence. Contributing to the care of your family’s home can meet all three of those needs. As you formulate ways to discuss, consider engaging these forms of motivation to help internalize a sense of responsibility.

Understand developmental appropriateness.
At each age and stage, there are tendencies or trends that align with and can serve as helpful motivation for contributing to the care of your home and family. For examples, four-year-olds love jobs they can do. It makes them feel big and competent. But they may struggle with clumsiness and will have short attention spans. Remember that each time they contribute, they are in training for a lifetime of contribution. Give them short, quick tasks for which they can be successful. For young children, allot more time and make it an enjoyable part of their play. Here are some wonderful cleanup songs you can use to send the signal that it’s clean up time. Making a daily routine of clean up can help ensure success. The following is a printable chart that lists various developmental milestones at particular ages that can support your efforts to involve your child in household responsibilities along with some ideas for task readiness.  Household Responsibilities by Age/Stage Printable Chart

Collaborate as a family team.
Do you notice you gain energy for the work ahead when others are digging in alongside of you? It’s true for kids too. Don’t assign and then, kick back and watch. When it’s time to clean up, when it’s time to do laundry, or whatever the chore, family members who work together will get chores accomplished together. Children will feel a greater sense of motivation to contribute if you are working right alongside them.

Authentically empower.
Be sure you allow your child to take responsibility for a task and complete it themselves. Don’t go behind and fix it if you feel it’s not up to your standards. This does not offer a child the sense of satisfaction of completing a task. And if there are a number of tasks, make a checklist so that your child can check off each when completed.

Be sure your child is adequately prepared to load the dishwasher or set the table. When introducing a new responsibility, try interactive modeling as a way to teach your child how to contribute. We, as parents, often forget that children are still learning many ways of doing things that we take for granted. Interactive modeling can be a way to ensure you are doing what you can to help your child learn the actions necessary to meet your expectations.

From author Margaret Berry Wilson’s book, Interactive Modeling; A Powerful Technique for Teaching Children, we can learn from this simple seven-step process that teachers use in schools. 1

1. Say what you will model and why.
2. Model the behavior.
3. Ask your child what he noticed.
4. Invite your child to model.
5. Ask what he noticed with his own modeling.
6. Practice together.
7. Provide specific feedback starting with strengths using “I notice…”

The following is an example of how this might look between a parent and child. Be certain and pick a time to do this when you do not have time pressures.

1. You might say, “Watch how I play waiter. You can try it after me!” You could wear an apron like a waiter might or put on a name tag.
2. Now set the table as you would like it and as your child watches and you go through the motions, be sure to notice any areas that may pose difficulties for your child such as getting out and placing knives at each place setting. Address those directly. “Since the knives can be dangerous, I’ll do that part of the process each night and you can do the rest.”
3. Ask, “What did you notice when I was acting like a waiter?”
4. You might say, “Okay, your turn to pretend to be the waiter.” Dress him up in the apron and name tag to maintain the fun.
5. After he plays his role ask, “What did you notice when you did it?”
6. Now practice it together. Don’t skip this! It’s important that your child gets the chance to work alongside you while cooperatively going through the process.
7. In providing feedback, be specific and start with strengths. “I noticed you handled the silverware carefully. Terrific! When you put the napkins down, be sure to count so that each person gets one.” If you share too many issues, your child might tune out so pick your top few areas for improvement only.

Brainstorm solutions to challenges.
If you find yourself in a position similar to Molly’s parents where they were hearing themselves regularly nagging to get tasks accomplished, then go back to the drawing board. Brainstorm solutions to specific challenges to eliminate nagging. For more on brainstorming solutions with your child, check out this article.

Recognize and celebrate but don’t bait.
It’s critical to notice and point out when your children are contributing. This may seem insignificant but your words can have a reinforcing effect so that they are much more apt to continue the positive behavior. “I notice you put away your dishes without my asking!” is all you need say. If your family team accomplishes a larger project, going out for ice cream, watching an enjoyable movie, and simply doing a family team cheer can further celebrate your hard work.

Many parents and teachers use reward stickers or charts to guide home contributions trying to incentivize work. Others pay for chores through an allowance or a pay-per-task. Though it may seem an easy solution, it does not help children internalize their role as a caring family member and contributor. It does not send the message, “we contribute to the care of our home because we are part of this family.” Instead, it serves as bait and sometimes may not be enticing enough to keep the motivation high. I tested this with my own son on three different occasions. We brainstormed a list of regular responsibilities and additional ones that could be done for payment. Consistently the ones that were on his regular responsibilities’ list were accomplished and he didn’t touch the other ones. Why? Play was far more important on his agenda. “At any age, rewards are less effective than intrinsic motivation for promoting effective learning” states Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards; The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes.2 Why not engage their intrinsic motivation for feelings of autonomy, belonging and competence and work with them on the skills and processes necessary to internalize that sense of responsibility?

You will be teaching your kids how to be a substantial contributor in a family. And that will serve them on school projects, collaborative teams at work and in their own roles as parents someday. It will take patience. But rest assured, practicing responsibility at home is practice for a lifetime of caring contributions.

References:

  1. Wilson, M.B. (2012). Interactive modeling; A powerful technique for teaching children. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.
    2. Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by Rewards; The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes. NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Live Today – Common Sense Parenting Talk Radio Show

Jennifer Miller of Confident Parents, Confident Kids joins Dr. James Casale on the radio talk show, “Common Sense Parenting.” Join us today, Thursday, March 15 at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on W4WN Radio.

We plan to discuss when parents can begin building social and emotional skills in their children and how and what skills parents may need to build in themselves to become more effective with their children. We plan to touch on relationship skills and bullying plus much more! We’ll talk caller questions and hope to have a rich discussion.

Dr. Casale is a former school principal in Florida who is the author of multiple books including “Family Pledge.” He focuses on parents as children’s first teachers and role models and how they can create a culture of learning in their family life. I can’t wait to talk with him!

If you miss today’s show, a recording will become available in future weeks on iHeart Radio. I’ll be sure and share the link! Hope you can join!

On Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global… “Preventing Your Children’s ‘Me Too'”

How do we, as parents, prevent child abuse and harassment?

The “Me Too” movement got my mental wheels churning, as it has for so many. I began wondering, “What can we, as parents, do to prevent our own children’s ‘Me too’?”

Particularly if we have been through harassment and felt that pain and vulnerability, we may fear for our kids. But unless we turn that fear into constructive action, it will not assist us in empowering them with the knowledge and skills to keep them safe. Because harassment or abuse can often go unreported, it’s impossible to truly understand the scope of the problem. But there are some facts we can know and understand. Don’t miss the full article on Thrive Global with specific steps parents can take to prevent abuse. 

 

 

 

All About Playdates…

The Benefits, Opportunities, and Ways to Address Challenges

“Mom, can I have a playdate with Tommy?” my son says excitedly after school on most days of the week. Why do I feel ancient when I recall that playdates didn’t exist when I was a young girl? But in truth, kids were sent outside to play with their neighborhood friends or siblings and certainly parents didn’t travel anywhere beyond their street to assist their child in connecting with friends. Our evolution to playdates actually represents our growing recognition of our children’s social needs.

More than ever, parents realize that play is the vocation of childhood. It’s the central vehicle for learning – a catalyst for kids’ physical, cognitive, social and emotional development. In play, a child is in control of the world he creates, his only limitation being his imagination.

Developmental Psychologist Lev Vygotsky wrote, “In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself.” Children have the ability and urge to create highly advanced pretend play scenarios, both social and solo.

In social play, kids practice cooperation, negotiation, inclusion, communication, flexibility and diversity appreciation. In solo play, children can grow their sense of identity and also practice perspective taking abilities as they pretend to be another person.

Pretend play also can serve a significant role in a children’s mental health and sense of well-being. They are able to face the most feared obstacles with the courage of a true hero whether it’s confronting monsters or villains, weapons or diseases and even injury or death. Through play, they can conquer these fears and show their strength and resilience.

Social and solo play not only contribute to developing kids’ social and emotional life skills but they also contribute to academics. Often imaginative play will include counting (math), categorizing (science) and storytelling (language) among many other cognitive essentials for school-age children. And there is just no such thing as growing too old to play. When adults are creative or engage in any art form, there is play at work.

And if those aren’t enough benefits to convince you that playdates are valuable, here’s yet another, not to be underestimated. Playdates can become a powerful parent support network. When my son was an infant, toddler and then, preschooler, a group of Moms formed a regular weekly playdate rotation in which Moms attended and enjoyed coffee and conversation while the little ones played. This became an invaluable source of support for our parenting as we discussed challenges, found commonalities and learned from one another differing ways each of us were addressing those challenges.

In the full schedule-laden school-age years, parents can cooperate or take shifts hosting each other for playdates after school or on weekends. This offers a period of time free for the parents who are not on point to host. And when it’s your turn to host, you can create a safe, caring environment conducive to play.

In addition to the many benefits of play for your child, there are some questions that could be asked related to planning and hosting playdates. Some of these may include:

  • How should a playdate be initiated? Do I wait for my child to ask or seek out friends for my child?
  • If I am hosting, should I have ground rules and if so, how should I communicate them?
  • What if the other child I am hosting makes poor choices? How do I handle a discipline issue with another family’s child?
  • If I am sending my child to another person’s house for a playdate, are there questions I should ask in advance? How well do I need to know the friend’s family? How do I make sure it’s safe?
  • Are there rules or discussions I should have with my own child before going to someone else’s house?

All of these important questions and some added tips will be responded to in the following playdate suggestions.

Follow your Child’s Lead.

Who knows why we are particularly attracted to another person and seek out their friendship? Perhaps it has to do with our developmental needs. But it’s impossible to truly predict which children our child will gravitate toward. So follow their lead! Who does your child talk about at home? That’s a perfect place to begin.

Get to Know the Other Child and his Family.

So you want to create opportunities outside of school for Tommy and your son to play since he talks about him frequently? But perhaps you don’t know Tommy or his parents. Instead of scheduling a first playdate, schedule a family meet-up. “We’re going bowling this weekend, would your family like to join us?” Or it may be easier to identify a school activity – a science fair, a math night – where parents are invited and seek out Tommy and his family to have an initial conversation. Introduce yourselves and express a desire for a playdate. You’ve then laid the groundwork for the new relationship between your family and theirs. After all, if another family is going to trust you to care for their child, they need to get to know you – and vice versa. It absolutely takes a village!

Talk to your Child before the Playdate about Ground Rules
(including playing with one another, not on screens!)

You want to prepare your child for a fun, successful playdate and you don’t want to have to do a lot of supervising and managing during the playdate if you don’t have to. So why not discuss ahead of time the rules that make the most sense? I always begin a conversation about rules by setting the stage and asking, “I’ll bet you are excited to have Tommy over. I’m so glad! What rules do we need to think about for the time he’s here so that you both can stay safe and have a great time?” And then, let him consider or offer options. Write them down to demonstrate that it’s official and important (and to refer back to if you need to do so during the playdate). Be sure to keep rules brief and frame them in the positive. What do you want them to do versus not to do? So one might be, “Keep play safe.” Discuss what that means. Climbing on furniture or more physical play may not be safe. If tempted, then maybe a good solution would be to play outside if the weather permits. Others may include: staying in certain play areas or living spaces (and avoid others); inside voices are used; or bathroom time is for one child at a time.

Reserve Screen Time for Times Other Than When Friends Are Over

Yes, screen time could take over an entire playdate. Indeed, kids will want to play video games with one another or watch a movie. But plenty of screen time takes place when kids are home without friends there. I’ve noticed that children who are used to many hours of screen time take a little longer to figure out what to play when screens aren’t available. But all of those wonderful benefits of pretend and social play are not fully realized if children are on screens during their playdates. Our rule is “Friends are more important than screens.” And we put away devices before they come. If asked, we share that’s it’s our rule to promote more fun, creative playtime. We leave out costumes, art supplies, legos and other imaginative toys (see resource at the end for more ideas!). My son at ten-years-old now only requires blankets and pillows since fort-making has become his latest pastime with his pals. Create a ready environment for play together and children will forget about their need for screens and reap all of the benefits of their social play together.

Partner with your Child to Communicate Rules to his Friend.

You’ve already discussed safety rules with your child. Welcome your child’s friend in and express your happiness that he’s there to play. Get out the rules you discussed and briefly talk about them. Let the friend know that he can come to you if he’s hurt or feels unsafe or for any reason. And then send them off to have fun!

What If Poor Choices Are Made by Another Person’s Child?

If it’s a minor issue or breakage of your rules, offer first that every family has different rules. You might say to both children, “Tommy’s family likely has different rules at his house and so is just learning about our rules. At our house, we don’t play rough enough that things break. We choose to go outside. Let’s work together to clean up or repair the broken item. Then, you can choose – You can continue to play your game outside or pick a different, less-rough game inside.”

If it’s a major issue, in other words, a child is harmed, then calling the other parents makes sense. But placing blame will not build bridges with that other family so if you need to make the phone call, consider how you’ll create a safe space for discussion. Instead of saying, “Your child hit my child. Come get him.”, you might instead say, “We value Tommy’s friendship. There was some hitting today at our house. It may be a good time to just take a break and calm down since both kids are upset. Then, maybe we can try again another time. For today though, could you please come get Tommy?” In that circumstance, you’ve done your best to keep all safe while preserving the relationship. Either the other family or you can make the choice going forward whether it’s important to offer second chances and try another playdate.

Set the Stage for Sending Your Child to Another’s Home:

Ask about House Rules in Advance.

If you have a playdate set with another family, simply ask what their house rules are. If any particular rule is particularly important, they’ll communicate that to you and you’ll be able to discuss it with your child in advance.

Trust Your Gut.

Your gut is yours and your child’s very own internal safety device. Teach them to use it! Since children are learning about their feelings and developing a language to express them, they may more readily be able to identify physical signs of discomfort first. Their tummy may feel nauseous. Practice doing gut checks. If you see an image in the media that is disturbing, ask how their tummy feels. Make the connection between that icky feeling not only as a sign of discomfort but as a sign of danger and to get out of the situation. If children are taught to trust that feeling, they will become more likely to leave a high-risk circumstance. Let them know if they feel unsafe at another child’s house to find a caring adult or find a way to get in touch with you.

If Trouble, Tell a Caring Adult.

To prevent abusive situations, it’s helpful to get to know the other family first. But also, you can coach your child to find safety in an unsafe situation. If your child feels unsafe, she needs to learn to “look for the helpers,” as Mr. Rogers wisely advised. Abuse usually takes place when two are alone together. Though a perpetrator can and often does rationalize his behavior, there is also a clear sense that it’s not acceptable to others. So if your child knows to find a trusted, caring adult to help, they can remove themselves from the dangerous situation. This teaching is in opposition to the old “stranger danger” counsel kids used to be taught. Instead, work on finding a helper. Practice. Can you find a helper when you are at the store together? Ask your child, “Who would you go to?” Talk about it with your child when you encounter another lost child, witness a fire, or see any kind of dangerous situation. If you feel scared, look for a helper! If the person you are with is scaring you, look for a helper!

Discuss a Way to Get in Touch with You.

Send along your name and number in your child’s backpack or even pin it on their clothing so that they can get ahold of you if they need to. Practice making a phone call to you if they have not used the phone. If it’s a first playdate, keep the timeframe short as a trial run so that you gain more trust with the family and the environment.

Though it takes a bit of effort on the part of parents, children will certainly benefit from friend playtime. Look for ways you can connect with other parents too and you’ll reap some of the supportive benefits of growing relationships in your community!

Extra Resource:

Printable Playthings to Stir the Imagination (Many of Which Are Ready Household Objects)

On NBC Parent Toolkit… “Do Adult Arguments Help or Hurt Our Children’s Learning?”

The short answer is – it depends! Learn more about the distinction between arguing to win versus arguing to learn. Think about your own dialogue with friends and family in person and on social media. Learn specific ways you can argue for learning while simultaneously promoting this constructive form of dialogue with your child.

Here’s how the article begins…

“Recess is no fun anymore!” my ten-year-old son laments after school. I listened, surprised, knowing that recess is an essential time to get fresh air and stretch those muscles that have been atrophying in desk chairs all morning. “How come?” I ask. “We always play football,” responds my son, “and everyone argues and then no one plays anymore. We just walk away.” “What do they argue about?” I ask. “Everything!” says my son. “Who gets the ball. Who lost the ball. Who scored points.”

Even though it’s disappointing to hear from my son, it’s not surprising. We watch competitive arguing, or arguing to win, in our national political debates and on social media. So our kids see examples everywhere for entering conversations with the sole intent to win.

But are these examples doing a disservice to our kids? Are they setting them up for difficulties in school and in their relationships? Read the full article on NBC Parent Toolkit! 

 

 

 

New Podcast Interview on Solo Parenting Life…


I was delighted to talk with Dr. Robbin Rockett, a licensed clinical psychologist, who created a podcast series offering targeted support for Moms and Dads who are parenting on their own called Solo Parenting Life. Dr. Rockett is raising three young children on her own and wanted to help others in a similar position. From dating, finances, stress management, parenting, and co-parenting, Dr. Rockett talks with experts, therapists, and authors to offer guidance. I talked with her about parenting with social and emotional intelligence. In our conversation, I recalled my own big feelings that arose as my toddler son lashed out and how I learned to step back, reflect, and plan for emotionally intelligent responses when challenged. We also talked about challenges through various ages and stages and Dr. Rockett shared some of her own parenting challenges and solutions. I hope you’ll join us for this enriching conversation!

Here’s Dr. Rockett’s introduction to our conversation:

One of the biggest fears many parents face is the fear that we are not preparing our kids for the “Real World.” Life skills are difficult to teach, but they are so important for our children to be successful. The official name for this vital skillset is “Social Emotional Intelligence,” or the ability to navigate social problems with empathy and self-respect. I am excited to begin to dive into this topic with Jennifer Miller today. Jennifer is the founder of Confident Parents, Confident Kids, an online compendium of resources all about parenting children with a high Social Emotional Intelligence. She is quite the expert on the topic, and today she will share practical examples as well as encouraging stories showcasing exactly why we should be prioritizing Social Emotional Intelligence in our parenting.

After realizing there really was not a simple, research-based resource for parents on Social Emotional Intelligence, Jennifer set out to create one. She used her own personal struggles as well as her informed perspectives to write articles and offer up tips for parents. When her son was very young, Jennifer noticed she had quite an emotional response to his misbehaviors. Rather than being content with these feelings and challenges, Jennifer armed herself with knowledge and changed her parenting to model and reflect Social Emotional Intelligence. I think Jennifer’s approach is admirable, and I know you will be encouraged by her stories. Rather than hiding the struggle, Jennifer embraces the process of slowly developing the skills that will set her son up for an incredible future.

You do not have to be ruled by the fear of failing your children. Thanks to Jennifer, you have resources at your disposal to help you develop Social Emotional Intelligence with your kiddos.

Listen to the podcast here and explore Dr. Rockett’s site and other podcasts too! 

Much thanks to Dr. Robbin Rockett for this opportunity!

Today In “The Washington Post”…


Check out the article by Pam Moore that features tips for parents from Confident Parents, Confident Kids’ author, Jennifer Miller in The Washington Post today. It also features the important work of CASEL – the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning in defining social and emotional competencies and supporting schools in integrating these core life skills. Here’s how it begins…

Schools are Teaching Kids Empathy and Self-Control. It Helps at Home Too…

“More Goldfish!” my 5-year-old demands.

I summon all my patience. “Can you try that again?”

“I’m hungry!”

I take a long blink. “Honey? Can you—”

Her face is still beet red, but her body has relaxed. She takes a deep breath, then slowly blows the air through her pursed lips. This is the “birthday cake” breathing she learned in kindergarten.

“Mom, can I please have more Goldfish?”

My daughter attends public school in Boulder, Colo., where her teacher is one of a handful of educators integrating social and emotional learning (SEL) into the classroom. But the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) board recently approved a grant to fund the investigation of SEL Competencies, with the goal of creating a systemwide approach to SEL. That means more kids will be learning how to understand and manage their emotions, set goals, build healthy relationships, make good decisions and have empathy, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. Read the full article.

Thanks for the opportunity, Pam Moore!

Helping Our Children Understand and Deal with Death

Mostly it is loss which teaches us the worth of things.

–       Arthur Schopenhauer

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 differently than I am and may need supports related to their level of awareness in order to cope with the loss.

As parents, we’ve had the recent challenging task of explaining the death of high school students to our children as we learned the news of yet another school shooting. 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 – sadness, grief, guilt, fear, shock, confusion, anger, or disgust may be among them. 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. 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 articulation of 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 of the 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 supports 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, www.childgrief.org.

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. http://www.deathreference.com. Retrieved on 9-19-13.

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

YOU Have a Role in Preventing School Violence

Learn More About What Exactly You Can Do!

Making the decision to have a child – it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart walking around outside your body.
– Elizabeth Stone

And this is the very reason why the events of school shootings shake us all to the core. Because it is our very exposed heart that has been wounded. It’s inconceivable that innocent children’s lives have been taken in what is supposed to be a safe haven, a daily environment in which we entrust our most sacred heart. We, as parents, have the impossible job of explaining to our own children why a school shooting took place at all and somehow, why they should trust and feel safe returning to their own school the next day. The friends and family that I’ve spoken with about the occurrence have consistently said, “I have to do something. It’s not enough to be horrified and sad. I have to take action.” And so what can anyone do to make a difference – to heal a gaping wound and to prevent something like this from happening in the future? I too am eager to do something. Here are some ideas to get started.

Begin at home.

Make sure you are really connecting with your children daily. Disconnect to connect. iPhones, pads, and other devices have become vehicles for connecting with everyone except those with who we are physically present – typically our most intimate family. Because the beeps, light flashes, and constant press of these machines bring our attention back to the device, it requires great discipline to put them down, turn them off, and tune in to our children. Set a timer for yourself if you need to but give your children your full, undivided attention even if it’s only for a short time each day. And limit their screen time so that you are giving them the chance to look up and connect with you. Find out what’s going on in their heads and hearts. Laugh together. Talk and, most especially, listen well if they are scared or upset. Be patient if deep connection doesn’t happen immediately. Often we have to offer time and listening ear when they are ready to talk (not when we are). And if you’ve been disconnected, then it takes time to build trust. But that ongoing sense of trust will open up space for confiding in challenges when they arise. We know that that connection is critical in keeping our children and others safe.

Partner with your child’s teacher.

Ask if there are ways you can support your child’s teacher in building community amongst classmates. Teachers are often open to parents coming into the classroom to share experiences, read stories or give presentations on their careers. Making a personal connection with your child’s teacher will enhance communication, develop a trusting relationship and create a stronger alliance between the school and your family. Take it a step further if you are interested and able and volunteer as a teacher’s aide in the classroom regularly (weekly or monthly). Research shows that students perform better in school when parents are involved. But in addition, students are safer if parents are directly involved with the teacher and the classroom. If there’s a problem detected by either a teacher or a parent, there is already a connected relationship at the ready to communicate and coordinate supports for kids who need it.

Identify and take action on red flags.

When a child hits another child on the playground or in the classroom, that is a giant red flag. That red flag is NOT a sign to send her home, suspended. In that scenario, she’ll likely get punished at home and come back to school angrier, more hurt and ready to hurt others. Punishment only escalates the problem and does not address the root cause. That red flag is a sign that we – as educators and parents – need to get curious about that child’s life and candle of light 001unmet emotional needs. How can we understand what she’s going through? How can we offer her supports that will address her unmet needs? It is not enough to point the finger and say it’s the school’s role… and for schools, it’s not enough to say it’s the parent’s job. We all have to take responsibility. There are community organizations in every town that offer youth development supports for before and after school time. What if that child is a potential active shooter? And what if, by taking a next step from your observation that she’s hurting and hurting others, you could keep your child safe and prevent a major tragedy for the school? Small steps taken to build caring connections for children who feel marginalized and disconnected can turnaround hurt for that child and many others. For more on this critical issue, check out 50 Alternatives to Detention and Punishment.

Partner with your school.

It’s likely that your school conducts a yearly review of their crisis management plan and communicates it to parents. If they do not, then they should and you can advocate for that to take place. You should be aware of what they plan to do in an emergency including a situation like a school shooting. How you will be notified and what role you can play? That plan should be in writing. It should include a plan for communications amongst school staff but also, with families and with students. How will students be directed in an emergency? How will a tragedy be talked about with students after it has occurred? Is there a forum for conversation that is a safe, trusting space? But in addition, make sure that there are conversations and a clear plan for prevention. And in that prevention plan, there should be specific ideas on how the school is building caring relationships and safe spaces for all. Learn more about schools and research-based social and emotional learning on the CASEL website as a critical means for prevention.

Advocate for school-community supports.

What supports are there for students who need more than the school can offer? In schools, these are typically referred to as “intervention supports.” If the response you receive is “We have academic tutors for those students who are not performing academically,” then that’s not enough. What supports are there for students who need emotional and social assistance beyond what the school personnel can directly address? The students you may be thinking of are a percentage – whether large or small – of a school population who act out and demonstrate anti-social behavior. Those children require more support than what the classroom can offer. But in addition, nearly every child in a school at one point or another during their school career needs additional emotional support that a teacher likely will not be able to provide. My parents separated when I was in sixth grade and I needed to see a counselor during that time. I hadn’t needed outside supports my entire school career. But I needed it then. So considering that many children will need additional support, the following questions need to be addressed.

  • How do you identify students who are in need of outside assistance beyond what the school can provide?
  • Who is responsible for working with the students and families in order to seek assistance?
  • Is that staff person aware of, in communication with and able to refer students and families to adequate mental health services in the community for those that are in need of it?
  • Is there a communication system in place so that all of those involved in supporting a student can coordinate with one another?

Some of the schools with which I work have a social worker or counselor who is primarily responsible for cultivating trust between families, students and the school. They work closely with teachers to identify those students who are displaying risky behaviors and ensure that students who need more support than a classroom teacher can reasonably provide, get that support in the community. Parents confide in that person when a relative dies or a family member is admitted into rehabilitation. When supports are readily accessible, it reduces the shame factor for families. All families can become aware that it’s reasonable and in fact, necessary at times to require additional support for a student. One size does not fit all.

Promote school-family-community connections.

Preventing a crisis from occurring also involves caring connections. Families need to feel connected to the school. Students need to feel connected to the school and each other. Teachers need to feel connected to students, parents, the principal, and the larger system (district, community). Research-based positive school climate, social and emotional learning and character education initiatives all have the potential to build a sense of connectedness between all individuals in a school community if this is seen as an explicit goal. Greater communication among caring adults means that problems are identified quickly and at the start so that they can be addressed before they escalate to the point of a crisis. The profile of individuals who perpetrate school shootings is typically that of an introvert, sometimes, the victim of bullying, but often, a student that goes unnoticed. In schools with which I work, there is no child that goes unnoticed. Every person – staff and students – is greeted each morning through a Morning Meeting. Each student gets the opportunity to share something about themselves daily. This – connectedness in school communities – is the way that we turn this problem around in the long term. But it requires work and commitment on everyone’s part to make it successful and sustain the change for the benefit of all. For numerous research-based ideas on simple ways to create school-family-community connections, read Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships by Anne Henderson – an outstanding and essential guide.

Organize and mobilize parents.

I know of two committed parents (in two different states) who, through volunteerism and advocacy, have created a focus on social and emotional learning to prevent bullying and other violence in their respective districts. One such individual in Strongsville, Ohio, a member of their PTA (Parent Teacher Association), noticed that the state PTA organization was not talking about the need for social and emotional learning in schools. She developed and proposed a resolution for the Ohio PTA to focus on “maximizing student potential and achievement through positive school climate and social and emotional learning.” It now serves as a national model for other PTAs. It happened because of her persistence. She continually asked questions, enlisted experts and other parent supporters, believed in the importance of her cause and pushed the agenda forward until her voice was heard and the resolution was adopted. In my experience working with numerous policy and practice issues with school districts over the years, if a small group of parents exert their influence and assert that something is essential to the education and well-being of students that are not currently being addressed, schools and school districts have no choice but to take notice and respond. That famous quote from Margaret Mead rings true: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Advocate for policy and practice change.

Though social and emotional learning in education has made great strides in influencing the way schools operate in the past 20-30 years, there is still much work to do. The conversations around education nationally continue to focus on the three Rs (Reading, Riting, and Rithmatic) and seem to often neglect and marginalize the other critical three Rs (Respect, Responsibility, and Resilience). That must change. The national conversation on educational essentials must include our current realities. Students need to be prepared for the global knowledge economy with creative and critical thinking skills, collaborative abilities, strong communication competencies, respect for differences, and the ability to think responsibly and ethically in their decision making. Those same students need to be self-aware and become practiced in controlling their impulses and managing their emotions to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. Write to your local politician, your Congressional leaders, your President and the U.S. Secretary of Education. All these individuals need to hear consistently that addressing the social and emotional development of kids and promoting connectedness in schools is not a “nice-to-have” but has become an essential element in educating our children. Learn more about how you can become an advocate through the National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development.

I hope you will make a commitment to taking action in your own way. If you need support in doing so, please call upon the following organizations to help you along the way. Though all of them are located in the United States, many of them will have resources that extend globally.

Organizational Resources

Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)
CASEL was founded in 1994 by Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, educator/philanthropist Eileen Rockefeller Growald, and a group of distinguished researchers and practitioners. We are a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that works to advance the science and evidence-based practice of social and emotional learning.
http://casel.org/

NBC Parent Toolkit
The Parent Toolkit is a free online resource that aims to empower parents and caregivers with practical advice to support their child’s overall development. Learning about your child’s physical health, academic, social and emotional development creates greater empathy and understanding to help parents more deeply connect with their children.
http://parenttoolkit.com

Responsive Classroom
The Responsive Classroom approach is a widely used, research-backed approach to elementary education that increases academic achievement, decreases problem behaviors, improves social skills, and leads to more high-quality instruction.
http://www.responsiveclassroom.org/

Edutopia – The George Lucas Foundation
Edutopia is dedicated to transforming the learning process by helping educators implement the strategies below. These strategies — and the educators who implement them — are empowering students to think critically, access and analyze information, creatively problem solve, work collaboratively, and communicate with clarity and impact. Discover the resources, research, experts, and fellow Edutopia members who are changing our schools. Join us in reinventing the learning process!
http://www.edutopia.org/blogs/beat/social-emotional-learning

National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development
The mission of this collaborative is to make social, emotional and academic development a part of the fabric of every school community.

National School Climate Center
Their goal is to promote positive and sustained school climate: a safe, supportive environment that nurtures social and emotional, ethical, and academic skills. NSCC is an organization that helps schools integrate crucial social and emotional learning with academic instruction. In doing so, we enhance student performance, prevent drop outs, reduce physical violence, bullying, and develop healthy and positively engaged adults.
http://www.schoolclimate.org/

Educator’s for Social Responsibility
Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR) works directly with educators to implement systemic practices that create safe, caring, and equitable schools so that all young people succeed in school and life, and help shape a safe, democratic and just world. Founded in 1982, ESR is a national leader in school reform and provides professional development, consultation, and educational resources to adults who teach young people in preschool through high school.
http://esrnational.org/

Character Education Partnership
Character Education Partnership (CEP) is a national advocate and leader for the character education movement. Based in Washington, DC, we are a nonprofit, nonpartisan, nonsectarian coalition of organizations and individuals committed to fostering effective character education in our nation’s schools.
http://www.character.org/

National Center for Learning and Citizenship
Part of the Education Commission of the States, The National Center for Learning and Citizenship (NCLC) assists education leaders to promote, support, and reward civic education and service-learning as essential components of America’s education system. The NCLC’s mission is to: 1). Identify and analyze policies and practices that support effective service-learning and civic education; 2). Disseminate analyses of best practices and policy trends; 3). Convene national, state, and local meetings; and 4). Network to share information about service-learning and civic education. The NCLC also works closely with other national, state, and local advocacy groups in order to contribute to a collective public voice in support of the civic mission of schools. The NCLC complements the mission of the Education Commission of the States with a unique level of expertise and collaboration within the fields of civic education and service-learning.
http://www.ecs.org/html/projectspartners/nclc/nclc_main.htm

Social Development Research Group
For over 30 years the Social Development Research Group (SDRG) has sought to investigate and promote healthy behaviors and positive social development in youth and adults. SDRG is a recognized leader in the field of prevention research. Our efforts to understand how risk and protective factors influence development have resulted in hundreds of articles in peer-reviewed journals and led to the development of tested and effective interventions.
http://www.sdrg.org/

University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Center for Mental Health in Schools
We are a center for policy and practice analysis. Because we know that schools are not in the mental health business, all our work approaches mental health and psychosocial concerns in ways that integrally connect such efforts with school reform and improvement. We do this by integrating health and related concerns into the broad perspective of addressing barriers to learning and promoting healthy development. We clarify the need to restructure current policy, practice, research, and training to enable development of a comprehensive and cohesive approach that is an essential and primary component at every school. We stress that without a comprehensive component for addressing barriers to learning many students cannot benefit from instructional reforms, and thus, achievement scores will not rise in the way current accountability pressures demand.
http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu/v

Updated from Original Publication on 11/28/16.

The Language of Love for Our Children

The coming of Valentine’s Day seems an ideal time to write about one of the greatest, most enduring loves. No, I am not writing about romantic love. This is about our love for our children and how we express it. There are moments in our lives when we feel like bursting with love for our kids – when we see their sweet faces poke out from their blankets just before going to sleep at night or when we see their faces light up at the discovery of a bug under a rock. But how do we express our love through our words? There are some ways we can become more conscious of the words we are selecting to build deeper, more trusting relationships between family members and truly express the love we feel for them. Here are my secrets (or now, not so secret!) of the language of love.

Express love every day.

As a person who has experienced multiple deaths of relatives in my life, at times I will ask, “What if this were my last day?” Have I said the things I want my family to know related to how I feel about them? Kids will always benefit by hearing a direct, sincere “I love you.” from a parent. I notice some adults wait for their children to say the phrase to them. Some are even hurt that they don’t hear it more often. Rest assured, our children feel love. But we, as adults, are responsible for modeling the articulation of our love. That’s how our children learn and feel free to express and name what they feel. A friend told me, “I was never told that I was loved as a child so it feels strange and unnatural to say it to my own. But I do. Sometimes I have to get up for it. Force myself because I know it’s the right thing to do.” That’s the kind of commitment that is required if we are to break patterns we don’t like or value from previous generations. Our children are ready and eager to hear that they are loved and in the absence of that, they create stories – untrue stories – about why they are not loved. Make sure they hear that they are.

Assure love after a conflict or misbehavior.

Children feel particularly vulnerable after they have made a poor choice or have argued with you. It’s human nature to worry that behavior can influence or even determine love. And we, as parents, put a premium on actions (since we often focus on them) so children have a hard time understanding that they can make a poor choice, you can be mad and you can still hold love for them all at once. So when a poor choice occurs, focus your words on the action not the doer of the action. You may not be able to express love in the heat of the moment (though sometimes it does help to de-escalate a conflict but only if it’s genuine and from the heart). But say it at the end of the day so that your child knows she is loved no matter what, unconditionally. Tomorrow she can make a new better choice knowing that you love her and will support her in doing so. Call it your own legacy. She will be well-equipped to love her family members unconditionally as she grows because of your example.

Listen actively.

There may be no greater demonstration of love than deep listening.

Listen with empathy to truly understand both thoughts and feelings. If your child only shares a thought but you can hear there is feeling behind it, ask. “It sounds like you are feeling frustrated about your friend. Is that what you’re feeling?” The insightful book Clean Language. Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds suggests that, though tempting, it’s important to keep advice out of your reflective listening.

Even the best listeners can unwittingly put ideas and suggestions into the mind of others – it can be so subtle that people don’t know they are doing it…They (those who use clean language) use only the other person’s words and questions related to those words to get results. 1

And the “results” to which the authors are referring in this case would be showing trust in your children’s ability to think through their actions and feelings to better understand themselves, the people around them and the effects of their actions. Facilitating a child’s thinking in this way can support him in internalizing thought processes that lead to responsible decision making. It also paves the way for a more trusting relationship so that if problems arise, he feels safe enough to come to you to discuss them.

Use feeling words.

We tend to be in the habit of not using feelings words. Despite all of the important work done in the field of emotional intelligence, culturally, there is still a sense that feelings are a weakness. Emotion words don’t have to signal weakness if we use them intentionally. But they do open us up and make us more vulnerable. And that is the very reason why it’s so important to share with family members how we are truly feeling. Emotional honesty allows for intimacy. As we search for the words to articulate our emotions, we are becoming more self-aware. And simultaneously modeling self-awareness for our children. We can address their hurt, anger, and frustration much more effectively if we have helped them develop a way to communicate so that they can be understood. In any upsetting situation, try and pinpoint the child’s feeling and always ask, “Is that right?”

Use similes and metaphors to help discover and define feelings.

We use metaphors so often in life, we tend to take them for granted. “She looks like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders.” “He is eating like a pig.” “This match was made in heaven.” Kids hear and attempt to figure out the metaphors adults use regularly but sometimes get confused by them. I find myself often explaining metaphors in books I read to my son. The Clean Language authors claim that metaphors can allow us access to our unconscious minds and can serve as a powerful tool for understanding how we are really feeling about a situation. For children who are just learning about metaphors, we can become more aware of the language we use and model self-awareness and emotional intelligence. For example, if I were to say “I feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders today.” I might catch myself and talk a bit further to describe the feeling. “I am feeling overwhelmed by how many items are on my to-do list. I’m thinking about it so much that it feels like a physical pressure. I need to do something to help ease my worries. I could make a list. Or I could sit and breathe. You want to help me?”

Recognize the good.

Notice and point out when your child is kind or takes responsibility without reminders. So often, we play the “Gotcha!” game as parents. “You forgot this.” “You left that behind.” “You made a mess here.” And because we are so busy focused on the mistakes of life, we forget ourselves to point to the good even though we all tend to forget daily tasks. “Oops, you are going to have to wear a day-old shirt because I forgot to get the laundry done last night.” is a common refrain of my own.

It doesn’t take long to recognize the good but it does take some presence of mind. We do have to pay attention to our kids not to catch them doing wrong but to catch them doing right. If kids are reinforced by recognizing their faults, they too will focus on their faults. And along with the fear of making mistakes (which often leads to more of the same), they will accumulate shame for their long list of missteps. All it takes is a simple “I notice you threw your laundry down the shoot. That’s taking responsibility. Great!” statement. If we are able to regularly find and shine a light on their strengths and the many ways they contribute to our family lives, they will grow with an identity that is confident and resilient.

Cultivate deeper understanding.

Because so often our greatest challenges with our kids stem directly from their developmental struggles to learn what they know they need to, learning about children’s development deepens our understanding of them. We gain empathy for their challenges. We recognize their mistakes as an important part of their learning process. We work harder to support their learning. And we gain more patience along the way. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children (not available in any store) is learning about their development. Check out the free resource, NBC Parent Toolkit to begin the process!

Do no harm.

Adults use any number of words, phrases and expressions that children don’t understand. Even in adolescence, though kids may “try on” sarcasm, they still do not truly understanding the intention since the words are the opposite of the feeling behind the words. Speaking directly, cleanly and clearly can be an aspiration we can all work toward. Try to eliminate language that shuts others down like “Shut up.” by asking how it makes a child feel when it’s said to him. In addition, children sometimes retaliate in a parent-child argument with hurtful words like “I hate you.” Try not to take those statements to heart. Though they are intended to wound in the moment, they are coming from a feeling of a lack of control. If you meet that lack of control with you own lack of control by getting upset, it will only escalate the situation. Better to walk away and take time to cool down. In calmer moments, discuss how those words are painful and how you could rephrase in order to express upset without harming. You might ask, “Could you say instead, ‘I hate what you did. I hate what you are doing.’?” Also, I’ve heard adults say that in moments of anger and upset, they have “joked” about not loving a child or loving another more or wishing a child hadn’t been born. Those kinds of remarks can stay with a child for a lifetime. Better to walk away or simply stop talking so that you don’t regret your words later.

Maybe all love is complicated and simple at the same time. This certainly is true for the love we have for our children. We feel so deeply for them that we want them to have the best of everything in life. Yet they have their own minds, personalities, desires and purposes along with the need to express who they are in their own unique way. Often the toughest, most important job of a parent is stepping back and letting children think and act in ways in which they can learn for themselves. And knowing that, we will always be right there to love them.

Happy Valentine’s Day! heart pic 001

 

References

1 Sullivan, W. & Rees, J. (2008). Clean Language. Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds. Wales, UK: Crown House Publishing.

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