help4yourfamily

Create the family you want to have

Stopping the Parent Shame and Blame Game

Parenting

Parenting (Photo credit: Leonid Mamchenkov)

 

When parents come to me for help with their children, my job is not so much to change every single thing about the way they are parenting. My job is to help mom and/or dad to create the outcome they are looking for. Many parents come in to me worried that I will shake my finger at them while scolding them about all the things they are doing it wrong. The fear that this could happen is one that keeps people away longer, until the problem gets “bad enough” that they have to come in.

I wish I could wave a magic wand to make this fear go away. If parents brought kids in when the issues first started, they would save so much time and money. Instead, we end up weeding through the guilt and shame of whatever the perpetuated cycle has been for parent and child. Most often what I end up doing with parents goes more like this:

  • What are you doing right?
  • How can we increase the times when you feel as though you are handling issues in a way you feel good about?
  • How can we find ways to increase your effectiveness when you feel you are not meeting your own expectations?

A while back I heard someone (I wish I could remember who) saying that so often we focus on what we want to do, as in,

  • What am I going to do about this?
  • If you do this, I’m going to do that.

The speaker went on to point out that we are asking the wrong question. The real question is “Who do I want to be?” Answering this question, “Who do I want to be?” makes the question of what you want to do clear. If who you want to be is a loving parent, then what you want to do will incorporate love for your child (which can also include boundaries and discipline- just so we are clear). If who you want to be is a guide for your child then what you would do would incorporate modeling for your child the appropriate response to a particular situation. It guides us away from whether we are right or wrong to do what we do and into a new discussion about whether we are acting in a way that aligns with our values. When the answer is that we are not acting in such a way, and we cannot come up with a way to act that feels more in line with our value system as parents, it is time to seek help. Think about finding a therapist, parent coach, pastor, rabbi, parent support group or someone that you trust to take the courage to ask the questions about how to become more aligned with who you want to be.

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April 11, 2013 Posted by | affirmations, attachment, counseling, discipline, family, help for parents, kids, mental health, parent support/ self improvement, Parenting, psychology, thinking about therapy? | Leave a comment

Quick Jobs for Kids

written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

The chore list

The chore list (Photo credit: demandaj)

Do you ever get tired of the constant routine of getting upset because your child has not done an agreed upon task or said something insulting to or about you, or bothered you while you were on the phone…again? It always seems to end in the child apologizing, you telling them why they shouldn’t do that, threatening with a consequence next time, only to find that they do it again when you are distracted and you just have a redo. Sorrys start to feel hollow when they are said about the same thing one hundred times.

Even though it’s my job to tell you that accepting what we would call a “repair,” (i.e.- I did something damaging to our relationship and now I am trying to fix it by saying ‘I’m sorry’) is best for your relationship with your child, I understand that this can feel more and more difficult to do as a parent when you feel stuck in a rut and like your children get to breeze by with a sorry and no real consequence.

If this sounds like a familiar routine in your house, might I recommend a little trick I like to call “quick jobs.” It’s a list of quick tasks a child can do around the house to help out when they have done something wrong. It’s not a “your grounded forever” kind of thing, it’s not something that has a child doing an extra 20 minutes of chores. These are for the day-to-day grievances, the ones kids say “sorry” for but you have to wonder after a while, “are they?”

Here is a quick list of tasks. You need the list, or this will just be another good idea that you will forget when the time comes (if you are anything like me). You can have fun making them up next time you are trying to straighten the house:

  • Dust the bannister
  • Clean all the door knobs in the house
  • Take the laundry from the washer and put it in the dryer
  • Help finish the dishes
  • Clean off one surface in the house (the dining room table, the end table next to the sofa)
  • Clean out the sink in the bathroom
  • Wipe down the outside of the dishwasher, oven, or pantry

Quick jobs are for when you are irritated and need a little something extra. When you use them you can say, “I realize your sorry but I would really know it if you ________.” If a child decides not to do it, you can point out that perhaps they are not so sorry after all and that is a bigger discussion.

For today let’s just focus on a quick fix that helps set things right again and teaches children how to really “repair” when they have done something they wish they hadn’t.

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March 21, 2013 Posted by | discipline, help for parents, parent support/ self improvement | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Older Kids with Bathroom Issues: Why Does it Happen? How Can You Help? Part 2

English: Typical Male Restroom in the U.S.

English: Typical Male Restroom in the U.S. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

In last week’s post, we looked at the possible origin for encopresis (soiling after the usual age for toilet training) and enuresis (wetting after the usual toilet training age) in older children with a history of trauma and/or neglect.There is something about an older child wetting or soiling themselves that can send parents into a fury, especially if the incident is perceived to be intentional. This is understandable. We all have buttons, and a big one for many of us involve the transmission of germs whether it’s via spit, mucus, vomit, urine or feces, we don’t want to be around it!

In this week’s post, now that you have a theory from last week about where the issue originates, I want to help you to figure out what to do to help your older child, who will often experience shame as a result of the incident. If you have any questions about implementing any of these strategies, I hope you will ask in the comments section, or discuss it with your child’s therapist.* One of the reasons I am writing this post is because there are very few therapists who specialize in this issue, so if your child’s therapist is not familiar with it, please think about printing out and taking in this article.

As I stated in the first post on older children with bathroom related problems, the first intervention is always to follow the suggestion of your child’s physician as we do not want to fix a broken bone with a band-aid and some medical intervention may be necessary. As sensitive as I know parents are about this issue, children are also very sensitive about it, even if they pretend to be aloof. In fact, I know one of the beliefs parents have that send them into a fury about older children wetting and soiling, is that their child does not even care about the fact that they are doing it when, in reality, often children that have this issue are experts at covering up their feelings so you do not know how humiliated/ angry/ frustrated they are.

Before I give you suggestions, I want to give two important guidelines for all the interventions I use with children. My number one guideline is to follow the PLACE parenting attitude whether your child has attachment disturbance or not. The second is to make sure your child is primed to receive help from you. What I mean by that is, ask your child if they want help. If they say “no,” DO NOT OFFER IT. When you offer children help and they don’t want it, you are only listening to yourself talk and asking to be frustrated. If you offer it, then back off. After you child has refused a couple of times and their refusal has been listened to and honored, their curiosity begins to take over and eventually they ask you what help you have to offer. Then, and only then, are they open to receiving and they will be primed to listen to your advice.

With that said, here is a list of ways I have helped children with enuresis and encopresis:

1. Especially if you recently adopted or started fostering your child, do not panic! You may have a child who is looking for buttons to push to get you upset or make you reject them. If you have an upset reaction, they may see that it gets a rise out of you and will be more likely to continue. Without over-reacting, try to employ natural consequences, i.e. the child has to clean up the mess as appropriate for their developmental age. Remember to use your PLACE attitude, which means that humiliation and embarrassment of your child are not acceptable consequences. In fact, with a child that would purposefully wet or soil themselves, humiliation and embarrassment may actually reinforce the behavior in ways you did not anticipate. To better understand this concept you can read my Caught in the Loop post.

2. My first suggestion for someone with a child with ongoing problems of this nature is therapy. While my sample is quite skewed, I have not seen any children with this issue that did not experience a feeling of fear about the problem, often accompanied by humiliation, even if the behavior is perceived to be intentional by their parents. While moms and dads can be helpful in navigating those feelings, therapists are trained to add an additional and necessary layer of help. Also, as you well know, children are often more motivated to do something someone else suggests over the suggestion of their parents. You know your children do things for their teachers that they would not do for you and bringing the issue to the child’s attention while in therapy often gives a child an extra bit of motivation to work on it. Additionally, if your child has a history of trauma this includes the bathroom in any way, it is important for them to be able to process this history with a trained professional.

3. My most successful intervention in the area of helping older children with encopresis and enuresis is to reintroduce the idea of toilet training. Before you skip this idea because you think your child is too old to re-potty train, let me tell you that I have used this with children in their early teens with success. The reintroduction is delicate and goes like this (and, as I say in many of my posts, the tone is important…think about how Mr. Rogers would say it):

“I wonder if when you were younger and didn’t get what you needed, you might have missed out on some of the signs your body gives you when you need to go to the bathroom.”

It may take a few times of gently suggesting this to your child for them to begin to get curious with you. Suggest you could help them to learn how their body knows it needs to go. Think about this. Your body knows it needs to go when your bladder feels full. I teach kids to playfully ask their bladders out loud in my office, “Bladder, do you have to go to the bathroom?” You would be amazed how many children have quickly realized by asking that question that they do, indeed need to go…right then…and we end up taking a quick restroom break.

You can also point out that sometimes you have been able to tell when your child needs to go and that when kids are young and have parents that take good care of them, the parents often point out when a child is doing the potty dance. For some kids, we come up with a signal that the parent can make, rather than asking out loud in public whether a child needs to go. This works well with a child who has a history of being shamed or traumatized in relation to going to the bathroom,or who was never potty-trained appropriately.

4. An additional technique to use with children who were not properly potty-trained, is to teach each your child about controlling their bowels. One way I do this is to have children picture a balloon full of water. I tell them to picture the balloon turn over so that the opening of the balloon is on the bottom. If you are using your fingers to pinch the balloon, it is like the muscles around your bladder holding the pee or poop in. If you were to let go with your fingers, you would see the water come out of the balloon. For some balloons, you would have to give an extra squeeze from the top to empty it out. Bladders can be like this too. When I work with kids with issues controlling their bowels, I suggest to them that they picture the balloon as their bladder every time they need to go to the bathroom. Muscles hold the urine until you get to the toilet, then they let go and we make sure your bladder is emptied completely. For kids with urinary issues that are feeling brave, I also suggest kegals, where they start urinating, then try to stop the urine one or two times every time they go in order to build up the muscles (consult with a physician to make sure this is a good idea for your child).

Also, and many adults do not know this, there is a right way and a wrong way to empty your bowels. To most easily and completely empty your bladder, teach children to sit, leaning forward with their forearms resting on their thighs. Have a small stool near the toilet so children can put their feet on the stool making it so their knees are higher than their hips. This will help kids that hold onto stool and urine, to most easily and quickly relax and let go when they are going to the bathroom.

5. For kids with bowel issues, especially kids that hold it until it gets painful, I teach a quick exercise to help them control bowel functioning. This is good for relaxation as well. Lie on the floor and counting slowly to five, suck your belly in. Picture your belly button touching your spine. Then, again to a slow count of five, push your belly out until your belly button is actually sticking up. See if you can make the pulling your belly in, equal in time to the pushing of your belly out. Ideally, kids who are learning to control their bowels will do this exercise for 3 minutes a day. The typical response I get from kids when I teach them this exercise and they actually do it in my office is a moment afterward when they start to get excited (like the potty dance) then a request to go to the bathroom. Success!

For children where this does not work, see about helping them find a Pilates class in your area. Many of the Pilates exercises, strengthen the core and pelvic muscles allowing for greater control.

4. I find the toughest kids with bathroom issues are typically the ones who are doing urinating and soiling on purpose, although often the times they do it are few and far between. As I recommended in my previous post on this issue, it is important to figure out the why, but really the intervention for purposeful urinaters and soilers is to make sure they are in therapy with someone who works on teaching them to state their feelings. Often these kids need remedial learning in the expression of feelings, and, while parents can do some of this, a child therapist will have the training to find ways that work for your child to teach them the proper expression of big feelings. Sometimes this means helping them to understand that they will not be harshly punished for the expression of their feelings, and others it will mean having a therapist identify that your child may be experiencing a traumatic reenactment.

I know that this is a sensitive topic for many families and people do not want to be identified by leaving comments, however, if you have questions, or a suggestion that works that I forgot, please let me know. You can feel free to leave a comment or to contact me privately via email: helpforyourfamily@gmail.com

*see disclaimer

January 31, 2013 Posted by | attachment disorder, child development, discipline, mental health | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Older Kids with Bathroom Issues: Why does it happen? How Can You Help? Part 1

White Toilet Bowl in Malaysia

White Toilet Bowl in Malaysia (Photo credit: epSos.de)

written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

No one wants to talk about it. It’s a messy issue, and it stinks…literally. In my practice I see quite a few children who, at a much older age than usual, have bathroom issues, where either they wet themselves at night or during the day. Some even soil themselves. It is often a difficult issue for parents to bring up, and there I times I have seen a child for months before anyone is even willing to mention it, even though it is one of the questions I ask during my initial parent visit for children with attachment related issues. Many of the parents that come to me say it is the most embarrassing of all the issues their child has. It is also the thing that can make parents angry the fastest. After all, if you have a ten-year-old who just wet themselves in your car, it is easy to forget that there might be more going on than lack of self-control. Instead, we tend to focus on the fact that your car smells like urine and a ten-year-old did it!

When a child has a behavior like enuresis (wetting themselves during the night or daytime) or encopresis (soiling themselves), I always look for the root cause. It is important to know where this problem starts because often by knowing where something starts, we can figure out how to fix it in the most loving way possible. In this post I am going to focus on daytime wetting and soiling, as I believe that bed-wetting is an easier issue to find information about and can have a different origin than daytime wetting and soiling which I see most often in children with a history of trauma and neglect.

In my next post we will look at solutions to these problems. Until then, here is a list of questions to help you think about the origin of your child’s issue because when we know the origin, often the solution becomes clear.

1. “Has my child seen a doctor about this issue?” The first place to start with any problems involving the bladder is always with your child’s doctor. Even if your child has not been complaining about a bladder issue. Even if you asked them all the questions that go along with having a bladder infection, still go to get tested. This is important especially if your child has a history of neglect, since they will be more likely to be out of touch with their bodies so they may not be alert to discomfort until it is a major problem. Additionally, even when there is a mental health issue related to a child’s enuresis or encopresis, some children require a medical intervention because, especially for a child that holds on to bowel movements (bm’s), there can be a cycle of holding onto bm’s followed by a painful releasing that can require medical attention in order to stop the pain that reinforces the holding of the bm’s in the first place.

2. “Was my child properly potty-trained?” This may seem like a strange question to ask if you have an eight-year-old, however, if your eight-year-old was being potty trained by an abusive, and or actively drug-using parent, child-care worker, grandparent, etc. during the time when children normally get potty-trained (anywhere from 2-4.5 years old) then they may not have been taught in the ways that they were able to understand. It may be that no one ever walked them through proper wiping procedure after going to the bathroom. It may be that no one ever taught them how to tell if they need to go. Your child may have a developmental lag in this area because they were not able to “master” the developmental milestones that go with being properly potty trained. Additionally, if your child was not properly trained, they may not have developed the muscles that we do not even think about which we use everyday to control our bladder that keep us from our own embarrassing issues.

3. “Does my child have trauma associated with the bathroom?” It may be that your child avoids that bathroom because some bad stuff happened in and/or related to a bathroom at some point, or, they may have experienced trauma related to wetting or soiling themselves. Potty training is reported to be the developmental step during which a child is most likely to experience abuse. If you have a child who has experienced trauma, ask yourself if they may be avoiding the bathroom because it reminds them of something they would rather not think about. Maybe it was a place they hid from someone. Maybe it was a place where they or someone else they loved got hurt. Maybe they were beaten or threatened with harm if they had an accident during potty-training. For children with severe trauma, it may be that they experience a “trigger” wherein they feel terrified, and/or they may be experiencing a traumatic reenactment wherein they are re-experiencing a traumatic situation as their brain’s way of making sense of it and the experience is so intense that they end up peeing on or soiling themselves. An example I have often used comes from when I was a kid myself:

One night I woke up to a small fire in my room. No one was hurt and the house survived but it was scary. The fire truck came and it was pretty clear that things would have been way worse had I not woken up when I did.

Many years later when my children were very small, I remember taking my daughters out to play in the snow. It was a cold day and several people had made fires in their fireplaces. When I went to enter my own home (where we did not have a fire lit), I had a moment when the smell of smoke hit my nose, probably from a nearby chimney. I handed my youngest daughter to my husband and yelled, “Stay out of the house, there’s a fire!” Then I proceeded to run into the house, looking for smoke so I could see where the fire was.

Because I am telling you this story, I’m sure you have figured out by now that there was no fire, however, I can tell you that at the moment I entered my home, I was 100% certain that there was. The smell of smoke was the trigger and I responded accordingly. While it did not involve a wetting or soiling incident (lucky me) I think it does describe how our brains can get tricked for a moment into thinking something is happening again, even when it is not. As I said before, this can sometimes happen with enuresis and encopresis in children of all ages.

4. “Is my child pissed off?” Well, what is the best way to show someone that you are pissed off? Some of the kids that come to see me, intentionally urinate or defecate either on themselves, the furniture, or even mom’s prized photo album. If a child has not been given the tools to express feelings in a reasonable way, they express them in whatever way occurs to them at the time.

Any survivor of abuse or neglect that has not had adequate opportunity or support to process the impact of the trauma often carries an intense level of anger or rage inside. When the anger is not addressed, it comes out in other ways. Even though I have had parents report to me that their child does not act angry when they are urinating on furniture, it is possible that a child with an attachment disorder would seem relatively calm while seething with rage underneath. I liken it to the times when I have gone to the ocean and the lifeguards warned people not to go in the water because the undertow is too strong. The waves look the same to me but there is a pull underwater that you cannot see and that can carry you away from safety. Whether it is because they were not allowed to express feelings for fear of harm, or they gave up on expressing feelings because their feelings were not honored anyway, some children learn that the most effective way to express how they feel is by urinating or defecating intentionally.

5. “Is my child fearful of connection to others?” For children with attachment disorders, it is not uncommon for a child to make themselves seem repellent. I hear a lot about children who refuse to bathe even though they smell terrible, or who have disgusting habits that repulse their parents. If a child is fearful of connection, then feels connection despite that fear, they may do something to make themselves feel more comfortably distant. I see this sometimes when a child comes into my office and we have a moment when the child connects to her mother. Maybe she says something nice about her mom, or they share a hug. For a child where connection is terrifying due to early abuse or neglect, they may subconsciously find a way to reestablish a distance between themselves and their caregivers by wetting or soiling.

Now that we are getting curious about the origins of encopresis and enuresis in older children, in my next post, I will address what we can do about enuretic and encopretic older children.

Related articles:

Older Kids with Bathroom Issues: Why Does it Happen? How Can You Help? Part 2 (help4yourfamily.com)

Caught in the Loop: Why People Repeat the Same Bad Choices Over and Over (help4yourfamily.com)

Parent Affirmation Monday- Curious (help4yourfamily.com)

Chronological Age vs. Developmental Age (help4yourfamily.com)

January 24, 2013 Posted by | attachment disorder, child development, discipline, mental health | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Caught in the Loop: Why People Repeat the Same Bad Choices Over and Over

train circle

train circle (Photo credit: bitmapr)

written by, Kate Oliver, LCSW-C

When I met Aaron, he was 10 years old and living with his parents who had adopted him after three failed placements.  Aaron’s parents were at a loss about what to do with him.  They were committed, loving parents who wanted to help him make better decisions; however, after living with them for over a year, Aaron continued to have bizarre behaviors that they did not understand.  In addition to continuing to steal from his parents any time he had the opportunity, his parents had just figured out that he had also been urinating into the vents in his room.  Aaron’s parents were at a loss as to how to help him change this behavior and they were terrified that it would continue to get worse.

Children who have experienced trauma can seem to continually engage in activities that can be baffling to parents.  I have had many a parent come in to my practice and describe a foster or adopted child who seems to seek attention in negative ways and to actually work to recreate the circumstances that were traumatizing to them in the first place.  From rooms that seem to get instantly messy immediately after cleaning them, to repetitive behaviors that pluck even the calmest parent’s nerves, these children can seem intent on turning their parents into a recreation of the child’s biological parent or earliest caregiver.  There is a name for this phenomenon.  It is called “traumatic reenactment.”  The best way to explain traumatic reenactment is to first understand how trauma works, and the ways we store it in the brain.

Think of your brain as a computer.  The files in your computer are stored in different areas.  There is a short term memory file that stores what you had for breakfast today and yesterday.  There is a long term memory file that stores the stories from your childhood.  There is the work file, the running “to do” list file, and many, many more.  Days that go as planned are pretty easy to file away.

But what happens on a day when something traumatic happens?  An easy definition of trauma is anything that impacts you in such a way that it causes you to feel as though your life is in serious danger, with the possibility of death, or that changes who you perceive yourself to be in a negative way.  To show how people typically store traumatic memories, let’s take the example of a car accident.  You do not wake up in the morning thinking this is probably going to be the day you are in a car accident.  If you really believed that, you would probably never get into the car.  But, there you are, driving down the road and someone sideswipes the car you are in.  No one is hurt, but there are a few moments of panic and your car is seriously damaged.  What do you do?  Well, of course, as an adult you make sure everyone in both cars is okay, call 911 to make sure no one is hurt, and then the insurance.  But what is happening with your memory filing system?  How are you filing this memory?  It sure does not go in the breakfast file!

What happens with trauma is that, until we file it, it acts like a virus on our computers.  If you have ever had a virus on your computer, you know what happens.  You go to get on the internet and think you are checking your email, only to find all kinds of unwanted images popping up on your computer.  Then, if and when you are able to get to your email, you may find out you sent a bunch of messages to people that were not even from you!  You never sent that!  This is how trauma works.  Until you file that traumatic memory you just got from the car accident, your brain is going to be working overtime to file it.  You will go to get in the car and up will pop the memory of the accident and maybe another accident you had a while back.  You will start to remember those terrifying moments when you were out of control and you did not know if you were going to live or die.

Healthy adults file traumatic memories as they verbally process the trauma.  Remember how you called the police?  You had to tell them what happened so they knew who to send.  You were processing the memory.  Remember when you had to call the insurance?  Same thing.  Did you sit in your car for a moment and do some sort of self-soothing like deep breathing to calm yourself down?  Maybe you got a hug or reassurance from someone.  Perhaps you reminded yourself that you have been in cars thousands of times and the vast majority of those times nothing bad happened.

If you did any of those things, you were processing and filing your memory.  Another part of filing trauma is finding a way to understand the event.  This includes thinking about whether you could have done something differently, how you got through it, and how you can avoid the same thing happening again.  Therapists call that mastering the situation.

Now, think about the child you have or have had in your home who has experienced trauma but did not have anyone to process it with and did not have anyone to soothe them, nor did they know how to self soothe, after all, who would they have learned soothing from?  The clinical term for the way this “virus” manifests is “traumatic reenactment.”  It goes like this.  A trauma occurs.  It is not filed appropriately because there is either no, or not enough, processing or soothing for the child.  The child tries to gain mastery (understanding) of the trauma by subconsciously putting themselves back into the same situation over and over again in an attempt to understand or “master” it.

Remember Aaron?  When Aaron lived with his birth parents he was repeatedly locked in his room for days at a time when his parents went on drug binges.  When his adoptive parents brought him in to see me he was lying and stealing constantly, then, they had recently discovered that when they sent him to his room for punishment, he had been urinating into the vents of their home.  What became clear was that this child had found a way to experience a traumatic reenactment with his adoptive parents.  He lied and stole, then got sent to his room for punishment.  While in his room, he had the emotional experience of feeling trapped again, just as he was trapped when he was very young.  In his mind, being sent to his room meant he was not allowed to come out even to go to the bathroom.  When he had to go, he did what he had before, went in the vents, so he did not have to be around a wet spot in his room.  His loving parents had responded in every way they could think of to change these behaviors, but it was not until they understood where the behaviors were coming from that they were able to adapt their responses to more accurately fix the underlying problems.

In therapy, Aaron processed the trauma, learned how to soothe himself and to be soothed by his parents.  It really did not take long for the vents to become dry again so his parents could focus on new ways to address other issues related to his early abuse and neglect.  For traumatized children, I strongly recommend counseling, with a therapist that specializes in trauma, as a resource to help them process traumatic memories to improve behaviors and help parents find a way to adapt parenting styles in ways that are most beneficial to the child.

January 15, 2013 Posted by | attachment disorder, child development, discipline, help for parents | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Chronological Age vs. Developmental Age

written by Kate Oliver, LCSW-C

Having a blog on WordPress is so nice in that I got a nice little report for the end of 2012 letting me know which of my posts has gotten the most attention, etc. By far the most popular post was this one! So, in the spirit of sharing and refreshing for the New Year, I thought I would update and repost this blog, since it was one of my earlier ones and may have been missed by some of the folks who are newer to my blog. I keep my comments open and would love to hear if people are getting what they are looking for from this post even if it has been a while since I originally posted. Enjoy!

Chronological age vs. Developmental Age

When figuring out how to best meet the needs of our children, it is important to understand their developmental age.  For many children this can be the same age as the chronological age, the age we typically think of when we talk about our children, however, if you have a child that, among other possibilities:

  • has a history of trauma or neglect,
  • was adopted at an older age (18 months or more),
  • has a developmental disability,
  • has experienced the death or loss of a primary caregiver,
  • has experienced a major change in family structure,
  • or has a parent with a serious illness or addiction,

you may have a child that has a “stuck” part of their development. If you have a child like this, typically you might notice that there are times when he or she acts much younger than you would expect for their chronological age.  What makes this confusing is that your child may be able to do things that are appropriate for their chronological age.  For example, you may have a child that works at or even above grade level in reading and/or math, but in some emotional areas they may be developmentally younger than their chronological age.

Let’s look at an example everyone can relate to, think for a moment about a time when you have been triggered into a younger developmental age, say, when you go to your parent’s house for the weekend.  Even as an adult, you may find that you act differently toward them or your siblings than you would in your day-to-day life.  You may feel younger, angrier, more docile or more or less confrontational.  What that signifies is that there is a part of you that has not left or resolved some of the struggles from your own childhood.  Most of us have something like this. Our children are no different.

Some important questions about an area where your child seems stuck in a younger developmental age are:

1. Is my child capable of meeting the demands of this developmental stage? Developmental delays, learning issues, issues related to physical abilities and early childhood exposure can all add to a child’s difficulty in meeting a developmental milestone.

2. Has my child ever been properly taught how to meet this developmental milestone? For example, if you have a daughter you adopted from foster care at age 5, she may not ever have been properly potty trained and taught to clean herself appropriately after using the bathroom. It may be that while we expect that to be a skill children learn between ages two and four, your daughter may require instruction now, as she has not received it before.

3. Did something prevent my child from being able to learn this skill at the appropriate time? Perhaps you had a child with medical issues, a traumatic situation or something else. At the time when other children were learning to make friends and play nicely with other children, your child was busy managing an internal or external stressor that demanded all of their attention they would otherwise have been able to focus on meeting a developmental milestone.

4. Does your child have a traumatic trigger that remains unresolved which prevents them from moving through a developmental stage? I see children who have experienced trauma. Many of them have memories associated with trauma that prevent them from focusing on a task. Children (and adults) with unresolved trauma have what we call triggers, which remind them of the traumatic incident. Depending on what happened, a trigger could be a bathroom, a car, candy, really anything that reminds them of the trauma. What this means for parents with children who have experienced trauma is that the simple act of making a snack for your child could result in a child acting much younger until the traumatic triggers have been identified and resolved so that the apple you cut is just an apple again, instead of a reminder of a difficult past.

Why is it important to know where your child might have a developmental lag or stuck place?  Knowing that there are areas where your child is developmentally behind their chronological age allows you to make decisions about how to handle their  behavior appropriately.

What to do about a child acting developmentally younger:

After considering the reasons behind the developmental delay, it is easier to figure out how to address the issue. Sometimes it may just be a matter of time, or finding appropriate school or therapeutic support to allow a child’s brain to develop. For children who are delayed due to an external factor, in addition to school and therapeutic support, consider attempting to change your response to match their emotional/developmental age for the issue you are addressing.  What would you do for a two-year old who needs to brush her teeth?  Would you tell her to go brush her teeth and expect that she was going to easily and happy get right over to the toothbrush and begin throughly cleaning her teeth after applying just the right amount of toothpaste to the toothbrush?  Of course not!  Ideally, you would go with them (even if they are grumbling), you might remind them of why tooth-brushing is so important (if you have a child adopted at an older age, please remember it may be that no one ever taught them the importance), you would make brushing fun by singing a silly song to say how long you need to brush your teeth.

I know many parents reading this might be saying that your 12-year-old, who acts like a 2-year-old at brushing time is not going to stand for you hovering over her while she is brushing her teeth, and you are not going to talk to her like you would talk to a two-year old.  You are right, I am not recommending that you use the tone you would for a two-year old because you might get the death stare or worse, escalate a tense situation.  No, I am saying to use what you would do with a two-year old as a guideline for figuring out something with your child that is developmentally two during tooth-brushing time but is residing in a 12-year-old body.  To me that would look something like, playfully having a contest to see who can get just the right amount of toothpaste on the toothbrush or offering to get your child started by putting the toothpaste on the toothbrush, then saying a silly poem or singing a silly 12-year-old song, or reading a page out of a joke book to your child while they brush their teeth so they can get an idea of how long to brush.  Only read or sing when they are brushing, stop if they stop and start when they start again, and stay playful. Yes, they may look at you like you are crazy, but are they brushing while they are doing it?

Spc. Elizabeth Jarry shows an Iraqi girl prope...

Yes, I can hear protesting parents, now saying that you do not want to put toothpaste on your 12 year old’s toothbrush because they are old enough to do it themselves!  I know they are chronologically old enough, however, we are talking about something that they experience at a developmentally younger age.  And, here’s the good news, if you speak to your child’s developmental age for a while, their needs for that developmental stage get met, and they move on to the next stage of development for that issue.

For more parenting tips that don’t take a ton of time but do improve the happiness level in your home please see my previous posts:

January 5, 2013 Posted by | attachment, child development, discipline, help for parents | , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

To Parents Who Worry Their Child Will Harm Others

Child

Child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

In a departure from my typical Monday affirmation posts, I want to address the recent tragedy in Connecticut and speak to an issue that has not been covered much but needs attention. While many parents worry that something so terrible could happen to their child, many of the parents who come into my office will be asking another question alongside the concern about their child’s safety at school. A good number of the parents I see will be asking whether their child is capable of someday growing up to perpetrate a similar crime. There is a striking article by the Anarchist Soccer Mom, who is not my client, about this very issue. Today I want to write a letter to this parent who has an added layer of grief.

Dear Mom/Dad/guardian/grandparent of a child with violent tendencies and angry outbursts,

I know that the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary school has you shaken on many levels. Not only have you been faced with the vulnerability of human life, even children, but you also have had a scary glimpse into something similar to what your deepest darkest fears whisper to you…that your child could perpetrate a similar crime. As a private practice social worker, I work with children who have a history of being violent, angry, destructive, and rage-ful. I want to talk to you about this fear that may be bubbling up to the surface now even though you may have become an expert at keeping it tucked away.

Please do not live in fear. I know that sounds easier than it is, however, some of your most important work will be letting go of the fear of what your child could become. This does not mean pretending that your child is able to maintain and keep reasonable boundaries if she or he is not, it means to focus more time on planning for the success for your child than you do planning for the spiral down. Sometimes as we visualize a worst case scenario we begin to watch for and call forth those behaviors in our children which we most fear. I am not blaming you, just pointing out a human tendency that we have to find that which we seek, confirmation for that which we are looking for.  Have an emergency plan in place, then try to take in out only when needed.

Remember to separate the behaviors of your child from who you believe them to be. All behaviors are a reaction or coping mechanism based on internal or external stimuli. The core essence of your child, like all humans, is good, loving, caring and kind. This is my belief. The work of parents, therapists, teachers, and other adult caregivers is to help a child connect to his or her core perfect self. Sometimes this means helping a child to quiet internal stimuli via medication, acupuncture, physical exercise, and/or dietary changes. Other times or even at the same time, this means helping children to manage external stimuli, like social and family relationships, sensory issues, or physically or emotionally traumatic experiences. When you are working toward this goal PLEASE MAINTAIN HOPE. If you are seeking treatment for your child and it is not working go somewhere else, even if you are coming to see me! Please do not be scared of non-invasive alternative help that science may not have caught up with yet. There are always going to be people who some treatments help and people the same treatments don’t help. There are no cookie cutter treatments or people. Think about taking your child for yoga or meditation. Try Reiki. Look into crainio-sacral therapy. These are all non-invasive treatments and you can research the person you are taking your child to see. Make sure they are licensed in the treatment you are seeking. Ask questions. Yes I’m sure you will find people who think you are going off the rails, but if it works, do you care?

Listen to yourself. You know your child. I have spoken with too many parents who continued to take their child to a practitioner for years that the parent did not like, did not really agree with and did not trust that their child was getting the treatment he or she needed. These parents continued to go because they were told it was important. Treatment is important, however, the most important part of treatment is picking the right person. Just because someone is an expert, it does not mean they will be an expert for your child. If you feel they do not know or “get” you or your child, think about going elsewhere.

Most of all, keep trying. For some mental health issues, especially issues related to impulse control and emotional regulation, a lot depends on brain development. Sometimes we can teach and guide children endlessly toward more positive coping skills, however, they are not able to follow through with the knowledge they have gained until their brain catches up. Many times it is more than a parent or parents can do alone. You need a good team and respite. Don’t be afraid to ask for more help before you need it so you have it in place. For children who are struggling so much they put their parents and siblings in danger, there are inpatient programs that are good and I have seen parents who have figured out some amazing ways to fund a residential program in an attempt to save their child’s life, and it has.

I want to tell you that I have been doing this long enough now that I have seen kids get better. I am talking about kids who picked up knives and shook them at their parents, kids who started fires in their homes on purpose, kids who purposely urinated on furniture and threatened death toward their parents. You don’t hear about those brave children and parents because they don’t make the news…they grow up. They learn to love people and accept love back. They are not in rehab, or jail, they are at work, school or home, or out with their friends. They make mistakes sometimes, just like you do. They experience personal crises, just like you do, and question their lives, just like you, but really, they survive, just like you and they are doing just fine, utilizing the coping skills you worked so hard to make sure they had available to them.

Keep moving forward.

All the best,

Kate

Recommended Posts:

Messing Up Children in Just the Right Ways (help4yourfamily.com)

The Spectrum of Attachment (help4yourfamily.com)

How to Know if You or Your Child Need a Therapist (help4yourfamily.com)

December 17, 2012 Posted by | attachment disorder, discipline, help for parents, keeping children safe, parent support/ self improvement | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Parent Affirmation Monday- Curious- 11/12/12

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

Curious children gather around photographer To...

Curious children gather around photographer Toni Frissell, looking at her camera (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This weeks affirmation for parents focuses on the “c” in Daniel Hughes concept of PLACE Parenting, the attitude of curiosity. Curiosity in parenting is absolutely essential and often overlooked. By being curious, we can avoid a lot of misunderstandings with our children that are based on our own quick assumptions that we always know what they are thinking. I see so many issues in my office which arise that could have been avoided from the beginning had parents used a parenting strategy that incorporated curiosity. Being curious is especially important for my readers who have children with attachment disturbance as those children often see and understand the world quite differently than we adults expect them to.

When I suggest that parents get curious, what I mean is that when children are angry or upset, rather than assume that we know what they are angry or upset about, get curious. I remember a time when my nephew, who was five, was at my house playing with my girls. The play got a bit rough and I ended up fussing at him. He is not used to me fussing at him, and when I looked at him, I was surprised. While I anticipated he would be upset, or seem repentant, what I saw was him to see him glaring at me, chin down, eyes up, fists clenched, shoulders hunched, and breathing through his gritted teeth. My instant response was that he was angry with me for correcting him, but, rather than assuming, I got curious. I took a breath and using a light tone, (think Mr. Rogers) I asked him if there was something he was upset about. He replied that he was very angry. Rather than assuming he was angry with me, which would have been easy, since I was the one he was glaring and blinking rapidly at, I asked who he was angry with. His response surprised me again. He blurted out, “I’m angry with myself!” and burst into tears.

Imagine the difference in response from believing that your child is angry with you, to understanding that your child is angry with himself. Doesn’t the knowledge change the response? When we take an attitude of genuine curiosity with our children, the result is that we deepen our understanding of them, and our relationship with them.

Often, I have parents ask me to give them words to use with children. Here are some phrases that work well when coming from a curious place.

  • I’m not sure I understand where you are coming from, can you help me?
  • I’m curious about what has you upset?
  • I’m wondering what you think just happened?
  • What do you think about that?
  • How do you feel about that?
  • What do you think is going to happen next?
  • I wonder what you think I said that?

Please remember that the tone of curiosity is as important, if not more important than the words. After all the words, “What were you thinking?” can be said in many different ways. The tone of genuinely wanting to know where a child is coming from is essential in using this technique. I am sure if you begin to explore this your children will surprise you with their responses. I would love to hear about it if they do. Also remember, that we are incorporating the other parts of the PLACE attitude, like “accepting,” so that whatever your child’s response is, you accept that that is what they were thinking, rather than trying to talk them out of it. Here is response and a question you can ask with curiosity if your child says something that you have difficulty accepting. “It makes sense you are feeling that way if that is what you think happened. Is it possible, it could have been something else?” Make sure you give a moment between the acceptance and the question.

I am curious to find out how this goes for you. Really! Please feel free to share your findings from your own adventures in curiosity this week in the comments below, or via email: helpforyourfamily@gmail.com. This week’s affirmation is:

I no longer jump to conclusions. I am curious about all areas of my child’s emotional and physical well-being.

November 12, 2012 Posted by | affirmations, attachment disorder, discipline, help for parents, Parenting | , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Parent Affirmation Monday- Accepting- 11/5/2012

An icon illustrating a parent and child

An icon illustrating a parent and child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

The third aspect of the PLACE parenting attitude, which I have been highlighting in our weekly affirmations is accepting. This element of PLACE parenting refers to the idea of accepting all feelings that your child has. This is important for all children but especially for traumatized or attachment disordered children. When used as part of parenting, it also significantly reduces the number of fruitless discussions we have with our children about whether they should feel that way or not. All parents get caught in these battles, often with good intentions, however the result is still the same in that children end up feeling as though they are not being validated. It goes like this:

Child: I hate my picture.

Parent: What do you mean? That picture looks great! I love it. I really like the colors you used.

Child: I hate it. It’s awful! (buries head down)

While arguing with a child about how great their picture is (and, let’s be honest, sometimes there is room for improvement), understandable because we want our children to feel good about themselves, there is an alternative. Here is what acceptance looks like:

Child: I hate my picture.

Parent: What is it that you don’t like about it?

Child: All of it. I don’t like the way it turned out. I think it’s horrible.

Parent (empathic): It’s tough when pictures don’t work out the way you want them to.

While there is nothing wrong with encouraging your child to take a second look at a picture to help them see the parts that can be good, often this is best done and most accepted by children after their feelings have been listened to. Just think about the last argument you had with a significant other to see if you felt the issue was resolved without them seeing your side of things, whether they agreed or not. Over time, what happens with children who feel as though they are constantly being talked out of their own feelings, and begin to question whether the things they think are true or not. Fast forward to adulthood and you see adults in relationships that in their hearts they know are not good or healthy but which they continue to maintain, etc. because not listening to their inner voices has become routine. Additionally, by accepting that you child is questioning whether perhaps they could improve their picture, you are encouraging them to try harder to be satisfied for themselves. This encourages internal motivation to do and be better, rather than encourages complacency.

All this is what makes the acceptance of a child’s feelings so, so important. And, just to make you feel better, here is the second part of the conversation that you get to have after acceptance:

Parent: I wonder if there are any parts of the picture you do like.

Child: Only the color I used.

Parent: Hey, that’s what I was thinking I liked. That is a good color. What do you think you want to do next?

This conversation can go in many different directions from here, but all of them are good, right?

Here is our affirmation for this week:

I accept all feelings that I or the people I love have. All feelings are valid.

I would love to start a conversation about some of the feelings we parents find it harder to accept about how to get to the point of acceptance.  Please feel free to share any struggles or achievements you have had with this issue.

Below, I have also linked to a post I read last week, “The Great Invalidator,” which speaks to the word “but” and the ways in which it invalidates a child’s feelings and thought processes, another article about acceptance, written in a different way.

November 5, 2012 Posted by | affirmations, child development, discipline, help for parents | , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Taming the “Nasties” in Your Child- Part 2

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

Child

Child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In last’s week’s post, I wrote about the underlying causes of children behaving in a nasty way toward adults.  This week, I want to look at some ways I have found to address this behavior with children that can help them learn to change the way they speak to you and other adults.  As I stated in my previous post, in order to know how to resolve an issue, knowing the origin of the issue is incredibly helpful.  If, for example, the origin of your child’s nasty behavior has to do with being hungry or tired, then obviously, you get them some food (preferably one with protein, that regulates low blood sugar like a piece of fruit with plain greek yogurt, or veggies and dip), or make sure they get some rest.  But what about when it is not a case of being hungry or tired?  What if your child is in perfect health and they are just being rotten toward you?  For young children, there is always distraction.  Below are some other ideas to help you motivate your child to turn their behavior around.  You may find one or a combination of several of them to be helpful.  I cannot give you the answer because our children are not cookie cutter kids.  Each child is different.  Also, keep in mind that it is unrealistic to believe that you can always fix things for your child and sometimes, just like with adults, kids are just going to be in a bad mood, and the goal is not to put them into a good mood but to teach that when you are in a bad mood you want to do the least damage possible to relationships.

  1. Empathy.  Empathy is when you let your child know you get how they feel.  It’s when you remember a time you felt pretty rotten even if it didn’t make sense and you realize that if your child is feeling that way it is because they do not realize at that moment that they have another choice.  Empathy does not mean telling a long story about when you felt the same way (a short one might work).  It means having a moment where you genuinely connect with the way your child is feeling and express that you know they are having a hard time.
  2. Remind your child that they have a choice other than feeling spiteful and spreading the feeling out toward others.  I detailed this technique in this post.  Reminding your child they have another choice does not include lecturing them about how great they have it and how they should feel better than they do.  When someone is stuck on the idea of feeling nasty, that lecture will have the opposite effect.
  3.  If you believe there is a bigger, underlying issue that has them feeling mean, then later, when they have cooled down, try having a conversation about what happened and be curious about where the behavior came from.  Think of saying something closer to, “Wow, I was worried about you earlier today when you said you hated me.  You must have been so angry.  Where did that come from?”  A curious tone during this conversation will work better than a disciplinary one.  This is especially true for children with attachment and trauma issues but it really works for all children.  After all, if someone comes at you with a “what is your problem?” attitude, how likely are you to let them into your inner world where you may be feeling pretty vulnerable?  I’m guessing someone expressing concern over your behavior is more likely to get, and keep, you talking than someone speaking to you in a judgmental tone.  For this conversation, try questions or comments that start with, “I wonder what,” “I was confused by,” and “I’m curious about,” over questions that start with “Why did you.”   This is a great conversation to have in the car alone with your child.  Cars give children the ability to process with you while you are not looking directly at them.  You can always pull the car over if the conversation turns into one that might be better off face to face.
  4. Teach your children how to treat you by modeling how you want to be treated when the nasties strike you- let’s not pretend that they don’t okay?  Tell kids you need to walk away for a minute before you say something you are sorry about, apologize for poor behavior on your part, let children know your mood is not about them (if it is not), avoid blaming in the midst of anger.  After your child has had a case of the nasties and you have debriefed them, tell them how you felt when they said or did what they said or did.  Suggest things that could help you feel better, and allow children to make amends when you are ready- sometimes that won’t be right away.
  5. Be an active listener.  What is your child really trying to say?  Are they telling you that they need more time with you?  Are they telling you that something is scary for them?  State your belief to them, “I know you are so disappointed you can’t go to your friends party and you think I don’t understand how hard that is for you.”  You might be amazed at what just saying something that shows you are listening can do.  After all, if your child wants something and you ignored them, it would be a very rare occasion for them to just walk away without trying to repeat the request, usually at increasing volume until they feel heard.  The older children get, the more they really want to be heard and you can show them you are listening by saying back what you heard.  Sometimes you may find what you thought you heard was not what they were trying to say at all.  Wonderful!  By saying what you thought you heard and finding you were wrong, you get to know your child even better.  Harvey Karp from “Happiest Toddler On the Block” suggests getting on your child’s level and matching their intensity with their voice and even their facial expression while you tell them what you are hearing.  I have seen this snap a teenager out of a tantrum as well.  After you have addressed the message, and your child has calmed down you can have the discussion about how they can tell you differently next time.
  6. Try to use the suggestions from my post Trash Your Behavioral Charts! by making a chart for yourself where you earn points by handling your child’s nasty behavior so you can go out and take care of yourself.
  7. Getting your child on a regular exercise routine doing something they enjoy and making sure they are eating a healthy diet are both wonderful overall approaches for avoiding the nasty behavior in the first place.
  8. Another approach could be to catch your child off guard.  If you know your child is getting ready to throw a tantrum, calmly observe that you are expecting them to throw a tantrum.  After all, if they are angry with you, they do not want you to be right about them, they may stop themselves just to spite you.

By making these suggestions, I want to be clear that my motive is to help you and your child get through the nasty behavior with the fewest regrets possible.  I am not suggesting that the interventions I have recommended need to be the end of the discipline.  In some cases they will be and others they will not depending on how far the behavior goes with your child and what your parental beliefs about discipline are.  I also want to make sure you know that I believe whole-heartedly both as a clinician and a parent that we must be allowed to show negative emotion.  My suggestion is not to thwart negative emotions, it is to suggest meaningful alternatives to behaviors that can be associated with anger, jealousy, frustration, irritation, etc.  What are some ways you have ended the nasties?

August 2, 2012 Posted by | child development, discipline, help for parents | Leave a comment

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