Archives for June 2015

Whose Job is it Anyway?

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I sometimes find myself reminding my daughters—particularly the oldest, aged eight and 10—that it is not their job to parent their sisters. They will attempt to enforce family rules with their younger siblings, or repeat directions the parents have already given. Aside from the fact that the younger girls tend not to take this very well, it is clearly not their job to take on the responsibilities of parenting.

Granted, there are various reasons why the older sisters would want to step into the role of parenting lieutenant. For one thing, they’ve been around longer, and are familiar with the rules; they also have a better understanding of how these rules (assuming that they agree with them) help the household to run more smoothly. For another, as they get older they are taking on more responsibilities with chores, helping to prepare meals and set the table, getting ready to go out, etc. We will be comfortable with letting the eldest girl begin to babysit in earnest in only a couple of short years. And these are good things.

However, they occasionally need to be reminded that they are not parents (the four and six year-olds are happy to help, which brings about its own issues: “You’re not the parent!”). Nor should they be. Their job is to be kids, and this is a full time position. They should be playing, and reading, and making things, and when parents deem it appropriate they can take on specific duties for which power has been granted. But rules, directions and discipline should come from the adults in the household. As parents, it is our job to establish and maintain routines, to plan and execute meals and household projects, to supervise the children and ensure that they are doing what needs to be done (and not doing, you know, what doesn’t).

Why is this a big deal? In the case of my own family we are fortunate to be dealing with some pretty mild and superficial instances of children taking on more than is appropriate. In extreme cases, children are compelled not only to take on the duties and responsibilities of adult caretakers but to fulfill this role with the adults themselves. The term for this is parentification. Good ol’ Wikipedia defines it succinctly as “the process of role reversal whereby a child is obliged to act as parent to their own parent. In extreme cases, the child is used to fill the void of the alienating parent’s emotional life.”

This much more severe and complicated condition arises when parents are unable—due to issues with addiction, mental illness or trauma—to maintain adult functions in the family and lean on the kids to take up the slack. An example would be that a child is planning meals and cooking for the whole family, or dressing and preparing younger siblings for school. Another form this may take is known as “emotional parentification.” This is when parents share with children their very adult situations and emotions. The child becomes a confidant; in extreme cases, according to this website, the child takes on the role of “a surrogate spouse or therapist.” Even if a child is willing or even eager to take this on—who does not want to please their parents?—it can be very damaging because they do not have the emotional or intellectual development necessary to process adult problems.

It is important to keep in mind not only what the child’s job should be, but the parent’s as well. Adults should not expect to gain validation, entertainment, or emotional support from their kids. This is not to say that we cannot, or should not, enjoy and celebrate the things that kids can do, or that when they are being entertaining we should not laugh, out loud, and often. But as I remind them (and sometimes need to remind myself) taking care of them is my job, and that’s a one-way proposition.

Time Out: Alternative to What?

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I wrote a couple of weeks ago about time outs, and my observation that, not only do they often fail to achieve what we want for our kids, but there are several unintended side effects as well. I suggested that time outs were nevertheless ingrained in our culture and would continue to be a go-to form of discipline unless we had alternatives close to hand.

In this week’s post, I wanted to touch on some of those alternatives. First, let’s acknowledge some of the ways in which time outs do work. Then we can discuss a way to accomplish those things in a way that is both more nurturing and more effective (the two tend to go together).

  • Time outs can be effective because of fear.

By withholding our affection and attention, we are taking away what is most important to a child’s sense of safety, security and well-being. Our kids don’t want to experience that, so they will attempt to change their behavior, at least for the moment.

Why not flip the equation, and give a child our time and affection, rather than holding it at arm’s length? Parents are good and determining when a child is escalating, or heading to an out of control place. It is still possible to step in, not with a warning, but a hug, or a few minutes on the floor playing with toys or reading books. By fulfilling the child’s unspoken need before it becomes “behavior,” we could prevent the “behavior” from happening. Even better would be to recharge those love batteries in a calm, happy moment.

  • Time outs can be effective because of safety.

It is absolutely true that sometimes a child is being unsafe to themselves and to others and needs to be moved to a safe place. And that is exactly how it should be approached: “I see that you are having trouble controlling your body. I’m going to help you move away.” When a child is feeling out of control, this is exactly what they need, and want, but are singularly unable to express.

What if the child, having been moved to a safe place, continues to escalate? The short answer is, “so what.” Tantrums happen. But if they know that a caring adult is with them and available when they’re ready, the tantrum is likely to be far less severe. It probably won’t last long, either.

  • Finally, time outs can be effective because they provide a time out.

Sometimes a break, even for a couple of crucial minutes, is a necessity. The trick is, it’s for us, not for the child. If we as parents find that we are overwhelmed and unable to deal with the behavior in question, it could just be that we need a minute. Giving ourselves a time out, whether it means a moment on the porch or just that rare and precious chance to use the bathroom alone, can make all the difference.

My Best Friend

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This week’s guest post is by Cammie Freitag. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Cammie.

Do you remember when you were younger? The feelings of love you had for your family and friends? Do you remember beaming with pride as you stated, “this is my best friend?” Now think: do you remember feeling that way about yourself? I had all I needed except for one crucial thing; love for myself.

My mom and dad tried the hardest they could to provide me with all that I needed. I always had food and clothing (even if they were hand-me-downs). So then, how did that critical piece of emotional health, self-love, ended up missing from my upbringing? I can’t say exactly. Sure, I could speculate all day but it wouldn’t make a smidge of a difference. What I had to learn—through excruciatingly poor choices, self-hate and hard life lessons—was how the heck to love myself and talk to myself like I would to my best friend. I’m not always as kind to myself as I should be, but I’m leaps and bounds ahead of the girl I used to be.

Once I had my own child, I made it my mission to teach him how to love himself. I thought that if I could teach him only that, he would have an incredible resource within himself to help him through any and all life struggles; especially mistakes! I once read somewhere that “the way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice”. If this is true, that puts a lot of pressure on parents! But it does make you think, doesn’t it? Hopefully most of us wouldn’t use cruel and hurtful language with our kids, such as, “you’re dumb” or, “you’re just a bad kid.” But even the more subtle messages can set a negative tone for our child’s developing inner voice. If you’re sending messages such as, “What’s the matter with you?” or “Why do you always…” what is that really saying to our children? I think it is telling them that they aren’t “okay” the way that they are. This damaging message can affect the way children view themselves. If a child starts to believe they aren’t “okay” the way they are, how can they possibly love themselves?

I’m not saying that we can’t address our child’s behaviors when they arise. But we can do so with a positive approach. Instead of using broad negative statements, let’s figure out what’s going on with them. Ask them how they are feeling. If your child is acting out in an “ugly” way, say something like, “I notice you’re not acting like yourself, can you tell me how you are feeling?” Letting our children know that these behaviors aren’t a part of who they are can show them that we all act in ways that are hurtful or “ugly” but that it is not who we are. That it’s normal and okay to have those feelings; it’s just what we do with those feelings that really matter. And if we do slip and act in a way that isn’t so nice, we can make sure to apologize! Apologizing to our kids teaches them that even big people make mistakes and that when we do, we can recognize it, say we’re sorry, and attempt to repair it. So let’s try to monitor the way we talk to our kids and always be sending the message, “You’re perfect just the way you are”.

Cammie Freitag is an In-home Safety & Reunification Services Advocate at Family Tree Relief Nursery.

Time Out on Time Outs

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Time outs have endured as a go-to method for parents who are faced with behavior issues in their kids. I have encountered many parents who have a plan for how to make time outs work, and though I’m not sure where the rules come from (magazine articles? TV nannies? Other parents? Those are my best guesses), they all seem to agree on the basics.

Here are “the rules” of the time out as I have seen them in action:

  • Remove the child from the situation and coax, compel or simply place the child in a particular spot.
  • Instruct the child to remain there for a fixed amount of time—generally one minute per year of age (again, not sure from where this formula comes, specific as it is).
  • Following the time out, usually immediately after it’s over, talk to the child about why it was they were placed in time out.

The goal here, presumably, is that the child will make a connection between the discipline and the behavior it prompted. Unfortunately, it often does not work out that way. Here are some things I have observed about time outs as performed in this manner:

  1. If there are other children present, they are not getting the supervision or attention they would otherwise be getting, and are recruited by circumstance as spectators to the behavior and the power struggle that ensues. The other children are thus more likely to emulate the targeted behavior, if only because they see that it’s an excellent way to gain attention from a parent and to “stop the show.”
  2. And it does become a power struggle, as inevitably the child in question does not wish to be placed in time out and will resist (screaming, becoming aggressive, dropping to the floor, or simply leaving the designated area). I once heard this advice directed at teachers, and I think it applies just as well to parents: “If you enter a power struggle with a child, regardless of the outcome, you have already lost.”
  3. With small children, there is a real disconnect between the behavior incident that prompted the time out and the intervention itself; especially if it becomes a prolonged affair that leads to more acting out and further reaction from the parent. The time out may serve the function of removing the child from the situation, but there is little chance that they will understand why one thing lead to another, and be able to correct the behavior.
  4. The reason for this is that a time out, as described above, is neither a natural consequence (if you go outside without your jacket, you will be cold) nor a logical one (if you hit your sister with that stick, it will be taken away). It’s just too abstract, and the child is no longer in the moment. They will likely not come away with the lesson you intended. This is played out in the simple fact that parents tend to give time outs repeatedly for the same behaviors, and often in the same situations (where a likely explanation for the behavior is that the child is hungry, or tired, or having difficulty with a particular activity or transition).
  5. One thing I frequently observe is that after a child has been given a time out they are given special time with the parent to reconnect and enjoy some positive attention. I think that this is probably the best possible outcome. It is also probably what the child needed in the first place. Since time outs require time and effort from the parent, why not be proactive and take time to allow that connection to happen beforehand? You may find that the behavior—which is nearly always an unmet need that the child can’t otherwise express—does not happen nearly as often.

The Mask

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Being a person is stressful. Being a parent multiplies that stress by quite a bit. Being a child, in a family full of people experiencing stress? Now that’s hard.

I work with families who are under stress from all sides. In addition to the stuff that’s native to being a parent—keeping the kids safe, putting them to bed, figuring out what to do when they pound each other with wooden blocks—there may be intergenerational poverty, even homelessness; addiction issues, mental health issues, lack of transportation, unemployment, chronic illness, food insecurity…the list really goes on. Each of these stressors compounds the other, and it’s all connected.

Stress management is understandably an important skill for parents to practice, and to pass on to children. How does this work? There’s the adage about how, when a plane is going down, we have to strap on our own mask before helping anyone else. Going further, we have to keep in mind that children pick up on all of our signals, especially the ones we don’t realize we’re giving out. So the best way to help kids deal with stress is to deal with our own. Once we’re able to do so, we can pass these skills along. All of these methods are surprisingly simple. And backed by science!

  • Breathing. It’s pretty important. Oxygen to the brain and all that. Three slow, deep breaths are usually enough to give us what we need to handle what’s happening in the moment. Why is it so hard, when we’re feeling overwhelmed, to take the time to do it? I can’t answer that. But it gets easier with practice. Have the kids do it with you.
  • The Counting Method. Counting slowly from one to ten can kick the left brain into gear.
  • Water. Literally taking a drink of water will help flush out the stress hormones.
  • You can always try going outside.
  • Anticipating Events. This is a hard one for me. Even though I know that thinking about the possible outcomes and planning for them is better in every way, I would rather not go there. Maybe if I ignore the problem it will stop existing. Strangely, it usually doesn’t work that way. And of all these methods, knowing what will happen next is probably most important for kids. Having consistent, predictable routines alleviates anxiety and, incidentally, eliminates unnecessary choices that make kids feel overwhelmed. Good for us, too.