The Link Between Food and Mental Health

The choices we make about what we eat affects more than just our weight, heart, and  physical health. Studies of diet and exercise for mental health have shown a significant link between food and mental health.

What we eat can affect our mood, how we feel, and how well we cope with stress in life. Dr. Eva Selhub says, “Think about it. Your brain is always ‘on.’ It takes care of your thoughts and movements, your breathing and heartbeat, your senses — it works hard 24/7, even while you’re asleep.

“Think about it. Your brain is always ‘on.’ It takes care of your thoughts and movements, your breathing and heartbeat, your senses — it works hard 24/7, even while you’re asleep.

This means your brain requires a constant supply of fuel. That “fuel” comes from the foods you eat — and what’s in that fuel makes all the difference. 

Put simply, what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.”

For many years, I worked in an office, surrounded by others, all of us in cubicles. I had a cup of coffee at home, then another when I got to work.  I worked productively throughout the morning, which I attributed to being a “morning person.” I was always productive and full of energy at the start of the day.

After lunch, I resumed work, a little less energetically. By 3pm, I’d hit an energy low. Problem solving became more difficult. So I’d have a diet cola mid-afternoon. It gave me a boost for the last stretch of the workday.

I’d commute home, have dinner, and by 8pm, I’d hit another low. My brain was mush, and I was exhausted. Every day was the same – clear headed and mentally energetic in the morning, brain fog by 3pm, caffeine-assist mid-afternoon, and crash by 8pm.

But then, during the height of popularity for detox ‘cleansing,’ I did a 3 day juice ‘cleanse’ over a weekend. I spent the weekend with a classic caffeine withdrawal (excruciating) headache. But by Monday morning, I was on the other side and the headache was gone. I hated the idea of having endured that headache for nothing. So, I decided to stay off the caffeine.

The impact of that one small change in my diet was astonishing. Without the caffeine, my energy level for the entire day remained steady.  My brain was fully functioning all the way to bedtime. I wasn’t crashing mid-afternoon, so didn’t need the soda to make it to the end of the work day.  I got to the other side of the dinner hour and still had mental and physical energy. It was amazing to enjoy the evening, instead of watching the clock as I held up my weary head at least as long as the kids were still up.

I was amazed at how the caffeine I’d been drinking – just two cups of coffee in the morning and a soda in the afternoon – had impacted my mental and physical health for the entire day. I was happier and healthier without the caffeine.

What we eat really does affect how we feel and how well we cope. Licensed nurse Carolyn Denton, says, “The food we eat gives our bodies the ‘information’ and materials they need to function properly. If we don’t get the right information, our metabolic processes suffer and our health declines. If we get too much food, or food that gives our bodies the wrong instructions, we can become overweight, undernourished, and at risk for the development of diseases and conditions, such as arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease.

Functional Medicine practitioners examine the role of nutrition in chronic disease, they look at multiple systems, such as the digestive system, the immune system, and the detoxification system, because of the interconnections between those systems. For instance, because 80% of the immune system is contained in the gastrointestinal system, a person’s issues with immunity could be related to faulty digestion.”

Many studies have also looked at the impact of nutrition on young children.  A review of the research done in 2014 found that a poor diet is linked to poorer mental health in children and adolescents.   

They conclude that there is an important relationship between diet patterns or quality and mental health early in life. The evidence also indicates that what we – and our children – eat may play an important part in preventing or managing mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), and dementia.

The UK Mental Health Foundation says, “Just like the heart, stomach, and liver, the brain is an organ that requires different amounts of complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and water to remain healthy.”

Not surprisingly, good nutrition includes fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, meat, fish and dairy.  These foods, known to benefit our heart and liver, also benefit our minds, memory, and emotions.  

And while a healthy diet helps everyone’s mental health and brain function, for infants and children under the age of 3, whose bodies and brains are growing more rapidly than they ever will again, good nutrition also feeds their ability to learn, setting them up for a lifetime of benefit.

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Family Fun: It’s Good for Everybody

Who doesn’t love to have fun? Summer is the perfect time to break out of the routine and have some family fun together. There are so many benefits — to both parents and children — when families have fun together.

Families playing together build stronger bonds between parents and children, strengthen communication skills, and pave the way for better behavior in their growing children. The simple fact: families having fun together contributes to healthy child development.

Stronger bonds 

Prior to the 20th century, family bonding occurred primarily through shared work and household chores. With industrialization came a shift in family roles and family dynamics. Urban and suburban families today are not working together all day on the family farm, but finding time to have fun together can provide families opportunities to develop strong emotional connections and deeper family relationships. 

We play a lot of board games at our house. As the children get older, we’ve moved on to strategy games that can take hours to complete. Those hours spent together around the game table provide opportunities for conversation. Often the conversation has nothing to do with the game in front of us. Especially for teens, the game table provides a low-stress, device-free environment where they are more likely to share their thoughts and feelings, about particular issues or just life in general.

Better communication

Engaging in activities as a family group helps children learn to communicate with people who have different styles, opinions, and ways of doing things. Young children observe and then model the behavior of the adults around them. Playing together each individual contributes to the conversation in their own unique way. These varied styles of communication allow young children to observe differences and help them develop robust communication skills.

Better behavior

More family-time together creates stronger emotional bonds as well. Relationship skills help children develop well and have a long lasting effect. Research has shown that teens who spend more time with their parents are less likely to skip school or get into trouble with the law (see Wiley Online).

Better health — and less stress

Spending time together having fun helps both the adults in the family and their children reduce the impact of stress on their health and well-being. Findings from a Canadian research study “underscore the importance of giving greater attention to the role of leisure as a means of coping with stress.”


Choosing energetic activities for family fun, like biking or soccer, will elevate heart rates and reduce cortisol levels. Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone, also known as it’s ‘alarm system.’ Turning off the alarm system with activities that get the body moving can help lower blood pressure. 

With so many good reasons. Let’s all take some time this summer to have some family fun together. It does not need to be elaborate or expensive. Here are some suggestions from 100 Ways to Have Fun with Your Kids for Free or Cheap:

  • Have a reading marathon.
  • Write stories together.
  • Play soccer.
  • Paint or draw together.
  • Create a fort in your living room out of blankets or cardboard boxes.
  • Go on a hike.
  • Have a sunset picnic at a park or beach.
  • Play board games.

You can read the full list here: 100 Ways to Have Fun with Your Kids for Free or Cheap

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Summer is a Great Time to Delegate

Do you have a teenager or two who find themselves at loose ends without the routine of the school day? Last summer, I found myself in just such a situation. The change in routine is a welcomed one, but for some children, the lack of structure can cause anxiety.

I had two problems as summer break started last year. First, I really wanted to see my kids help more around the house. And secondly (and maybe more importantly), I wanted them to get away from the screens.

But then I had an idea that turned out to be the perfect solution for our family.  

I’ve never been good a sustaining the expectation that kids will do chores. They help, but in random and infrequent ways. But early last summer, I hit upon a sustainable and simplified version of a ‘chore chart’ which focused only on dinner. It invited the entire family to take responsibility for getting dinner onto — and off — the table each evening.

This simple chart gave everyone specific responsibilities every day.  And a routine for the lazy, unscheduled days of summer.

To create our family “dinner delegation” chart, I began by making a list of the four main elements of dinner prep and cleanup. I intentionally selected just four jobs since there are five of us in our household. This let me rotate everyone through the tasks every week and also gave one person ‘the night off’ each day.

Our four jobs were: Set the Table, Cook Dinner, Clear the Table, and Do the Dishes.  The number of jobs can be expanded or contracted to fit the number of people in the family.  For example, “Put Away Leftovers” could be added after “Clear the Table” if an additional job is needed. For us, one person did all the dishes, but “Load the Dishwasher” could be separate from the hand washed dishes in “Do the Dishes.” And there’s nothing saying people can’t be assigned more than one job each day. The chart can easily be modified to fit your particular family configuration. With our family of five, these four worked for us.

On our chart, the first column contains the jobs that need to be done. Then come the days of the week. I listed just Monday through Saturday, giving everyone Sunday ‘off’.  Some Sundays we ate out, on others dinner was ‘Do it Yourself’, but mostly I just did it all on Sunday, with help from whomever was inclined to assist.

After rows and columns were done, I added names, starting with job one on Monday and ending with job four on Saturday.  The resulting assignments looked something like this:

I posted this chart on a kitchen cabinet, where everyone could see what their assignment was each day. Assigned responsibility was a radical departure from the way we’ve always done it at our house – where I cooked dinner and hollered for someone to set the table when it was time to eat.  The change was awesome.

Because it was written down and posted, everyone knew what to expect. So there was no grumbling about doing the assigned job. The kids thoroughly enjoyed choosing the meal they would prepare and then fixing it for the family. (Full transparency: I helped with the cooking most nights at the beginning, as this was our youngest’s first real experience with using an oven and stove.)

One of my children is an overachiever. When it was her turn to set the table, it was often done mid-afternoon!

But things didn’t always go smoothly.  There were days when someone was not home for dinner. On these days, there would be much negotiating, with deals made to swap jobs or find coverage. This gave the kids an opportunity to practice their negotiation and compromise skills. Another benefit!

Does delagation sound like something that might work at your house? Here are some tips if you decide to embark on this adventure:

  1. You’ve got to be ok with giving up control of the menu planning. Choosing what to fix gives the kids practice at planning and follow-through, and builds confidence and enthusiasm. Cooking what someone else has chosen does not create the same excitement and is likely to be met with grumbling.
  2. You know your children best – give them support where they need it, help them learn and gain skills in the kitchen through effort and practice, then back off when they are able to do it independently. Delegating doesn’t completely eliminate the need to be in the kitchen during dinner preparation. I found I was able to work my way out of the kitchen as the summer progress, but at the beginning I needed to be available to support and coach.
  3. Grocery shopping is another opportunity to engage children in the mechanics of preparing for meals. We would assemble the week’s menus together on Saturday morning, so I could grocery shop for the week. Bringing them to the grocery store to participate in the gathering of ingredients is another job that could be partially delegated.

What do you think? Is there space for such a system in your family’s routine this summer? Last year, our new summer dinner strategy worked so well we are excited to implement it again this summer. In fact, I’m thinking it may become standard operating procedure throughout the year!

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Get Out!

As the school year comes to an end, our thoughts turn to summer, vacation, and the great outdoors. We get excited to see the sun, shed the sweaters, and make plans for hiking, camping, boating, and exploring the Pacific Northwest. But, you know, being outdoors has benefits all year long. This summer, start a habit of being outside regularly, then stick with it throughout the year.

Studies have documented many benefits for children when they get outdoors. In Finland, where children spend 15 minutes outside after every 45 minutes of instruction, studies have shown that these frequent breaks can equal smarter kids. They return to the classroom more attentive and ready to resume their learning. Those 15 minutes outdoors refreshes their bodies and their brains.

Being outdoors in the natural sunlight helps align the body’s biological rhythms to natural cycles of light and dark — rhythms that help regulate sleep and manage stress levels and hormones. Sunlight stimulates the part of the brain that helps regulate our biological clock. And supplies us with vitamin D, which improves our brain’s ability to function efficiently.

Studies have linked time spent outdoors in nature to decreased ADHD in children and improved focus, concentration and productivity in adults. According to the National Institute of Health, being exposed to light at all times of the day and night modern contributes to late sleep schedules and may also disrupt sleep. Getting outside and reconnecting with natural rhythms of light and dark can help address this disconnect.

Simply put, spending time outdoors in nature and natural light improves wellness and just makes us feel better.  

Another mind/body connection to nature and being outdoors is found in environmental health research. Grounding, also known as ‘earthing’, “refers to the discovery of benefits — including better sleep and reduced pain — from walking barefoot outside or sitting, working, or sleeping indoors connected to conductive systems that transfer the Earth’s electrons from the ground into the body.” [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3265077/#]

In the article “Earthing: Health Implications of Reconnecting the Human Body to the Earth’s Surface Electrons”, the authors note, “emerging scientific research has revealed a surprisingly positive and overlooked environmental factor on health: direct physical contact with the vast supply of electrons on the surface of the Earth. Modern lifestyle separates humans from such contact. The research suggests that this disconnect may be a major contributor to physiological dysfunction and unwellness. Reconnection with the Earth’s electrons has been found to promote intriguing physiological changes and subjective reports of well-being.”

Whether a grassy lawn or the sandy beach, being barefoot and connecting your body to the earth has benefits.

So as you are planning your summer, make some time for being outdoors – preferably barefoot! Plan a picnic, shed the shoes, and enjoy a romp in the park after lunch.  Stretch yourself out in the grass and watch the clouds float by. Take off those shoes next time you are at the beach and soak up some healing electrons.

Here are a few of my favorite ‘get outside’ destinations in Benton County:

  1. Bald Hill bike & hike trail  – walk or bike for as long as the little legs will go and choose your level of difficulty.  Stick to a short paved stretch near the fairgrounds, or challenge yourselves to climb the unpaved, but well marked trails to the top of Bald Hill.
  1. Jackson Frazier wetland – a lovely boardwalk loop through protected wetlands.  The boardwalk is flat and the walk just two-thirds of a mile long, with opportunities to hear and see all sorts of wildlife.
  1. Fitton Green natural area – a bit of a drive out Oak Creek Drive, Fitton Green is a lovely grassy knoll with stunning views of the valley along its gently sloping loop trail.

Do you have a favorite nearby destination for getting out and back in touch with mother nature? Share it in the comments!

Want to learn more about the research being done on the body’s connection to nature?  See:

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The Importance of Play

If you’ve ever visited a Montessori classroom, you may have noticed something odd about the language that is used. Children are invited to choose their ‘work’ from the shelf. They are invited to find work to do with their friend. Why do they talk like that? For parents familiar with play-based preschool programs, this emphasis on “work” seems inappropriate to a preschool setting.

As adults, we often think of “work” as that which we have to do. If it’s “work” by definition, it is not “fun.” Merriam Webster defines work as “an activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.” Play, on the other hand, is defined as “engaging in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.”

Dr. Maria Montessori, in her research of child development, famously stated, “Play is the work of the child.” Translation: when children play (engage in an activity for enjoyment) they are working (involved in mental or physical effort which achieves a purpose or result).

In other words, when they play, children are working on many things.  

Play helps them develop fine and gross motor skills, improve self-regulation, develop cognitive and intellectual abilities, learn social skills, and increase their ability to imagine and create.

There are so many benefits of play for the developing child. And yet, for a variety of reasons — full calendars, changes in family structure, and increased attention to enrichment activities and academics — children today have less time each day for recess at school and child-led play outside of school. The rise of electronic access to passive entertainment has also stolen time from healthy, active, creative play.

Free-play is different from an arranged play date, participation on a sports team, or adult-led group lessons in music, dance, or sports. While those things are all valuable, children also need unstructured time to engage with other children and their environment. Free-play invites them to imagine, create, negotiate, lead, and relinquish leadership.  

When children are offered time to play without structure imposed by an adult, it creates a space for the child and his/her peers to “be in charge.” There is no adult directing the activity, no adult making the decisions about what will be done next, no adult expectations imposed upon the child, and no assigned tasks. This invites the child to decide what will be done and how will it be done. The child has the freedom to imagine and then execute. To try, to fail, to succeed, to engage with other children in order to accomplish that which they have imagined.  

It encourages them to think and develop problem-solving skills. It gives them real-time feedback and consequences. They envision something that works and are rewarded with the satisfaction of a plan well executed. They attempt something that fails and are given the opportunity to build resilience, to develop evaluation and analysis skills, and then to try again.  

Children who have not had the opportunity to spend much time in unstructured, child-led play may need some practice before it feels natural and comfortable. If they are used to being told what to do and how to do it, calling upon their own creativity may not come easy for them. You are likely to hear, “I’m bored.”  But boredom is not a bad thing — being bored spurs our imagination and invites us to figure out what would give us satisfaction and joy, right here, right now.

At first, they may do nothing, but being still and doing nothing is not a bad thing. Laying in the grass doing nothing but watching the birds and the clouds float by is not a bad thing. Much has been written about the perils of day-dreaming, but research is now discovering the benefits of letting our minds wander. A recent study reported in the journal Learning and Individual Differences that a wandering mind improves creativity and metacognition (understanding of one’s own thoughts). Better understanding of yourself leads to improved self-regulation and enhanced well-being. (Daydreaming is good for adults, too!)

If your child’s day is full from beginning to end, try to find a way to carve out some “down time” when nothing is scheduled so they can just play, without adult direction or involvement. In so doing, they will have the opportunity to imagine, then plan, and then try.  

Where will their imagination and creativity take them? Lots of good places!

Want to learn more about the benefits of play for growing children, visit The Genius of Play.  
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Features of the perfect free-play environment:

Feature: Benefit
Unstructured: Invites children to use their creativity and imagination – to invent the activity all on their own.
Child-led: Lets the child take responsibility for the activity, encourages imagination and creativity, lets them do only what they want to do.
Open-ended: Builds skills in creating processes, procedures, and social interactions when there is no adult decreed task to complete.
Loose Parts: Contains bits and pieces of things that can be used in many different ways to support their play.

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Helping Kids Cope

Disappointments and difficulties are a part of life. Economic circumstance, political upheaval, and family dynamics can create hardship and adverse life circumstances for children and their families. Sometimes children and families also experience truly traumatic events.

How do we – and our children – cope with both everyday difficulties and larger life trauma?  How can we help our children learn coping skills? Research examines resilience – the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties – in an effort to answer those questions.  

Over the last two decades numerous research studies have examined psychological resilience in children, looking to identify the special traits or skills that help children navigate difficult circumstances and overcome adversity.  Surprisingly, what they found is that it is not special traits or skills that help people who cope well with adversity. Instead, people who develop resilience call on the normal coping mechanisms available to us all.

What studies have found is that the key to helping kids learn how to cope turns out to be many of the same things that help kids grow up well: effective parenting, connections with competent and caring adults, self-regulation skills, a positive view of themselves, and the motivation to succeed.

Thus, everyone has the capacity for resilience.  Parents help support their children’s development – including developing their ability to cope – right from the beginning. Young children begin developing resilience as they learn from the responses of their caregivers.

Parents, with the support of other caring family members and community members, can help their children become more resilient through everyday interaction and role modeling. Parents who model resilience – demonstrating self-regulation in the face of disappointment or talking about how they “bounced back” from a setback – help children learn how to cope with disappointments in their own lives.  

Lizzy Francis offers a number of parenting strategies that support the development of resilience with these tips from Amy Morin, author of the book 10 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do:

“Supporting struggling children is important, but the best way parents can teach resilience is by modeling it. Acting cool-headed in the face of stress and acknowledging mistakes provides children with a rubric for failure. Failing, they learn, is not the end of the world. It’s just part of being alive.

Here are the specific suggestions that Morin gives parents looking to teach by doing….

  • Don’t Intervene All The Time
    “When your child is struggling — if, say, his blocks keep tipping over and he’s getting angry, don’t swoop in and do it for them,” says Morin. In other words, practice restraint. It’s easy to step in and help soothe your kid. But letting them struggle helps them learn that they can solve their own problems.
  • Own Up To Your Mistakes
    Parents, per Morin, should actively apologize to their children when they make mistakes, like if they snap at them, or are late to pick them up. “Pointing out what you did wrong — if you didn’t handle your anger very well, or said something that wasn’t very nice — explain what happened, without making an excuse. And then you explain how you will learn from the problem and fix it,” suggests Morin. This, she says, teaches kids that making a mistake is fine, as long as you apologize and learn from them.
  • Examine Their Feelings
    You want to acknowledge a child’s feelings and tell them that their feelings matter,” says Morin. “That makes a big difference in whether they perceive if their feelings are okay, that it’s okay to be scared and still do something anyway.” Letting your kid know that their feelings are legitimate — but that they don’t have to inform their behavior at all times, like, say, when a playground scuffle breaks out — is essential.
  • Audit Your Behavior
    Kids are always watching. Per Morin, it’s essential for parents to think about how they act in moments of daily stress and try to do better. “When you’re dealing with an annoying situation, like the long line at the grocery store, and you’re tired, and you’re hungry, how do you handle it? Are you complaining? Are you staring at your phone? Your kids are watching how you cope with your emotions,” says Morin.

In other words: by being a resilient adult, you teach your kids how to react to moments of stress.”

Parents can also help build resilience by taking care of themselves.  Self-care makes you better equipped to parent and better able to meet everyday challenges.

And good parenting has protective power for children in difficult circumstances.  As does strong, supportive connections with other adults – teachers, mentors, neighbors, and family friends.  For children and teens, relationships with other adults help foster a positive view of themselves and encourages motivation to succeed.

A resilient child has:

  • The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
  • A positive view of themself and confidence in their strengths and abilities.
  • Skills in communication and problem solving.
  • The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.

(https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience)

Luckily these are all skills that can be developed at any stage of life.  As parents, we can help our children learn these skills and behaviors. As community members, neighbors, scout leaders, and sports coaches, we can mentor and support the children in our community as they develop their own resilience.

For more tips on helping your children develop the ability to cope with adversity, join us at the 6th annual PSN Speaker event on Monday, May 20th.  Dr. Ann Masten will be presenting “Ordinary Magic”, a look at building resilience in children.

The event will be held at the Linn Benton Community College, Tripp Theatre, LBCC Albany Campus, 6500 Pacific Blvd. SW, Albany.  Doors open at 6:30. Free childcare is provided by reservation – call 541-917-4884 to reserve your spot.

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Supporting Differences: When a Child Needs Extra Help

In our last post we looked at developmental milestones and resisted rushing to conclusions about development that doesn’t fit our picture of “normal.”  We also looked at developmental screening tools that help identify situations that might benefit from further assessment. Today, we look assessment and support for children with special needs.

Special needs are often categorized into 4 major types:

  1. Physical, such as muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, chronic asthma, epilepsy
  2. Developmental, like down syndrome, autism, dyslexia, processing disorders
  3. Behavioral/Emotional, such as ADD, bi-polar disorder, oppositional defiance disorder
  4. Sensory Impaired, such as blind, visually impaired, deaf, limited hearing

For young children not yet in Kindergarten, after screening a preschool teacher or doctor can refer a family to Early Intervention for further assessment.  But you don’t need to wait for a referral. Parents can also “self refer”. This means that you do not need a doctor or daycare provider to begin the assessment process.  You can simply call them up and request an appointment.

They will schedule a time for you and your child to visit their offices.  During the visit they will do an assessment and determine if your child would benefit from services.

If they determine that support services will benefit your child, Early Intervention will design an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP).  The IFSP outlines the scope of services EI will provide – what they will do and how often they will do it. The IFSP can include transportation to and from the service provider, if needed.  As your child gets older the IFSP will convert to an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) that can carry them through public school to high school graduation.

An IEP (Individualized Education Plan) is a legally binding document that outlines the special education services your child will receive.  The IEP classifies the disability, documents the accommodations needed, and outlines learning environment modifications that will be made by the school.

Each year an IEP meeting is held to assure that parents, teachers, and support specialists review the goals in the IEP, review how the student has progressed toward the goals, and update the goals and supports for the coming year.  Parents have a strong voice in helping craft an individualized plan that assures their child receives the equal education that the law provides.

What exactly is a child with special needs entitled to?  Federal law includes the following:

  1. IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)
    1. Students with disabilities must be prepared for further education, employment and independent living
    2. If a child’s strengths, endurance, or stamina cannot keep up with school activities, they qualify for “other health impaired” special education status
  1. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act
    1. Prohibits schools from discriminating against children with disabilities
    2. Requires schools to provide accommodations for disabled students
    3. Students with impairments that substantially limit a major life activity can qualify as disabled (including learning and social deficits)
  2. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
    1. Schools must meet the needs of children with psychiatric problems
  3. No Child Left Behind
    1. Schools must uphold achievement standards for children with disabilities

(From:  https://pbwslaw.com/special_needs_children_rights/)

With the supports documented in the IFSP or IEP, the child with special needs is assured a learning environment that is optimized for success.

Parents of special needs children play an important role in the education process – as advocates, watchdog, and cheerleader.

If your child is newly diagnosed, getting involved in online forums and local support groups with other parents can help.  There you can learn what others have found helpful and get input into situations you are experiencing. Support from others can provide encouragement and information as you work with schools and doctors to support your child’s growth and development.

When a child needs extra help, it is important to work together with the school and support specialists, but it is also important to note that parents have a voice in the IEP process.  Your voice matters, so don’t hesitate to go to IEP meetings prepared to ask for what you want. You know your child best and are their best advocate.

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What’s “Normal”? Tracking Developmental Milestones

When every baby is different, how do you know if your baby is meeting developmental milestones?   As parents, we observe, compare, and worry when we see other children doing things our child isn’t yet attempting.  How do we know what is normal?

As we watch and wonder, descriptions of typical child development can help.  But lists and charts provide only a framework for understanding. Not all children will meet all milestones at the ‘typical’ age‘.  You know your child best.

My son was born with a condition that limits his vision. We adopted him when he was 13 months old.  Since we knew babies typically start to walk around 12 months, we worried when he didn’t walk until he was well over 18 months old.  Was it his vision keeping him from this milestone? Was it adoption trauma? Was there something we should be doing?

Pediatricians and daycare centers routinely ask parents to complete developmental screening questionnaires to help monitor a child’s developmental progress.  Done regularly, these tools provide a picture of your unique child’s development over time.

If you have concerns consulting your pediatrician or preschool teacher is a great way to begin the conversation about normal development and your child’s individual personality.  They will likely invite you to complete one of the many different tools that screen for growth and development.

These are typically not assessment tools, but rather help screen for indicators that suggest the child would benefit from closer monitoring or early intervention services.

There are a number of different screening tools available:

ASQ (Ages & Stages Questionnaire): Many doctors and pre-schools use the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ) to screen children between the ages of 15 months and 48 months.  ASQ is not an assessment tool but it can help determine if a child needs further assessment or support. https://agesandstages.com/about-asq/for-parents/

CDC checklist:  The CDC checklist provides lists of typical behaviors from birth through kindergarten.  In addition, they offer parenting tips for interacting with your child at each stage of development.  https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/pdf/checklists/all_checklists.pdf

M-CHAT (Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers): The M-CHAT, like the ASQ, is a screening tool and not an assessment.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children be screened for autism at 18 and 24 months. It cannot diagnose but it helps identify children who should be evaluated further. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/Autism/Pages/How-Doctors-Screen-for-Autism.aspx

Completed questionnaires document your child’s growth and development, helping you and your support team of doctors and caregivers know what is normal for your child.  They also provide indicators when further assessment and support would be helpful to you and your child.

My son did eventually move from crawling to walking.  The delay was normal for him. But his unique circumstances meant that we also sought help from early intervention to equip him with the tools he would need to help him walk safely with limited vision.

Screening tools help us answer the question “Is this normal?”.  But they also provide a path toward further support when warranted.

 

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10 Physical, Social, Emotional & Cognitive Milestones from healthychildren.org:

  • By 2 months: Tries to look at his or her parent and pays attention to faces.
  • By 4 months: Copies facial movements, such as smiling or frowning, and responds to affection.
  • By 6 months: Likes to look at himself or herself in the mirror and brings objects to mouth.
  • By 9 months: Has favorite toys and picks up small items between the thumb and forefinger.
  • Around 12 months: Puts out arm or leg to help with dressing and follows simple directions.
  • At 18 months: Explores alone if a parent is nearby and points to a body part when asked.
  • By 2 years: Gets excited to see other children and begins sorting shapes and colors.
  • By 3 years: Is able to dress himself or herself and completes puzzles with three or four pieces.
  • By 4 years: Is able to tell the difference between real and make-believe and predicts what is going to happen next in a book.
  • By 5 years: Wants to be like his or her friends and is able to draw a person with six body parts.

(https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/health-management/Pages/Milestones-Matter.aspx)

 

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Social Connections Help Build Strong Families

Just before my first child was born my husband and I moved from New England to the Midwest.  We were young, newly married, and knew no one in our new hometown. All of our friends and family were thousands of miles away and we had a baby coming in a mere three months.

My husband’s new colleagues provided our first group of social connections.  To make new friends, we were intentional about attending church regularly. But it was the Welcome Wagon that really helped us build deep and lasting friendships.  They came with a list of ways to get connected.

Through them, I joined a Moms group (which included a babysitting co-op), we joined a card club and an International Dining group (potluck, a different country’s cuisine each month), and I started attending monthly La Leche League meetings, where I joined other new mothers for regular support after the baby was born.

All of these avenues of connection helped us build strong social connections and gave us a support system at a time when our old support network was very far away.  Our new friends could reassure us when we felt overwhelmed as new parents. They offered advice, entertainment, and babysitting. They helped us feel welcome and cared for in our new community.

Social connections are one of the five protective factors for strong families.  (You can see the other four here.) Friends can lend support when we are overwhelmed or just need a different perspective.  Others who are facing similar challenges can provide a listening ear or childcare assistance while you run to the doctor. When you have emotionally supportive friends, life gets easier – for you and for your children.

Here are some options for making connections with other parents in and around Corvallis:

HOME group. Meets at Northwest Hills Community Church, Tuesdays from 9:15 – 11:15 during the school year.  For moms with children 5 yrs and under. Childcare is provided while moms gather for fellowship and learning.  Emphasis is on equipping moms through gifted speakers, hands-on activities, and building a community of support through friendship.  https://www.helpingourmoms.com/

Osborn Aquatic Center.  Sign up the kiddos for swim lessons!  Parents participate in class with their youngest swimmers.  But as the children progress to independent lessons, parents watch from the bleachers – where they can visit with like-minded parents.

Corvallis-Benton County Public Library.  Activities for children and adults alike offer opportunities for parents to connect with other parents through shared activity.  In addition to the usual story hours and children’s reading clubs, the library also offers events just for adults. Looking for something to do without the kids?  Check out https://cbcpubliclibrary.net/events/adult-events/

Parenting Classes.  Check out The Incredible Years, for parents of preschoolers, or Make Parenting a Pleasure for those with older children.  Learn some new communication strategies and meet new friends in the process.  Many classes are free, with dinner and childcare provided. Details can be found here: http://www.parentingsuccessnetwork.org/parenting-programs/

Mid-Willamette YMCA. Offers programs for children and adults, such as their monthly Lunch and Learn, which is an opportunity to listen to a speaker while enjoying lunch with other attendees.

Community Events.  Corvallis has a long tradition of holding family-friendly community events –   like Benton County Fair in August, Fall Festival in September, and Downtown trick-or-treat in late October.  For more, visit: https://www.visitcorvallis.com/festivals-events

Other ways to make social connections:

Volunteer – in your children’s school, through a faith-based organization, or with an organization whose mission you support.  Watch for invitations to volunteer on social media, or reach out to an organization directly.

Join a Group – find a group of other adults doing something you love (biking, hiking, reading, knitting).  Attend their regular meetings and build friendships around your common interest. During the summer months parents in Corvallis hold regular meet-ups at community parks.  The kids spend time together while the parents visit with each other.

Reach out – to your family and your friends.  Plan get-togethers, invite them over for coffee or a meal.  Be intentional about building strong relationships with those you already know.

Strengthening your relationships outside your family can provide concrete support when you need it most and will strengthen your family at the same time.

 

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Be a Better Parent: Step Away

Taking time away from parenting can make you a better parent.  Sounds ironic, but it’s true. Taking a step away from parenting responsibilities gives body and mind a chance to recharge.  And that time spent focusing on your own needs can improve your parenting.

So much changes when you become a parent.  You still need to eat, sleep, and most likely earn a living.  But when that fragile newborn is placed in your arms they are suddenly the center of your universe.

In those early weeks, our life is on hold as we cocoon with our newborn.  We are wired to attend to their needs. In the middle of the night, they need to eat and so we give up our own need for sleep to meet those needs.   We juggle learning to parent while trying to resume all the other aspects of our life before baby. As we meet their needs for food, sleep, and dry diapers, it is easy to forget to take care of ourselves.

But prioritizing self-care can make you a better parent.  The same sleep, exercise, nutrition, and healthy relationships kids need are just as important for adults.  When we attend to our needs – physical needs for exercise and mental needs for healthy social engagement – we improve our state of mind.  

And being healthy and happy has a direct effect on our parenting.  When we are well-rested and know we have taken care of ourselves, we have the energy and enthusiasm to be our best for our children.

Taking care of ourselves also models well-being for our children.   When our children see that we also do things for ourselves – and with other adults – we teach what taking care of ourselves looks like.   We can help them recognize their needs for quiet or rest, if they see us recognizing and meeting our own needs for those same things. And we help them learn patience, gratitude,  and grace.

If you’ve neglected yourself while caring for your children, you can begin to make a change in your self-care by carving out some time each day just for you.  It doesn’t need to be a lot of time. Some days, it may be minutes you capture between scheduled activities. Other days, a whole afternoon can be scheduled “me” time.

When my big kids were young, I belonged to a babysitting co-op that allowed me and other young mothers to share childcare.  I would earn hours by watching someone else’s children, which could be redeemed by having someone else watch mine. It was a beautiful barter system that allowed us all time for self-care, without incurring the expense of hiring a babysitter.  It gave me an entire afternoon to pursue a hobby, or just sit with a book uninterrupted.

Mindfulness

Taking care of ourselves begins with being aware of how we are feeling, both physically and emotionally. Mindfulness helps us see how different stressors affect us.  It helps us identify those things that help us cope most effectively. Mindfulness can be as simple as pausing for a deep breath. These few seconds can create space for stress hormone regulators to slow the ‘fight or flight’ response caused by triggers in our environment.

Carve out time for yourself

Find moments of time in your day to focus on your own well-being.  In the early weeks of a newborn’s life, new moms are encouraged to sleep when the baby sleeps.  As children grow, we are tempted to do that ‘one more thing’ that needs to be done before we take time for ourselves.  Make it a habit to find time for yourself. Take turns with your partner so that each of you has one night a week to go out and enjoy a class, engage in a hobby, or just be alone or with friends at the library or coffee shop.

Take up (or resume) a hobby – something you do just for you

Having an activity or two that you do just for you gives you space to be you. Doing something you love, that satisfies and excites, gives you something outside of family life.  If that something is a group activity, it has the added benefit of enlarging your circle of support – friends and acquaintances who are there for you. Self-care directed toward group activities can expand  your circle of connection and support life-long learning and growing.

For more ideas on finding ways to care for yourself despite your hectic schedule, check out Ashley Looker’s wonderful list of self-care tips: 20 Little Self-Care Tips at MindBodyGreen.

 

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