Observation and Reflection: keys to understanding your child

Sometimes you can learn a lot about a child by simply observing them in action. As adults, we often end up reacting to our children.  We know what needs to be done and how to do it, so we are quick to offer direction, tell them ‘no’ or ‘don’t’, or jump in and do it for them.

Yet, when we take the time to wait and watch and then reflect on what we’ve seen and heard, we gain insight into their needs and motives.  Our observation and reflection can make us better parents, by helping us see why they are behaving the way they are and what they are capable of.

Back when I was still in the classroom, I was having lunch with ten 2-year-olds.  We were gathered together around one large table. It was low to the ground, and each child sat in a small chair, feet firmly planted on the floor under the table.  I sat not quite so comfortably on a low stool at the same low table.

We each had a placemat, a plate, a glass of milk or water, a fork and a spoon.  Our food had been moved from lunch boxes to our plates and we used our forks, or fingers, as we ate and talked together.   Suddenly the child across the table from me swept his arm across his plate, accidentally knocking over his glass, which toppled and spilled its contents across the table.  My “oh!” burst forth, but then I stopped moving or speaking and simply observed what would happen next.  Group of preschool kids have a lunch in daycare. Children eating healthy food.

It was not easy to refrain from offering comment or advice, or leaping up to grab a towel and stop the flow of liquid. We are so wired to be helpful.  Often without even realizing we are doing it, we leap to assist. But something in that moment reminded me of the power of observation – and I waited.  

The toddler across the table took a moment to observe as well, and then pushed his chair back, exclaiming, “I’ll get a cloth!”.  He crossed the room, got a cleaning cloth from the stack on the shelf, returned with it in hand, and began to wipe up the spill. When he had finished, he took the wet cloth to the laundry basket and returned to his seat, smiling.  

He knew exactly what to do – without me needing to direct or advise – because he had observed me and the other children wiping up spills many, many times before that day.  By holding my tongue, he was given the opportunity bask in the pride of his own ability to solve the problem.  

Letting him fix the problem by waiting and observing let us both see that this young child was completely capable and needed no adult directing his actions.  

He sat back down and we shared a smile of satisfaction. He was proud of his ability to help and I was proud I’d chosen to observe and not rush in to fix it.

As adults, responsible for keeping our children safe, it isn’t easy to stop and watch or to wait and ‘see what happens.’  But practicing the art of observation, and taking time to reflect on what we observe, is a parenting skill that helps build strong relationships.

Observation: The What

As you observe your child in action, it isn’t necessary to take notes, document every action or utterance, or follow a prescribed checklist, although those things can sometimes add value.  "Observing can foster more positive relationships." quote by Kelly Griffith Mannion

Ask yourself, “What do I see and hear?”  Simply watch your child and notice how he interacts.   

Take note (either write it down or mentally file it away) of what is happening and how your child is responding to it.  Are there challenges? How do they meet those challenges? What do they choose when they are playing alone? What do they prefer when they are playing with others?  When do they become frustrated? How do they respond to the frustration? Patterns will emerge that will help you see what it is that results in perseverance and what leads to meltdown.  You will find underlying causes for mystifying behaviors.

“As parents, observing can be tough. We aren’t always objective. It can be hard to hang back, and it can be the last thing on our minds as we are busy multi-tasking and managing a busy family life. Yet, observing is truly the most illuminating gift—the gift of understanding our children,” notes Kelly Griffith Mannion, M. Ed.  

Reflection: The ‘So what’ and ‘What Next’

After observing, take time for reflection.  Reflecting on what you’ve observed helps you answer the question: “What does that mean to me?  What will I do with it?”

Reflection can help you make connections between behavior and what was going on inside the child.  As you reflect, try to identify what happened before, and what happened after. Is there a pattern?

Reflecting on the behaviors and emotions you observe in your child can deepen your understanding of your child’s inner life and create a greater connection.  Often as parents, we are in reactive mode, always trying to stay one step ahead of difficulties and challenges.  

Says Regina Pally, founder of the Center for Reflective Communities, “Reflective Parenting is a set of skills and guiding principles that encourage and support the use of Reflective Thinking in all the interactions parents have with their children. Reflective Parenting enables a parent to see the world from his or her own perspective and from their child’s perspective.” 

Taking time for observation and reflection helps us move from reactive parenting to reflective parenting.  Reflective parenting can foster positive relationships, allow for greater independence and growth in your child, and ensure greater satisfaction and fulfillment for you.

Self-Care and Better Parenting

Finding Your Passion

Happy New Year!  Happy New Decade!  What better time to do a little bit of self-reflection and check in on how we are doing with self-care?  Parents often feel guilty about pursuing interests that have nothing to do with raising their children. Honestly, when you have little ones it’s hard to find the time – or the energy – to enjoy time doing things that aren’t related to raising children.  

But hard as it is, time taken pursuing your interests – doing things just for yourself – makes parenting easier and helps you be the best parent you can be.

Parenting is hard work. It is a 24/7 job that demands mental and physical energy nonstop.  Never taking a break can lead to short tempers, exhaustion, and discord.

“When the daily stress of parenting becomes chronic it can turn into parental burnout, an intense exhaustion that leads parents to feel detached from their children and unsure of their parenting abilities, according to new research. This type of burnout can have serious consequences for both parent and child.” – Science Daily

Says researcher Moïra Mikolajczak, “In the current cultural context, there is a lot of pressure on parents. But being a perfect parent is impossible and attempting to be one can lead to exhaustion. Our research suggests that whatever allows parents to recharge their batteries, to avoid exhaustion, is good for children.”

“Being on and at the ready for your children at all times can cause burnout and make things that could be everyday treasures feel like everyday chores. That’s why it’s important that all parents start taking real, regular days off,” says Lindsey Roberts on finding time for yourself in an article written for the Washington Post.

“This could mean asking a spouse to take the day off from an office job and be with the kids, or asking a family member to cover you for a day. Maybe it involves hiring a sitter. One friend of mine and her husband take days off from work together to go golfing while their son is in school. Whatever you need to do, make it happen.”

So where do we start? 

First, maximize your health.  Are you fueling your body with a balanced diet of healthy vegetables and sufficient proteins? (Are your kids eating better than you do?)  Are you getting enough sleep? Are you exercising? (Is finding time to exercise one of your goals for me-time?)

Next, address check your emotional/relationship health.  Are there relationship issues that might be dragging you down?  Would seeing a counselor to help resolve these might be a good thing to put on your me-time list?

Finally, find your passion – and pursue it.  Have you been in the parenting trenches so long you have no idea what you might be interested in? 

Be curious, try lots of different things

What did you enjoy before children? As a teenager, I square danced.  It didn’t score me popularity points back in high school, but I loved it and the friends I made there.  When I saw square dancing class in the LBCC community class catalog, I decided I’d make some space for me-time and signed up. Once a week I escaped the parenting routine with dancing – which turned out to be both just like it was way back when and yet different.

You can also try something new and see how it feels.  Try it again and see how you respond. Does it continue to excite and energize you?  If so, you can make a longer-term commitment. If not, find a new new thing to try.

Another way to find your passion is to tag along with friends who enjoy activities you are curious about. 

Most importantly, schedule your me-time just like you schedule routine doctor’s appointments.  It’s a commitment to better mental health and can help you be a better parent.

Ready to devote some time to you? 

Check out LBCC’s Adult Ed catalog. What piques your interest?  Classes are often low cost and short-lived.  If you don’t love it, you can move on to something different. If you join an activity that you find you love, you’ll have tapped into a group of people who are also interested and can point you to clubs or groups that meet on an ongoing basis.

Need more ideas on finding your passion?  You’ll find some here:

5 Ways to Find a Personal Passion

7 steps to Finding What You are Passionate About

Family Traditions Build Strong Families

Traditions are an important part of family culture.  The things we do together routinely, over and over, become our family’s traditions and define our family’s unique family culture.  Family traditions can be big (the Thanksgiving meal or family reunions) and traditions can be small (saying grace before dinner or sharing a hug when parting).  

Big or small, family traditions help define a family’s culture and help strengthen families in a number of important ways.  

What is a tradition?

What do we mean when we say ‘tradition’? Webster’s dictionary defines ‘tradition’ as “an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom).”  

Simply put, a tradition is something that is done the same way over time.  The holidays we celebrate and the way we celebrate them are often traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation.

Following traditions that have been passed down from previous generations contributes to a family’s unique family culture.

What is ‘family culture’?

Culture is the way a group of people collectively thinks, feels and acts. We often think of countries, or regions of a country, as having a culture that is unique and different from the country or region next door.  

But families also have a culture, whether they intentionally set out to create one or not.  The things you do as a family, the values you hold and demonstrate to your children by your actions, and the daily, weekly, or annual rituals of family members all form a family culture that is unique to your family.

Why are traditions important?

Those habits we form together in a family can provide each family member with connection, comfort, and the security of being part of a like-minded group.  Shared activities strengthen the connections between family members and provide a source of identity and feeling of belonging.  

Traditions, and family culture, are also a way to pass along the values you hold dear to your children.  

When we form family traditions, we create opportunities to build connections within our family.  The things we do together regularly as a family- daily, weekly, or even annually – give children a sense of belonging.  

Daily traditions are small things you do each day to reinforce your family values and connection.  A high-five as kids leave for the school bus. Or the commitment to sit and eat a meal together around the dinner table.  

Weekly traditions can also be small activities you do together as a group to build strong, supportive relationships. Family game night on the weekend. Attending religious services together each week.

Life Change traditions celebrate family milestones – the beginning and end of a school year, birthdays, graduations, and weddings. 

For more on the importance of family traditions – and how to create them – check out Creating a Positive Family Culture.  

 

In our family, we have a simple birthday tradition that involves hanging streamers from the chandelier over the dining room table.  The streamers are hung after the birthday person has gone to bed the night before their birthday. The next morning the whole family is part of birthday excitement, seeing the table festooned with birthday streamers. The streamers stay up all day, and sometimes beyond the day if I forget to take them down!

Another family tradition at our house is the advent wreath in the center of the dining room table right after Thanksgiving each year.  Each Sunday in Advent, we read from a script that we brought home from church in 1984. It’s looking pretty tattered at this point, but it’s a family tradition we all cherish.  

One of our more recently implemented family traditions was started by my 17-year-old, who a few years back began baking massive amounts of cookies throughout the month of December.  By Christmas, we have platters of cookies, in an assortment of epic proportions. 

This goes to show that family traditions, while enduring and often passed down generation to generation, can also be begun, or even stopped, at any time.  

Family traditions can also be implemented at any time.  And can begin spontaneously. Our streamer tradition started that way.  The first time I hung them, it wasn’t in a conscious effort to start a tradition. But when the next birthday rolled around, someone asked where the streamers were.  And a tradition was born.

What family traditions define your family’s culture?  

Family traditions work together with a family’s values and norms to form a family’s culture.  They provide family members with a healthy sense of belonging, security, and connection – contributing to everyone’s well-being and healthy emotional development.

 

 

 

Holiday Stressbusters: 10 Tips for Reducing Stress

As we wind up for the holidays and anticipate a break from the school routine, here are 10 Quick Stressbusters, scientifically proven to help your body fight the chemical overload caused by stress and anxiety.

1. Belly Breaths

Get into a comfortable, relaxed sitting or standing position.  Put one hand on your belly, just below your ribs. Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose, allowing your belly to push your hand outward.  It sometimes helps to count slowly to 3 as you inhale. Exhale slowly. Repeat at least two more times. Belly breaths send messages to your brain to calm down and will reduce muscle tension throughout your body.  To learn more about belly breathing, see Breathing Exercises for stress management.

2. Take a walk

A brisk walk sends messages to your body to produce more endorphins, the chemical that makes us feel good and reduces feelings of anxiety and depression.  Stepping out of a stressful environment, even if only for a few minutes, also provides space for your mind and body to regroup.

3. Skip the nightcap

As a depressant, alcohol is sometimes viewed as a stress-reducer.  But when alcohol is added to the mix, the body releases higher amounts of cortisol, which is the hormone that triggers our ‘flight or fight’ response in stressful situations. This change to the balance of hormones changes the way the body perceives stress. Thus, alcohol prevents the body from returning to its original hormonal balance, which actually adds to feelings of stress and anxiety in the long run.

4. Drink water

Dehydration also increases cortisol levels in the body.  So when we don’t drink enough water, our body responds by releasing cortisol, increasing feelings of stress.  Says Gina Shaw, on WebMD, “Stress can cause dehydration, and dehydration can cause stress. It’s a vicious cycle. You can break it by building more water consumption into your day.”

5. Check your posture

Studies have shown that posture – how we sit and stand – affects not just our bones and muscles, but our emotions as well.  Sitting up straight, standing with shoulders back and relaxed, contributes to the body’s sense of well-being. A study on slumping, performed by the Department of Psychological Medicine, The University of Auckland, found that “Adopting an upright seated posture in the face of stress can maintain self-esteem, reduce negative mood, and increase positive mood compared to a slumped posture. Furthermore, sitting upright increases the rate of speech and reduces self-focus. Sitting upright may be a simple behavioral strategy to help build resilience to stress.”

6. Turn on some soothing music

Music has long been known to directly connect to our emotions, so choosing some calming classical music can help your body deal with stress hormones.  As a side benefit, listening to music can be done while you are busy with other things – like getting ready for work or preparing the evening family meal. Combining the soothing effect of calming music with an activity that can be typically stressful can help balance the impact of the stressor.

7. Take a cuddle break with a loved one

Hugging has some surprising physical benefits, with stress relief being just one of them.  Studies have found that people who received more hugs were less likely to catch a cold, saw their blood pressure decline, and felt better emotionally.  According to one study, “volunteers felt better than usual on days on which they had received at least one hug.”  So counter those negative feelings by wrapping your arms around someone you love (with their permission, of course!).

8. Try some yoga

Yoga combines physical and mental discipline – bringing together mind and body.  Combining poses and controlled breathing, yoga can help reduce stress and lower blood pressure.  While there are many different styles of yoga, the popular Hatha yoga provides a slower pace and easier movements. Relaxing into a series of yoga poses sends good vibes to your brain, increasing endorphins and lowering cortisol levels.

9. Write it down 

Journaling doesn’t release muscle tension from your body, like some of the other options for reducing the physical effects of stress and anxiety, but keeping a diary can help vent stressful emotions.  Spending quiet time alone, writing down your thoughts and describing your feelings can help process those emotions and provide relief. A journaling practice can take many forms – a daily gratitude journal, occasionally writing down feelings and strong emotions, or even a bullet list of goals, memories, or other things we want to remember.  And it’s a practice that can be restarted at any time if life gets in the way and derails regular journaling. 

10. Talk to someone

Telling a friend or willing listener about the stress you are feeling – talking through your feelings – can also help reduce the physical effects of stress and anxiety.  In a Forbes article on talking as therapy, Dr. Marian Margulies explained, “When I think of the process of engaging in talk therapy, I think of the analogy with writing.  The more you write, the more you know what you are trying to say – it clarifies your thinking. Similarly with talking and with talk therapy, one becomes more aware of what is making one feel anxious, sad, angry or frustrated. And then one is freer to decide how to manage these feelings or take action to alleviate them.” 

 

The Health Benefits of Gratitude

Happy Thanksgiving! It’s the perfect time to look at the health benefits of gratitude.  With the holidays Hearight around the corner, we look forward to celebrating with family and friends, far and near. But the holidays can often overwhelm, even as we anticipate them.

If we are already worrying about so many things in our daily lives – how well we are parenting, how well we are doing our job, whether we’ll make it to the end of the month on the money in the bank – our expectations for the holidays, and the expectations of others, can add another layer of stress. 

But Thanksgiving reminds us that a healthy dose of simple, mindful gratitude can help. November is a great time to pause and take a moment to be consciously grateful, and let that be an antidote to the stress in our lives.

Research has shown that there are health benefits of gratitude.  Over time gratitude leads to lower stress and depression and higher levels of social support.  Amy Morin, writing for Psychology Today, identifies seven scientifically-proven benefits of giving thanks.  Among them: improving physical health, sleeping better, growing social networks, and increasing mental strength.

Says another research study, “Grateful individuals are more likely to appreciate good in their lives, accept social support when needed, which boosts self-esteem, and engage in self-reassuring behaviors and less likely to be self-critical. All of these are associated with higher satisfaction with life.” (Kong, Ding, & Zhao, 2015; Petrocchi & Couyoumdjian, 2016).

Some people find that regularly using a Gratitude Journal helps them see all the things they have to be grateful for.  Others take time out of their day to be still, silent, and meditate on the good things in their life. Even a simple, conscious thought of gratefulness as we pack lunches before sending the kids off to school can contribute to stress reduction. 

The key is to be deliberate about identifying those things you are grateful for and consciously identifying them.

Says David Steindelt-Rast, in his Ted Talk on gratitude, “It is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.”  He goes on to encourage listeners in a life of gratefulness by building in opportunities to notice.  He describes his own experience with noticing. After spending time in Africa, without drinkable water, he returned to his home and would stop and be consciously grateful each time he turned on the tap and fresh water poured out. A simple thing, easily overlooked.  But having done without provided the impetus toward gratitude. 

Thanksgiving reminds us to be grateful.  But gratitude, recognized throughout the regular days of our lives, offers a way to reduce our stress levels all year long. 

Next time you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, think Gratitude.  Take some time to acknowledge the good things that crossed your path that day.  Keep a gratitude journal, send a thank you note, or share the things you are grateful for today with the ones you love. 

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