Parenting tips and techniques for raising happy, confident children.
“Parental sensitivity is the most influential dimension of parenting... It lays the foundation on which future experience will build.” (Jay Belsky)
Parents differ along two broad child rearing dimensions: parental acceptance/responsiveness and parental demandingness/control. The former describes the amount of responsiveness and affection that a parent displays toward a child while the latter describes how restrictive and demanding parents are. When considered together these two dimensions yield four patterns of patterning.
Authoritarian parenting is a restrictive pattern in which adults expect strict obedience from the children and rely on power rather than reason to elicit compliance. Authoritative parenting is a democratic style of parenting in which parents make reasonable demands of their children and provide rationales for complying with the limits that are set. They recognize and respect their children’s perspectives. Permissive parenting occurs when parents make few demands of their children and rarely attempt to control their behavior. Uninvolved parenting is the least successful approach where parents remain unaccepting, undemanding and unresponsive.
Among these four different parenting styles, authoritative parenting is consistently associated with positive social, emotional and intellectual outcomes. Demands that come from a warm, accepting parent and appear to be fair and reasonable rather than arbitrary and dictatorial are more likely to elicit compliance. There are realistic expectations and the child is allowed some autonomy on how best to comply with these standards. The children recognize that their parents believe them to be capable and self-reliant. This in turn leads to the growth of self-reliance, achievement motivation and high self-esteem in childhood. It also provides the kind of support adolescents need to feel safe about exploring various ideologies to create their personal identity.
The objective is to lay the groundwork during childhood in the hopes that they will grow to become happy, successful adults.
The judgments we make about our self-worth begins to take shape early in life as infants form positive or negative workings models of self from their interactions with caregivers. Securely attached children who construct a positive working model of self begin to evaluate themselves more favorably than insecurely attached children whose working models of self are not so positive.
As children become older their self-evaluations become more accurate reflections of how others evaluate their physical, behavioral, academic and social competencies. In adolescence, new dimensions such as romantic appeal and quality of close friendships become important contributors to global self-esteem. Self-esteem often declines during these years as peers influence each other through social comparison. It gradually recovers and increases throughout young adulthood and middle age.
Warm, responsive, democratic parenting appears to foster self-esteem whereas aloof or controlling parenting styles appear to undermine it. Having reasonable limits and sending a message that you trust your child to follow rules and make good decisions is apt to promote higher self-esteem than parents who convey to a child that may not be accepting of his/her inadequacies.
ESTABLISHING STRUCTURE AND ROUTINE
Whether it’s a new food being introduced or a friend moving away, children face change frequently. Structure and routine provide children with a sense of security and predictability allowing them to develop a sense of mastery over their lives. Once that sense of mastery is strengthened they are capable of handling bigger challenges.
A child's behavior is usually reflective of their state of mind. A chaotic home manifests in the child's behavior and the child is more likely to be agitated and unsettled. Meanwhile, structure helps children organize themselves and their thought processes allowing them to have the cognitive space required to learn new things.
Similarly, regular routines help children get on a schedule. They are able to fall asleep more easily every night or feel hungry at about the same time every day. Knowing that changing in to their pajamas after dinner is ‘normal’ helps them cooperate, eliminating the need for constant nagging and power struggles. It also allows for a consistency of expectations from the parents without having to give allowances like skipping a bath or brushing their teeth to accommodate time constraints resulting from tantrums.
Once the rules have been internalized, children learn to enjoy themselves within the confines of those rules. For example, the child knows that she may not have time to play with a favorite toy in the morning before school but can place it somewhere accessible because she knows that there will be enough time for her to play with it as soon as she returns home.
This doesn't mean that there has to be a rigid routine that can never be changed. Times when the child can have another story at night or watch two shows instead of one are special occasions that children look forward to. They begin to truly value and appreciate those special treats.
Most importantly, children like being independent and as they grow older they learn how to follow the routine without constant reminders, it helps them feel competent. This translates in to adolescents and teens who have internalized the ability to structure their own lives and are therefore less defiant and rebellious.
Most people understand that giving choices to children is important, choices that are more significant than choosing to wear a red shirt or a blue one. The purpose is to teach children how to take responsibility for their actions: telling him, for example, that if he chooses to procrastinate with his homework he is also choosing to have less time to watch T.V makes him accountable for his own choices.
A firm voice, the language used and a follow through are the important factors here. The tone is relevant because it should demonstrate that you're not angry, you are merely giving him a choice that's his to make. The language distinguishes between a true choice and a consequence - a consequence would be what you implement, a choice is what he makes and something you cannot be blamed for. A follow through of the statement would help him comprehend how his immediate choice impacted later events.
In all likelihood you will not be present when your son or daughter is offered his or her first cigarette; you can only hope that they will make the right choice in the moment. Teaching children to slow down, weigh the impact of their choices and make thoughtful decisions will help them become responsible teenagers. Especially, when you are not there to police them.
UNDERSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT MOTIVATION
People differ in their motivation to achieve. The manner in which this motive is nurtured, the expectancies of succeeding, and the causal attributions to success and failure are all important determinants of achievement behavior.
Nurturing children’s motivation in appropriate ways at a young age is imperative in raising self-motivated individuals. If the feedback given to children is based on the end product rather than the process they may feel that they always have to do well, they show reluctance to take on bigger challenges, fear that they might disappoint the parent or the teacher resulting in lower self-confidence, and require a constant need for approval. Instead, the attention should be shifted to the effort they put in to accomplish the task and the strategies they use to problem solve. Rather than saying, "that's a beautiful picture," for example, asking them for explanations about their artwork, why they chose specific colors or how they chose what to draw would shift the focus from the end product and your approval of it to the work that they put in.
Success and achievement motivation can be explained by two implicit theories of intelligence: an ‘entity’ theory in which individuals view their intelligence as an unchangeable internal characteristic and an ‘incremental’ theory in which individuals believe that their intelligence is malleable and can be increased through effort. Someone who believes the incremental theory will demonstrate a mastery oriented response associated with perseverance and an increased effort to solve a problem while focusing on a learning goal - seeking new knowledge and continually improve oneself.
Alternatively, those who believe the entity theory tend to focus on performance goals where they feel they have to document their abilities. If their confidence level is high they will opt for a mastery oriented response. However, if their confidence level is low they will choose the helplessness response, characterized by a focus on outcome and a desire to avoid negative feedback leading to anxiety and an inability to persist when faced with obstacles.
Children will choose to persist and demonstrate an ability to learn or give up and shy away from possible failure based on the kind of feedback they receive. For example, if they simply hear, "good job" they are only receiving recognition for their ability to get the task done. However, if they receive encouragement in the form of, "you were really thinking about how you were going to solve that puzzle," they will feel rewarded for their efforts and in most likelihood, express an interest in mastering something new.
Thus, teaching children early on to focus on ‘learning’ goals rather than ‘performance’ goals will enhance their motivation to succeed. If they master these techniques in childhood they will eventually be able to extend them to the social world.
MANAGING CHILDREN’S ANXIETY
All children experience some form of anxiety even in the best of situations: stranger anxiety develops between 7 to 9 months, separation anxiety appears around 1 year, kindergartners worry about supernatural characters such as ghosts and witches until they figure out what’s real and what isn’t, older children have real world worries like the loss of a loved one or a friend moving away, and teens worry about social acceptance. Other children experience less typical triggers for anxiety. In all cases, however, it isn’t the stress itself that impacts children negatively, it’s the body’s reaction to it.
The hypothalamus—a small part of the brain that controls the automatic processes—communicates with the body through the sympathetic and parasympathetic pathways of the nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system acts as the “accelerator,” increasing the heart rate, respiratory rate and muscle tension, while the parasympathetic nerves are the “brakes,” slowing down the body. Over time, chronic stress manifests through the interactions of these pathways as headaches, fatigue, suppression of the immune system, and ultimately heart disease.
Teaching children to recognize these physiological symptoms of stress can help them preempt the full onset of an anxiety attack and eventually prevent long term consequences. Once children are able to point to the specific location of these physical sensations within their body they can begin to utilize specific relaxation techniques to counteract them. For example, belly breathing, progressive relaxation (where each muscle group is consciously tightened and then suddenly released) and guided imagery are all relaxation techniques that can be used in stressful circumstances.
Children also often need to be soothed after confronting a difficult situation. Play dough is commonly used with young children to relieve stress and muscle tension simply by squeezing and rolling it repeatedly. It also gives children a sense of control since there are no rules or expectations, especially at times when they feel overwhelmed. Similarly, giving children the freedom to paint (without worrying about being messy) can also be very liberating and therefore, calming. Listening to soothing music or using music with movement can also help redirect a child’s nervous energy.
Although the underlying patterns are common among anxious children, it’s important to tailor these techniques to the kind of anxiety a child may be dealing with and its root cause. It's not always easy to distinguish normal fears that a child may outgrow from anxiety that may require special attention. If a child’s anxiety is interfering with his or her functioning such as academic, social or family functioning or you aren't sure whether it's disrupting his or her day to day life, it might be time to seek professional help. Social and behavioral interventions can reduce chronic anxiety and build brain and body resilience. Occasionally the symptoms of adult anxiety disorders appear in childhood and it may be helpful to seek help when in doubt.
Managing excessive anxiety from an early age is important to avoid long term physiological consequences. Stress involves a two-way communication between the brain and the body through a system called the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis. The HPA axis cannot distinguish between the different types of threat so it activates every response all at once, in response to any threat. Overloading the HPA axis, especially in infancy and childhood, causes structural remodeling of specific regions in the brain. Such changes impact life-long patterns of behavioral and physiological responses to stress and anxiety.
The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex which controls a particular set of self-regulatory skills, called ‘executive functions’. These higher order functions refer to the ability to deal with confusing and unpredictable situations and information. The prefrontal cortex is more malleable than other parts of the brain and it stays flexible through young adulthood. Therefore, once children learn to recognize the patterns of anxiety or more simply, “the sound of worry," they can begin to challenge the negative thinking and alter enduring reactions to stressful situations.
Encouraging children to confront their fears rather than avoiding them is an important first step. But merely reassuring children when they are feeling anxious can be counterproductive; it causes them to wonder why they still feel worried if everything is fine. Instead, identifying those feelings—validating and normalizing them—demonstrates that you understand their experience. Remember that in the anxious state, thinking becomes narrowed and rational explanations are ignored and excluded. Shrink the overwhelming problem to a manageable goal by helping children narrow it down to the one thing that may have been their breaking point. Shift the focus from the worst that can happen to what is most likely to happen. Encourage them to consider an alternate ending to the situation. Once they are able to put things in perspective help them problem solve. Often, creating a story of how they can fight the “worry bug” helps make the process more concrete.
Since the brain plays a key role in recognizing stress and communicating its presence to the body, it essentially needs be ‘trained’ over time to opt for the more rational response. Gently reminding children of the skills they have learned—challenging their negative thinking and counteracting the physiological symptoms of stress—can help them cope when they are feeling anxious. Over time, including with professional help where necessary, undue anxiety among children can be managed and its impact controlled.
CREATING A TRANSITION PLAN DURING SIGNIFICANT CHANGES
Smooth transitions during significant changes in the early years of childhood build trust and a sense of security in children, particularly because many such changes revolve around familiar places such as homes or schools and/or caregivers and teachers who become attachment figures. Therefore, a positive experience during these times of change helps create secure, happy individuals. It also promotes the values of loyalty and commitment which eventually translates into stable, healthy adult relationships. Thus, even though the impact of such events may not be apparent on younger children, it significantly affects their future development.
Three simple steps can help make transitions easier for children. First, there needs to be some form of closure, where a child can say goodbye to what he or she may be leaving behind. Second, it’s important to familiarize the child with what is “new” (for example: a new house, a new neighborhood or a new school). And finally, there needs to be a sense of continuity once they have moved in to their new space such that their feelings of loss of the old and familiar can be resolved positively.
Relocating has been identified as one of the top five stressors for adults so it’s not surprising that it’s difficult for children as well, even the well-adjusted ones. If the process isn’t explained to them, children feel a lack of control and worry about what to expect. Infants are often overlooked during this time with the assumption that they won’t understand; however, their comprehension of surrounding events as well as language is significantly developed by the age of 6 months. Imagine crawling from one room to another searching unsuccessfully for your favorite electric outlet to put your fingers in! It would be rather disorienting!
Mark the day of the move on a calendar and involve the children in the moving process. Take them to visit their new house and neighborhood before the actual move. Show them the room that will be theirs, point out the neighborhood park, and their new school; familiarize them with the area.
During the weeks leading up to the moving day, let them be present while you pack. Seeing packed boxes around the house helps children grasp the idea and allows time for it to sink in gradually. Reading relevant books, drawing pictures and role play during this time provides children with an opportunity to discuss their feelings. Talk about their favorite memories in the house, or aspects of their neighborhood that they like. Ask them what they will miss, what they expect to be different and what they are excited about in their new place. Take pictures with them of their favorite places in the house as well as the neighborhood and talk about memories that they can hold on to while moving forward.
Before the day of the move, explain that it’s their last day and if possible, keep it open to spend it with them in the way they would like. Take them to the park or their favorite restaurant. Have them visit a friend. Drive around the area and have them wave goodbye to the familiar people and places. At the same time, reassure them that will be able to visit again and see their friends (if that is a possibility). Encourage excitement about the move and the new places to explore.
Allow children to pack the things in their room, younger children worry about what might happen to their belongings and this process helps them understand that all their toys and books are traveling with them. Separate a few boxes of their favorite things and take them in the car with you so that children aren’t waiting for the truck to arrive. Setting up the children’s room in a new house first helps ground them immediately. An unfamiliar, empty space immediately becomes warm and inviting with their familiar belongings. Establish their daily routine as quickly as possible; continuity with a predictable structure will help stabilize them in unfamiliar settings.
If the children have a nanny or a babysitter that you will no longer be using, prepare the children for that. If possible, ask the nanny to continue for the first couple of weeks after the move so that the number of changes at once is minimized. Regardless of whether or not she can do so, acknowledge her last day with a special gesture: for example, have the children make her a thank you card or frame a picture of all of them together and have the children decorate the frame before giving it to her. See if the children can visit her over the next few weeks to prevent a feeling of abandonment. Children form surprisingly strong bonds with their caregivers and even though it may not be obvious, the sudden absence of these caregivers from the children’s lives is not only disruptive it also impacts their sense of commitment and loyalty to loved ones in the future.
Relocating, setting up a new house and beginning a new job can be overwhelming. However, it’s important to prioritize the children and be available to them to ease their apprehension and anxiety over the first few days. Once they feel (emotionally) safe they will adapt to the changes quickly and allow you the peace of mind to address your own worries.
At the end of the school year many parents begin looking in to summer camps and new schools for children in the fall. Depending on the temperament of your child this can be a rather exciting time or a very anxious one. While some children adapt more easily to change than others, a predictable routine provides a sense of security to all children. Therefore, if children aren’t prepared, any deviation from their “normal day” can be stressful and lead to some form of mild anxiety that manifests in behavioral changes such as irritability, frequent tantrums, unwarranted crying spells, less sociability and more clinginess. This is particularly true for younger kids who cannot fully comprehend the change.
In order to provide a sense of closure to your child, mark the last day of the school year on a calendar and talk to your child about what to expect over the summer a few weeks prior to the day. Give them an opportunity to tell you how they feel about the end of the year: their friends might be moving away, they might be worried about going to a new school, or they might even be relieved that the year is over. Mark the occasion with some sort of special but simple event, for example: have your child make a card for their teacher and/or their friends or, create a folder of their schoolwork or pictures from the year and look over it together. (These are symbolic activities and work well with children as young as 2 years old). Shield your child from your own anxiousness or nostalgia and keep farewells simple.
Familiarize your child with the new environment before dropping them off for a full day. (Ideally, for younger children, the length of their day at a new school should be increased slowly.) Have your child visit the new school and meet with the new teachers. Introducing the teachers by name is important because children are more likely to remember them. Walk around with them and discuss similarities between their old school and their new school. Point out the important areas of the classroom: the cubbies, the bathroom, the library etc. Cubbies enable children to feel a sense of belonging and are therefore particularly relevant. Showing them the library area is also essential as a child can use it during quiet time or when he or she isn’t sure where to go in between activities. Point out books and toys that he or she likes to read or play with. Speak to the new teachers about your child’s preferences and habits. If possible, arrange play dates with children who will be with your child in the new class. Younger children benefit from a transition object; it could be a favorite toy (which they can leave in their cubby) or the blanket they used for nap time in their previous class.
At home, keep changes to a minimum. Parents tend be more laid-back during summer because the children are out of school. However, it’s important to continue with a familiar routine to maintain normalcy for the children, particularly around nap time, bed time and meals. Too many changes at once can be overwhelming for young children. Spend time reading books about goodbyes, moving and going to a new school. Stories can provide opportunities for children to process their feelings and talk about their worries with you. Arrange play dates with friends from their old school and have them visit their old teachers. This helps children realize that changing schools/classes doesn’t necessarily mean losing their friends or the people they love.
Most importantly, be available to your child. As long as their foundations are stable, they will feel grounded and overcome any challenges that may arise during these times of transition.
EASING SEPARATION ANXIETY AT SCHOOL DROP-OFFS
Many children, particularly the younger ones, experience separation anxiety at the beginning of the school year. It’s difficult for the parents too to leave a crying child squirming in the arms of a not yet familiar teacher. Depending on the temperament of the child, there may be no way to avoid this no matter how much you have prepared him or her for the upcoming change. The optimistic outlook, however, is to recognize that these children are sensitive souls with a strong sense of loyalty and attachment.
There are ways to limit these painful drop offs, however. The key element is reducing the length of time that you’re with them in the classroom. Firstly though, if you’re child is walking, make sure you aren’t carrying them in to the class because it will be difficult to put him or her down once you’re inside. Next, establish a daily routine that your child agrees to. For example, you can help them put away their lunch bag and help settle them in to an activity or you can read a quick book with them. Explain that once you have done so you will have to leave and you will ask the teacher to help make them feel better if they seem sad or upset. When the time comes for you to leave, quickly kiss your child, say good bye, tell them you will pick them up in the afternoon/evening (a time frame that they comprehend) and walk out. Signal to the teacher that she may take over. By adhering to this routine strictly and consistently you are providing a predictable structure for your departure; this will help reduce the level of anxiety your child feels over the next couple of weeks.
Often, parents hand their child over to the teacher directly. This can be disturbing for the child as he or she is being pried out of the parent’s arms—someone they trust—and pulled by the teacher, someone they don’t know yet. This leads to insecurity on the part of the child because they are being removed from their loved one to essentially, a stranger, without any resistance from the parent. It’s confusing and perceived as betrayal because the child doesn’t feel protected by the one person who is supposed to ensure their safety. It would be better to sit the child down independently and then ask the teacher to hold them if necessary.
If however, the child continues to show symptoms of separation anxiety over an extended period of time even though you’re sure that he or she is happy at school, it may be time to ask a professional for help.
DISCIPLINING CHILDREN IN PUBLIC
Occasionally feeling embarrassed by something your child does or says is as much part of being a parent as feeling proud of their achievements. Often this feeling is an emotional reaction to some imagined form of judgment; a public emotion in relation to feeling awkward, exposed or having a sense of failure. However, if your child is having a hard time it’s important to focus on what he or she may need from you rather than on your own feelings or the perceptions of those around you.
A common mistake parents make is having their child apologize for his or her behavior. It may seem like the natural response but it doesn’t explain to the child why they were wrong. Instead, pointing out that they may have hurt someone (physically or emotionally) and having them correct that by making the person feel better teaches empathy. You can decide together what might be an appropriate way to make it up to the other person- give a hug, kiss the injured spot, share a favorite toy or take an extra turn. Once your child sees that the person they hurt isn’t upset anymore it will be easier for them to offer an apology.
The outcome of reprimanding a child in public often depends on the way in which it is handled. A tense situation can be resolved more quickly if the feelings of both parties involved in the conflict are acknowledged first, helping them recognize that there is no bias. Children are also more open to listening to what is being said if they are spoken to at eye level; an adult towering over them can be intimidating and such fear causes them to shut down.
Chastising children in front of others can worsen the situation (besides affecting their self-esteem). It might be better to separate and distract the child quickly and then address it when you’re home. Or, speak to him or her quietly, away from their friends so they don’t feel humiliated. If they feel embarrassed in front of others they will try to reclaim control by acting out or continuing to repeat the initial offense.
Making a plan with consequences that have been agreed upon before leaving the house can be preemptive. However, children often forget what they had agreed to earlier, especially when they are with their friends or otherwise excited. They need to be reminded of the rules that have been outlined and the measures that will be taken if they don’t comply, a warning should be given next, and finally, followed through. Implementing consequences firmly but gently is imperative even though you may be angry or frustrated with them. Children model behavior; thus it’s a good opportunity to demonstrate the difference between “feeling angry” versus “acting angry”.
Ultimately, children do what they see and if remaining calm in aggravating situations is what we expect of them then we need to practice that ourselves, as parents.
TRAVELING WITH CHILDREN
Traveling with kids can be daunting whether it’s in a car, on a plane, or on a train. There are several ways to keep children occupied during these long journeys, however, setting expectations before getting started is the key to maintaining sanity.
The night before the planned trip, sit down with the children and go through your list of expectations. Waiting patiently in lines, speaking softly, remaining seated with the safety belt on, not kicking the seat in front of them, and eating whatever is provided are all reasonable expectations. With each of these it is important to explain the reasoning behind them or else they will appear arbitrary and children are less likely to comply.
With younger kids, show them a book pertaining to the mode of travel. For example, if you’re traveling by air read a story about airplanes pointing out the safety belt, the way passengers remain seated, the flight attendant who checks in etc. Inform the children how long it will take to arrive to the destination in time frames that they will understand to eliminate the nagging, “when will we get there” question.
Of course there are certain things that can be done to make the trip easier on everyone (without resorting to an Ipad!). Plan to travel during nap times, try to book seats in advance so that you can have the front row with the bassinet and extra room, get window seats so that they can look outside. Take a comfort toy or blanket along with some new toys that can be provided as needed. Avoid toys with small parts as losing them can lead to frustration and meltdowns. Triangular crayons (to prevent rolling) with a doodle pad, stickers, and a party pack of play doh are always helpful. Consider buying smaller versions of toys that your child might like, for example, matchbox cars or magnetic dress-up play sets. Choose a selection of books that that are relevant to vacations, traveling and the city you’re going to. Also remember to include some of your child’s favorite stories as a fail safe.
Traveling can be a great teaching opportunity if you remain calm and tempered. The journey itself is an exercise in discipline, the younger the child the easier it is to set and implement expectations (contrary to how it may appear!), children internalize these rules quickly and can distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behavior without having to be reminded on future trips.
ENCOURAGING HEALTHY EATING HABITS
Infant feeding patterns directly impact taste preferences, and taste preferences developed during infancy last much longer than we think. Additionally, a partiality toward sweets is an evolutionary preference. (It is a basic physiological survival mechanism for most animals allowing them to distinguish between safe, suitable foods and poisonous, unsuitable foods. Through evolution, humans have inherited these preferences too.) Between these two facts it would appear that we are fighting a losing battle to establish healthy eating habits in children! The pressure sure starts early!
There are two components integral to a lifetime of eating right – the behavioral aspect and the nutritional factor.
Behaviorally, perhaps the most important change that can be made is to gather as a family at a meal and model behavior for the children. Feeding children on the go—while they are in the stroller, in the car or in the park—just to get the calories in prevents the children from valuing or enjoying their food. Turning the T.V. or Ipad off once everyone is seated and making mealtimes fun can make a big difference too. Shifting the focus off the food and talking about the day gone by or the upcoming week reduces pressure off the parent (to force the child to eat) and the child (to be force fed). Encouraging children to wait until everybody has finished isn’t just polite, it also helps build social skills and improves their ability to sit still for longer periods (which ultimately influences their ability to sit through other events and activities).
Parents worry about the quantity of food their child has eaten each day but it’s important not to allow this to become a power struggle. As long as they don’t have any nutritional issues and are energetic, they are probably getting enough nourishment.
When planning a meal, it’s helpful to serve at least two options where at least one is an established favorite. It’s also important to be careful to serve realistic portions and let the children decide when they are full or if they would like another serving. Children are less averse to sitting down if they see something they like and it’s a manageable amount.
When transitioning babies from milk to table food, introducing a variety of food items with different tastes and textures early on is imperative. Infants often reject a new food the first time they see it, but it shouldn’t be a deterrent to present it again on another occasion. If there is continuous exposure to it they are more likely to try it. Persuading older children to try a bite while allowing them to leave the rest will help them become open to trying new things. Regardless, serving it again a few days later even if it’s left untouched is important because familiarity will encourage them to be more adventurous. If the whole family is served the same meal and alternatives are not provided, children are more amenable to eating what’s presented because they realize that those are the only choices available.
Eating right also includes discipline around snacking habits, particularly eliminating random snacking and providing healthy snack options whenever possible. For most kids three large meals and a small snack is usually sufficient on a daily basis. If the intervals between meals are well planned and consistent the body begins to expect food at that time every day. When children are hungry, they don’t need to be chased after to sit down for a meal. Establishing a rule that children cannot open the fridge or the snack cupboard without a parent’s permission and talking to them about oddly timed snacks ruining their appetite for dinner helps teach self-control. Similarly, if someone offers a snack to them and asking them save it for dessert or snack time the next day will help them monitor their own intake of unhealthy foods as well create their own discipline.
Teaching children the difference between healthy foods and unhealthy foods will help them understand the value of making the right choices. Explaining this in the context of becoming stronger, more energetic, running faster, kicking a ball harder etc or having your body slow down, motivates children to make better choices.
From a nutritional perspective, substituting unhealthy foods with healthy food items is easier than eliminating some things all together; particularly, if you want to avoid desserts and snacks becoming a “special treat”, thereby putting a higher value on those foods. Providing fruits for desserts instead of cookies and replacing ordinary crackers with whole wheat, rich in fiber ones will inculcate a preference for these items when introduced early on.
If healthy habits are ingrained in children, many adult-onset diseases can be prevented and/or controlled. For meals, simple substitutions such as regular pasta with wheat pasta, white bread with multi-grain bread, and whole wheat cereal instead of regular cereal are easy changes to make. Similarly, while cooking using white meat more often than red meat or grilling food rather than frying helps reduce the risk of clogged arteries. Retaining the nutrients of vegetables by steaming rather than boiling is also of considerable value.
When buying products off the shelf, it’s important to see the ingredient list and avoid products high in trans fat, saturated fat, artificial sweeteners, high MSG and high fructose corn syrup which increase cholesterol, cause tooth decay, cardiac disease and obesity among other things. Similarly while buying children’s yogurt off the shelf is convenient, it’s also very high in sugar content. With a little bit of time and effort a similar taste can be created using plain yogurt and blended fruit. Or, choosing fresh cheese products rather than the factory produced cheese sticks can reduce the amount of processed food and artificial products children ingest.
Remember, instilling a lifelong habit of eating well (in terms of behavior and nutrition) requires patience and discipline!
“From the time they are born, our brothers and sisters are our collaborators and coconspirators, our role models and cautionary tales. They are our protectors and our tormentors, playmates and counselors, sources of envy and objects of pride.”
Siblings are a valuable rehearsal tool for later life; adulthood is, after all, defined by peer relationships - at the work place, in a marriage, or the parent committee. Siblings may argue through the day but invariably return to the same shared room at night, and that’s where they learn how to navigate a relationship between equals.
When children are alone, there is an automatic response for a younger sibling to reach out to his older brother for help and the older one to protect him. Unfortunately though, somewhere along the way this natural instinct is lost and sibling rivalry sometimes becomes sibling envy -- a secretive, insidious, corrosive feeling -- where who gets married first, who gets promoted first or who buys a house first becomes more important.
It often begins when a new baby is brought home. Between all the excitement and exhaustion, the older child often gets lost; the only goal for him is to be kept out of the way. Feeling left out and being on the outside can activate pain centers in the brain, triggering jealousy. The part of the brain which detects real physical pain also detects emotional pain causing chemical changes that result in aggressive and impulsive behaviors.
Conflict between brothers and sisters stems from two main sources: 1) the invasion of personal space which has a negative impact on trust and communication between siblings, and 2) the feeling of fairness and equality which may lead to feelings of resentment toward parents.
Parental influences that either ameliorate or exacerbate such conflicts can be categorized in two three groups: expectations, labels and favoritism. Regarding the latter, it doesn’t matter whether individuals feel themselves to be the favored or the unfavored child, the simple perception of parental favoritism is enough to undermine the sibling relationship.
The goal for parents is to avoid such sibling dynamics and instead nourish an equal, nurturing and meaningful relationship, which has life-long benefits. Indeed, indicators of well-being during middle and old age such as mood, health, morale and life-satisfaction are directly tied to how you feel about your siblings. You gauge whether an event gives you pain or pleasure not by how you did, but how you did in relationship comparable to others.
In addition, important familial connections can be a source of fun, reward and meaning, reducing the long term symptoms of anxiety and depression that correlate with tense sibling relations. Brain cells receive dopamine squirts when something pleasurable happens making you want to repeat it; therefore, if children enjoy being together, it will increase their desire to be with one another and consequently, enhance bonding.
Once parents realize the magnitude of their impact on sibling dynamics, it can lead to either a lifetime of happy, fulfilling relationships or a constant source of comparison and envy.
INCREASING FOCUSED ATTENTION IN TODDLERS
The biggest predictor of college completion isn't math or reading skills, but whether or not a child is able to pay attention and finish tasks at age four. Someone can be brilliant, but that doesn't necessarily mean they can focus when they need to and finish a task or job.
Toddlers who are better at concentrating e.g. playing for longer with one toy, taking directions and persisting with a task even after hitting obstacles, have a greater chance of getting a degree when older. In fact, four year olds with the best attention span and persistence are fifty per cent more likely to end up with a degree. A college degree in turn, leads to jobs paying higher wages and with more stability.
Children’s constant use of digital technology is hampering their attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks. The stimulation that video games or T.V. shows provide is about the pacing, how fast the scene changes every few minutes, or how quickly you reach the next stage, and if a child’s mind gets habituated to that pace, the child ultimately may not find the realities of the world stimulating enough. Video games also provide immediate reward – whether it’s reaching a new level or getting another “life”, these instant rewards make it alluring and addictive.
There are several great apps and educational programs to choose from even after the video games and cartoon shows are restricted. And while those can be great tools, a child is much more likely to enjoy the process of learning when taught in a fun, personal way by a loving parent. Those associations are what will make her memories and having a positive bonding experience while learning will encourage them to want more.
Getting on the floor with your child to play is the only way to promote focused attention (hence promote learning) during infancy and early childhood. Choose toys carefully and consider them to be an investment in your child’s future. Purchase toys that can grow with your child and can be used in different ways at various stages. Find multiple ways of playing with one toy and encourage your child to use their imagination so they stay focused on that one item for longer periods. Limit accessibility to a large number of toys to prevent them from rushing from one thing to another. Allow them to persist and manage the frustration before rushing to help if they have difficulty with something. Give them the space to find ways to tackle the problem and come up with a solution. Guide them gently to solve the problem rather than doing it for them so they gain the will and the confidence to persist and succeed.
The first few years of a child’s life are a period of incredible growth, a time when new habits are easily formed. This is the time to instill habits that will lead them to a path of success and fulfillment in their lives.
FOSTERING CURIOSITY TO PROMOTE LEARNING
Children have a natural desire to learn, to figure out how things work, and gain competence over the world around them. They are open, aware and experimental. Parents can harness this inherent curiosity to nurture the love for learning.
Curiosity increases with knowledge i.e. people are more eager to learn about things they already know. The more information we inundate our children with, the more likely they are to ask questions. Simply taking a stroll down the street can provide opportunities to discuss topics of interest to them. For example, a gardener planting flowers could lead to a conversation about the parts of a plant, how a tree grows, what tools the gardener might need, or what else you might find in the dirt.
When one realizes that there is a gap in their knowledge, it produces a feeling of deprivation and this emotion (being more than just a mental state) is a motivating force to eliminate that feeling of deprivation. For instance, a boy interested in playing with diggers might want to learn more about how the real one works and be curious to understand the way other machines function.
Additionally, interesting questions also stimulate curiosity - being told the answer quells curiosity before it can even get going. Wondering out loud to a child, how a seed grows in to a flower would encourage him to explore possibilities on his own. Providing an explanation before he has had a chance to examine the question would quench his desire to figure it out on his own and limit his imagination.
Children are also more likely to remember things that they are curious about; in fact they are able to remember boring, mundane information if this information is interspersed within something that they are keen to learn about. Weaving a boring science lesson in to a story about a superhero might keep a child’s attention for a little bit longer and he is probably also more likely to remember it later because he was curious to hear about the superhero.
Such simple practices can be incorporated in to every day interactions. Once the curiosity for learning develops, these children will become self-directed learners and retain their enthusiasm for seeking knowledge.
ENHANCING MEMORY IN CHILDREN
Learning and memory are two closely related concepts. Learning can be described as the acquisition of knowledge while memory is the expression of what’s been acquired.
There are several ways to improve memory function and thereby learning. Early childhood experiences which encourage specific skills of encoding information in memory become all important because the human brain exhibits the most amount of neuroplasticity through the early years.
The first step in storing knowledge is to organize and structure it in our mind and then adding information to what is already known - the more extensive the framework of existing knowledge, the more easily new information can be added to it. Next, utilizing lateral thinking to make connections and strengthen those networks is important. Lateral thinking is concerned with perception; it pushes boundaries and challenges concepts. It helps organize the external world such that it can then be processed in our own individual way, allowing us then to fit it in to whichever part of our memory that makes the most sense. And finally, visualizing concepts and rehearsing the information helps retain the knowledge for a longer period of time.
These techniques can be used creatively to help children organize and retain the knowledge they continually gain - essentially “training” the brain and improving memory and learning. As with all habits, the only criteria for habit formation being these two basic principles: repetition and regularity.
MOVING CHILDREN AWAY FROM SCREENS
With the advent of smartphones the world is always at our fingertips. We’ve moved away from paper books to Kindles, from newspapers to a news app on our phone, from shopping in stores to shopping online. On the morning commute on the train, while waiting in line, or while waiting for our kids on the playground, we whip out our phones and “catch up” with our emails or Facebook. It’s no surprise then that our children are obsessed with the same technology and would much rather indulge in that than engage with the world around them.
It often begins with allowing children to watch an episode of a favorite show on T.V. to distract them long enough to get a meal in. Not only is the child getting hooked to a screen, but also learning unhealthy eating habits and the concept of using food as a controlling tactic. It progresses to using an IPad to keep the child quiet in a restaurant or a waiting room or an airplane. Or maybe, understandably, the parent needs a break and the T.V./Ipad is a helpful diversion. The justification often is that there are lots of educational apps and that’s what is allowed. However, most often, there is still some level of guilt on the part of the parent for exposing their child to too much screen time. The question is how do we fix the situation so children don’t forget how to socialize with the world?
The fact is that this requires a tremendous amount of patience. Essentially, the screen needs to be replaced by something equally entertaining. This is tough because most things screen related release dopamine, the happy chemical, in the brain. Since human interactions are the only source that can come close to competing, the pressure falls on the caregiver.
Entertaining children with toys, books and every day surroundings consistently is critical during the first few days. Teaching them how to play with toys in different ways, reading books in an engaging way, and pointing out interesting sights around them is important. All of this is done with a goal to encourage creativity since creative play is the foundation of learning. Eventually, children will relearn how to play on their own while using their imagination. But until then, the parent or caregiver needs to persist and resist the temptation to rely on the IPad even if it for just a few minutes. It’s not possible to wean off an addiction if the substance is still accessible and it requires a strong will to make the change.
BEING SMART VERSUS KIND
The focus on academic success begins early on. Searching for the right school becomes a concern from the moment a child comes in to the world. Parents take great pride in their child “being smart”, convinced that they have superior intellectual abilities because they said their first words or learned how to write their name before any of their peers.
But how far does “being smart” really take us? While a high intelligence quotient is related to career success, the relationship is not all that strong. To be truly successful, emotional and social intelligence are also required. Emotional intelligence relates to the awareness of one’s own emotions as well those of others, and ties in to building relationships. Social intelligence is the ability to understand social situations and knowing what to do in that situation.
Helping children develop social and emotional intelligence may be easiest by encouraging the relatable concept of kindness. According to the VIA Institute, kindness encompasses three concepts: 1) empathy– to be able to understand another person’s circumstance and feelings, and have the capacity to see beyond your own needs and comfort; 2) social responsibility– to be able to understand your role in the ethical framework of society; and 3) moral reasoning– to be able to objectively determine right from wrong.
These three tenets of kindness can easily be incorporated in a child’s daily life. For example, encouraging them to see how their actions affect someone else, what another friend might need and how they can help, or standing up for someone or something they believe in – these are all actions that lead to emotional and social intelligence.
Children understand kindness through every day interactions with their parents. Simple acts such as holding the door for the person behind you, acknowledging when someone helps you with your bags, or giving up a seat on the train, are things children notice. Teaching children the language of kindness, helping them notice and recognize facial expressions, responding to rude behavior by letting it go, are all essential skills.
In a recent study, participants who completed an act of kindness for 10 days showed a significant difference in life satisfaction than those who didn’t. It’s also been shown that the stronger your social connections, the happier and healthier you are likely to be. In addition, those with a more developed social and emotional intelligence have been proven to be generally more successful in the workplace.
If we want our children to be well rounded, happy and successful adults, it would make more sense for us then, to pride ourselves in our children’s “kindness”, rather than their “smartness.”
DISTINGUISING BETWEEN SHYNESS, SOCIAL ANXIETY, AND INTROVERSION
While it is easy to see how the three constructs of introversion, shyness, and Social Anxiety Disorder can get easily confused, and one term may be used to describe another, they are very different from one another. It is vital to distinguish between the three categories because each paradigm requires a different response.
Shyness has, at its core, a fear of negative judgment by others. It's a kind of self-consciousness, not wanting people to look at you and feeling easily embarrassed or easily shamed. It’s the social discomfort one feels when worrying about measuring up or appearing out of place or awkward. If, however, the attention was placed on others, there might be some room to breathe. Finding group activities of interest with children who share those interests may be a way to start, or having the child spend time with people they are already familiar with. Developing assertiveness is another way to teach them to stand up for themselves. Once they are able to set limits, they may feel more in control and less judged.
Introverts on the other hand, may be socially adept but quickly tire of parties or group gatherings where they must be “on” for long stretches. Their social energy is limited, and they guard their supply. They enjoy time alone; that is how they recharge. Recognizing their personality type will help you accept some of their behaviors instead of trying to change who they are and thereby affecting self-esteem.
Social Anxiety Disorder is characterized by overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social situations. The anxiety is more intense and persistent than shyness. It escalates to a more chronic fear of being watched and judged by others, and one tends to be very cautious about their behavior in public. Since they feel social humiliation is inevitable they begin avoiding social situations. It might be best to seek professional help if you feel your child might fall in to this category.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR INTROVERTED CHILD
Introverted children are often misunderstood, even by their parents, who worry about them. Content with just one or two close friends, they may be perceived as unpopular; easily overwhelmed by too much stimulation, they may seem unmotivated.
In reality, however, introverted children often have a high EQ. They are dependable, persistent, and lack vanity. They are creative problem solvers and they love to learn. They tend to have powerful skills of concentration and prefer immersing themselves in one task at a time. They may be socially adept but quickly tire of parties or groups. Their social energy is limited, and they use it very carefully.
A biologically based model explains the behaviors of introverts and extroverts and how their brains operate differently. Introverts have naturally high cortical arousal (the speed and amount of the brain’s activity), and process more information in a short span of time. Thus they become overwhelmed and tend to shut down to stop this influx of information when exposed to an environment with a lot of stimulation, like a loud restaurant. Extroverts, on the other hand, are only minimally aroused, so they seek out highly stimulating environments to augment their arousal levels. Since introverts’ and extroverts’ brains are “wired” differently, it may make introverts more cautious and reserved than their peers. It may be harder for them to adjust to new environments or feel comfortable in large crowds.
There are a few things parents can do to help their child in such situations. For example, arrive earlier to an event to allow them to become comfortable in the space, or have them stand back from the action at a comfortable distance and simply watch for a few minutes. Quietly observing will help them process things. Whatever new experience you’re getting them accustomed to, take small steps toward it rather than avoiding it completely.
While extroverts feel energized by socializing, introverts can feel drained. Remind your child that they can take breaks from socializing if they feel overwhelmed or tired by going to a quieter part of the room. Older children are able to recognize the signs of fatigue but you may have to watch out for your younger ones.
Help them understand that the feeling of nervousness may stem from not knowing the outcome of something. Provide positive reinforcement when they take a risk or do something they were initially apprehensive about. Once they recognize this feeling, and with encouragement, they will learn how to self-regulate the feelings of dread.
Allow for opportunities to pursue their interests. Such engagement can provide fulfillment, build confidence and give your child opportunities to socialize with other children.
Teach them to be assertive. Practice with them at home and model behavior. Ask questions gently to help them think out loud, but without interrogation, so they don’t get lost in their own thoughts. Reflect back what they say to let them know that they have been heard.
Speak to their teacher and tell them about your child's temperament. Sometimes their lack of participation is construed as being uninterested or distracted. On the contrary, introverted students can be quite attentive in class, but they often prefer to listen and observe rather than actively participate.
Perhaps most importantly, avoid labeling them “shy”. They will begin to believe that it and accept it as who they are. The goal is draw them out, not push them further in.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT GIFTS FOR HOLIDAYS
With Christmas around the corner there isn’t much time left for holiday shopping. Before rushing out to grab that last Elsa doll off the shelf, however, here are some things to consider.
There are several guidelines for choosing the “right toy” — it should be safe and durable, open ended and challenging, multipurpose and timeless etc. Simple toys that can be used creatively in multiple ways help increase a child’s focus and attention span while stimulating neurological development: facts that correlate to social and academic success.
Most young children remain focused for an average of ten to fifteen minutes. By introducing different ways of utilizing one toy parents can significantly increase their child’s attention span. Take a plain wooden shape sorter, for example. It can be used for block play, building towers, teaching shapes and colors, matching, counting and sorting, thus incorporating language and Math activities. As a child grows older, these shapes can be used in conjunction with other toys. For example, the blocks can be used as pretend food while cooking, or boulders for construction during dramatic play.
Helping children recognize how one toy can be used in alternate ways encourages creativity and imagination. The enhanced imagination promotes lateral thinking which leads to better problem solving skills during play dates as well as with homework assignments. In addition, engaging children with one object or activity for longer periods allows them to absorb what they are learning, ask questions and stimulate their curiosity, which are important social and academic skills. The increased focus translates in to their ability to complete homework in one sitting, allow you to enjoy a meal without their wanting to get up from their seat, and travel long distances peacefully.
Indeed, having fewer, carefully chosen toys is far more valuable than having an abundance of toy chests. If children play with one or two toys at a time, they spend longer intervals examining those toys and coming up with new ways to play with them. Similarly, having fewer presents to open encourages them to appreciate them far more—they may be dismissive of the other gifts in favor of the superior one without recognizing the time, effort and money that was put in. Also, children take better care of things if they know they can’t be replaced, learning how to become responsible. And finally, toys create clutter, especially in apartment living. A cluttered room leads to a chaotic mind and a more disorganized child. Fewer toys mean less cleaning up and less reluctance from kids to participate in the process. Also remember that giving several presents all at once, sets up a similar expectation for the following year.
Finally, if children are inundated with gifts from well-meaning relatives and friends, encouraging them to choose something to give away to those less privileged, instills the values of gratefulness, empathy and sacrifice early on.
Here are some suggestions for this holiday season:
Recommended gifts: wooden toys, blocks, manipulatives e.g. open ended lego or magna tiles, puppets, dress ups, pretend play sets, puzzles and brain teasers, arts and crafts supplies, play dough or model magic, board games, musical instruments, books.
Not recommended: battery operated toys with lights and sounds (don’t teach much more than cause and effect, if that), superhero or princess figures (project a certain kind of unrealistic image), remote control cars (limited imagination), and anything with guns and swords (accessories that promote aggressive behavior).
So how about making a more careful selection this year and letting the grandparents, aunts and uncles indulge the little one with more Princess themed toys if they must!
RECOGNIZING THE POWER OF GRATITUDE
“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have in to enough, and more.” – Melody Beattie
A conscious focus on gratitude has been linked with positive emotions including contentment, happiness, pride and hope, and it makes life more meaningful, fulfilling and productive.
Gratitude builds self-esteem by reducing social comparisons (a factor that plays a significant role in low self-esteem) and allowing one to appreciate others’ accomplishments. Recognizing all that you have to be thankful for even during the worst times, fosters resilience and reduces stress. It’s been shown to improve sleep. Expressing gratitude increases prosocial behavior; it enhances empathy and reduces the desire to retaliate even when someone hasn’t been kind, therefore reducing aggression.
Gratitude does not emerge spontaneously in newborns and children’s comprehension of gratitude is a process played out over several years. This virtue is acquired only through sustained effort and focus. It is one of several positive attributes that parents can encourage in their children.
A simple expression of gratitude at the end of the day can begin the practice of habitual focusing on and appreciating the positive aspects of life. It’s important to clearly articulate what it is that one is grateful for. For example, saying that you are thankful for your family does not push you to think about what it is that you appreciate them for. Being specific and pointing out, for example, that you are grateful for your brother because he gave you a hug when you got hurt, would be much more powerful.
Children who practice a daily gratitude exercise have been shown to have a more positive attitude toward school and family. They were also reported to have more enthusiasm, determination and attentiveness. With the holidays coming up, it’s a good time to begin the practice at home, make it a daily habit, and see the power of gratitude in action!