Single Parent Pros and Cons

Single parent households are now so common that more than a quarter of all U.S. children under the age of 21 are being raised by a single parent. Only one in six of these single parents are dads. But the very vast majority of single parents, be they moms or dads, work to put a roof over the heads of their children (and food in their mouths).

It’s a hard road to haul and it’s not always by choice. Some single parents are widowed. Others may have never found that special someone, but were lucky enough to have children. In short, every single parent has a story to tell and it’s bound to be an interesting story at that.

If you’re a single parent, or a parent contemplating the end of a marriage gone wrong, you likely worry about the effects of the single parent home on a child. By having only one parent, are you cheating your child of the stability of a two-parent home? Will your child suffer from having a mom with no dad or a dad with no mom? Or perhaps only part time influence from the other parent?

On bad days, the guilt can be crushing.

Single Parent Freedom

But on good days, perhaps you think how awesome it is to be free to make all the parenting decisions, to have no one undermining your authority, no one confusing your child with conflicting demands. By the same token, of course, when you’re absolutely exhausted from being up with a sick child all night and you still have to go to work in the morning, you may be green with envy of two-parent homes, where someone is available to pinch hit when the going gets rough. You may dream of someone who shares the burdens of cooking and housework and running errands. Someone who picks up the dry-cleaning or goes to that PTA meeting when you just can’t make it.

Melanie Oates can tell you all about both sides of the equation. A single mother to a set of special needs 6-year-old twins—one has autism, the other a rare genetic disorder called Chromosome 7 Terminal Deletion—Oates blogs about her experiences as TwinMomMel. The pros and cons of single parenthood are something Melanie has often contemplated.

Single parent Melanie Oates with her special needs twins Julius and Genell
Single parent Melanie Oates with her special needs twins Julius and Genell

On the pro side, Melanie says, “You don’t have to worry about daily input from the other parent nagging about how you changed a diaper or what you cooked the kids for dinner. You don’t need to worry about your child favoring one parent over the other. That doesn’t exist because you are the main (or only) parent! Also: you get to create all the rules.”

Single parent Melanie Oates with Genell and Julius

But being able to see the positive doesn’t mean that Melanie doesn’t see the downside of single parenthood. Her cons outweigh her pros. “You get burned out quicker because there is no time for you to take off your ‘parent hat’ while the other parent takes over. If you have more than one child, it can be difficult to give each child their own independence because you don’t have another parent to help take one child to soccer practice, while you take the other to dance practice.

The Single Parent: Dating? What’s That?

“Also, as a single parent, if your child is sick, there goes another sick day taken from work since there is no other parent to fall back on. Not to mention: dating (what’s that?), especially if you have special needs children like myself. Good luck with finding a childcare provider that can help while you try to explore the dating world. Even worse, try meeting a ‘Mr. Right’ who actually understands the circumstances at home!” says Oates.

Single parent Melanie Oates with Julius and Genell

For Becky Lockridge, the issue for her two sons was the absence in their lives of a positive male figure. A single mother to two sons, ages 11 and 23, Becky has always been on her own. The lack of a strong male in her sons’ lives is something Lockridge feels keenly. “I tried to fill the void with coaches, godfathers, and big brother types. In the end I do wish my sons had had their fathers actively involved.”

Kate Campion, who blogs at My Sweet Home Life, has experienced it all: shared custody, full custody, and with remarriage, step-parenthood, as well. Like Melanie, Kate loved that there was no one to compete with her parenting style and no one to undermine her parental authority. But Campion suggests some other perks we might not have suspected. “You get the ‘firsts.’ When your child gets home from school, they often tell their news to the first parent they see. By the time their second parent gets home, that report is condensed to ‘I had a good day,’” says Campion. “You are the one with whom they share all the details of their life as it unfolds. It makes your relationships closer.”

Campion also suggests that single parenthood can bring extended family members closer, since a single parent may be forced to rely on extended family for help. On the other hand, says Campion, “You will never be a family unit the way you once were. If you remarry, you will need to navigate the murky waters of step-parenting. When you have a child, you build up a bank of love over the years that you can withdraw from in challenging times. You don’t have that luxury with a stepchild and your new partner will not have that with your children.

The Single Parent: No One to Share the Delight

“Also, as a single parent, there is no one who will share with you the delight of their achievements. When your child performs in a school play, or has a killer time on the sports field, you won’t be able to share in those moments with their dad at the end of the day,” says Kate.

“Finally, you have half the time, half the money, half the energy. Even small things, like when your child is sick, or you have a late meeting at work, are so much harder to manage when you are on your own.”

A single mother of one child, Monique Battiste adds that as a single parent, “There’s not much time to yourself, no dating life (unless you have or can find a sitter), and you feel stretched thin both financially and mentally.  But the hardest part for me, perhaps, is having to answer the question of why the other parent isn’t in my child’s life, why that parent is simply unavailable.”

Single Parent Monique Battiste with her daughter Jianna
Single parent Monique Battiste with her daughter Jianna

Single Parent Blind Spots

Dr. Edward V. Haas, M.D., psychiatrist and author of Transformative Parenting: The Empathic, Empowering Approach to Optimal Parenting and Personal Growth, points out that for the single parent, there’s, “No one to catch you when you are becoming irrational/unreasonable: Sometimes we are irrational. We may have an unrealistic expectation of our child which is leading to frustration and anger. Having another adult with a second opinion can help us see these ‘blind spots’ which interfere with our understanding, communication and bonding with our child.”

Haas also speaks of the dilemma of the single parent in balancing work and home. “Even many couples have difficulty meeting their financial obligations and caring for their children at the same time. Being a single parent can create a severe conflict between being present to care for the emotional needs and wants of their children and working to provide for their needs for food and housing.”

While most single parents see it as a plus that their parenting styles hold sway with no one to undermine their authority, Haas sees this a different way. “A single parent can only teach their way of doing things. People have different strengths and perspectives, children who have two parents can learn different ways of resolving issues and seeing things.”

On the other hand, says Haas, “Single parents can teach their children their way of seeing the world and doing things without the stress of conflict with another parent who may want to teach their child differently. Parents who are inclined to provide more freedom of action to their child do not have to feel conflicted with the other parent who may be more comfortable restricting their child in certain ways, and vice-versa.”

Single Parent Attitude

There is no doubt that the life of the single parent has its hardships and much like any other parenting experience, its triumphs, too. Can single parenthood be better in some cases than the traditional two-parent home? It seems that in many cases, it may be, especially when there’s strife in the marital relationship. But what seems to matter most of all, is attitude. A single parent who makes the effort to see all that is good, while not turning a blind eye to the issues, is a strong single parent: one who is bound to raise a strong, independent and healthy child, no matter the obstacles that develop along the way.

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Underage Drinking: Having the Talk About Alcohol and Brain Health

Underage drinking can get in the way of the developing brain. And anything that gets in the way of the developing brain, for instance underage drinking, can interfere with academic performance. That means that kids who drink may grow up to be unemployed adults. If they don’t, for instance, get killed while driving under the influence of alcohol.

If you managed to follow that train of thought to its logical conclusion, your child can, too. It’s just that most parents haven’t thought to explain it to them, lay it all out on the table. Which is a shame, because doing so may just stop children from taking that first sip of alcohol.

That’s the conclusion of a new survey conducted by market research firm GfK on behalf of Ask, Listen, Learn, a program of Responsibility.org. More than 1,000 parents of children ages 10-17 took part in the November, 2017 survey, the results of which are in a report entitled, A Lifetime of Conversations: Kids, Alcohol, and the Developing Brain, issued just ahead of Alcohol Responsibility Month. The report also includes data culled from other research on the topic of underage drinking, along with important advice and perspectives from experts in the field.

Stunning details in the new report illustrate both how and when parents are having conversations with their children about underage drinking. This information helps us understand how we have managed to achieve a significant reduction in children’s alcohol consumption in the United States since 1991, when experts first began to track the point at which underage drinking begins.

Some conclusions from the report:

More Parents Are Talking the Talk.

The good news is that more parents are talking to their children about drinking alcohol. A majority (76 percent) of parents of children aged 10-17, have in fact, spoken to their children at least once during the past year about underage drinking. That represents an increase of 7 percent since 2003.[1]

Parents Wait Too Long to Have the Talk.

The report suggests that parents may be choosing to be reactive, rather than proactive in their conversations with their children about underage drinking and alcohol. Half of the parents surveyed wait until their children see something about drinking on television or social media, or until asked about underage drinking, before they begin the conversation about alcohol. They may be waiting too long at that: only 2 in 5 parents spoke to kids aged 10-14, though 23 percent of 8th graders (age 13 or so) have already tasted alcohol.

Too Many Parents Think: “My Kid Wouldn’t Drink.”

More than half the parents surveyed, 58 percent, or nearly 6 in 10 parents of children age 10-17, say their children won’t be needing to make any sort of decision about alcohol over the next three months. They think their children are too young to discuss drinking. This flies in the face of underage drinking statistics: 23 percent of 8th graders have drunk alcohol and 53 percent think it would be easy to get alcohol. These particular statistics only increase as children get to high school.

Parents Think Kids Are Too Young for the Talk.

Of parent participants of children aged 10-17 who have not yet spoken to their children about underage drinking, 46 percent say their children are too young to have a talk about drinking alcohol. This figure includes 60 percent of parents with children aged 10-14.

Parents Don’t Think About the Impact of Underage Drinking on Living a Healthy Lifestyle.

Only 15 percent of the parents surveyed listed avoiding underage drinking as a factor in children living a healthy lifestyle. Parents instead prioritized eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, and staying away from smoking and drug use, as elements critical to living a healthy lifestyle.

Parents Don’t Talk About Underage Drinking and Brain Health.

Parents tend to speak to their children only about the immediate consequences of underage drinking, for instance alcohol poisoning or car crashes. Experts believe that parents should instead be discussing the impact of alcohol on brain development and the long-term effects of underage drinking, for example, memory issues and alcohol dependence. When asked to list reasons children shouldn’t drink, 4 out of 10 parents did not list brain health.

“Parents are the most powerful influence in kids’ decisions not to drink alcohol underage,” says Ralph Blackman, president and CEO of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, the survey sponsor. “Past research demonstrates that when conversations between parents and kids about alcohol go up, underage drinking rates go down, but there is more that can be done to improve the effectiveness of these conversations.”

Experts like Blackman would like to see parents starting the conversation about underage drinking earlier, and they’d like them to continue the conversation as the child matures. Parents should begin the conversation before children are afforded an opportunity to drink alcohol, which means having that first conversation when a child is around 10 years old. By age 14, many children have already been offered a drink.

Does this mean that most children have been offered a drink by age 15? “No, not necessarily,” says Deborah Gilboa, MD, family physician and youth development expert, who serves on the Ask, Listen, Learn education advisory board. “In fact, the overwhelming majority of kids this age have not tried alcohol. but as kids transition from middle school to high school, their chances of participating in underage drinking increase. According to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s 2017 Monitoring the Future survey, 23 percent of 8th graders have reported drinking alcohol in their lifetime, which increases to 42 percent in 10th grade and 62 percent in 12th grade.

“While there is still work to be done, these numbers have significantly decreased since 1991, partly due to an increase in parent/child conversations around underage drinking. Ideally, parents should discuss the dangers of alcohol, including the impact of alcohol on the developing brain, early and often with their kids, so they truly understand the risks and can feel confident in saying no if approached with an opportunity to drink,” says Gilboa.

But some parents aren’t speaking to their children about alcohol at all. One in four parents surveyed said they either didn’t speak to their children about underage drinking, or can’t recall whether or not they had that talk. That’s a shame: children need to know about these things, about alcohol and its effects. Children are open, moreover, to hearing about what underage drinking can do to them, not just in the short-term, but over time. Learning the facts of what alcohol can do to their developing brains, appears to deter them from ever wanting to try alcohol in the first place, according to the experts.

The upshot: It’s great that more parents are having conversations about underage drinking with their kids, but experts wish they’d put a different spin on these talks, and speak about brain health as being the most important reason to avoid alcohol. “Create a foundation for these conversations with kids by answering their questions simply and clearly at any age, and actively discuss this topic by age nine or ten. At this time, kids are becoming very curious about their growing bodies and brains and are open to learning about how alcohol can impact both.

“Adolescence includes critical phases in brain development. The area of the brain that controls reasoning—helps us think before we act—matures later in the third decade of life. The sooner that parents speak with their children about the dangers of drinking alcohol underage, the better,” says Dr. Gilboa.

Survey Methodology

The Lifetime of Conversations study was conducted online with GfK’s Omnibus, using the web-enabled “KnowledgePanel,” a probability-based tool designed to represent the U.S. general population, not just the online population. The study consisted of 1,000 nationally representative interviews conducted between November 10 and 12, 2017 among adults aged 18+ with at least one child between ages 10 and 17. The margin of error is +/-3 percentage points for the full sample.

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[1] Responsibility.org, Wirthlin Worldwide National Quorum, May, 2003

After the Florida Mass Shooting: PTSD in Teens

Can just listening to the news and viewing disturbing images cause PTSD in teens? This is a question some parents are asking in the wake of the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High school, in Parkland Florida. These parents wonder if their teenagers’ sleeplessness, nightmares, and frightening thoughts are more than just strong but temporary reactions to the news. The answer is a definite yes: if your teen is experiencing such symptoms, it could be posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and your child should be seen by a mental health professional.

Florida Mass Shooting

Perhaps thought you’d done as good a job as any parent might do in explaining the awful news coming out of Florida to your teen, but here it is, two weeks later, and your child still can’t get through the night without waking up drenched in sweat and shaking. Is this a genuine mental health issue or is it something that will pass with the healing qualities of time? What should you be doing to support your teen?

Dr. Robin Goodman of A Caring Hand, a nonprofit that specializes in helping children cope with bereavement, confirms that even teens outside of Florida can experience posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of the mass shooting, “We do know that direct physical exposure (witnessing the event or being there) or emotional exposure (knowing someone who was injured or who died) as well as indirect exposure (seeing and reading about the event in the news and on social media) can impact teens and lead to trauma reactions,” says Goodman.

Knowing that teens even far from Parkland can suffer emotional trauma from the fallout of the mass shooting is one thing. But what are the symptoms of PTSD in teens? What should parents be watching for?

Jessica Tappana, of the Aspiring trauma counseling center, says that teens can be impacted by PTSD every bit as much as adults. The difference is that teens may hesitate to reach out to the adults in their lives for help. That means that their parents may not even know their children are struggling. And not all of the complicated feelings teens may experience after a mass shooting like the one in Florida can be labeled as posttraumatic stress disorder.

Healthy Response

“In the immediate aftermath of the traumatic shooting, it is normal to expect youth to be shaken and more anxious. Certainly students returning to Stoneman Douglas this week are going to feel anxious, but youth across the country who have watched the news coverage of Stoneman Douglas and the many “copycat” threats since are experiencing anxiety as well. Some of this nervousness is a normal response to the trauma.

“In the weeks following the trauma, you can expect teens to be processing this anxiety and talking about the trauma; their personal experiences; and their reactions. This is their way of trying to make sense of the experience, and facing their emotions about the situation is actually a healthy response,” says Tappana.

Teens protest the Parkland, Florida mass shooting in TallahasseeSo when does a teenager’s reaction to the traumatic school shooting become an issue of concern?  When do you seek professional help? “If time goes on and your child’s anxiety about the shooting is impacting his or her ability to function, you may want to seek professional help. PTSD develops when the brain doesn’t heal from the trauma and instead sees danger around every corner,” explains Tappana.

“Teens developing PTSD might be avoiding situations that remind them of the school shooting (i.e. school, the news, etc). They may be thinking about the shooting constantly or even having nightmares.

“For teens who were at Stoneman Douglas or who have attended another school where there was a threat, there may be ‘flashbacks’ where it feels like they’re experiencing the threat all over again.  Withdrawing or reacting to everyday situations in an extreme manner can also indicate a problem.

Wait Three Months?

“Traditionally, mental health professionals wait until about three months after a trauma to diagnose PTSD. That said, it’s better to err on the side of caution. Speak to a mental health professional regarding whether counseling might help children process their reactions to the shooting. This is especially true if children’s concerns are interfering with their ability to feel safe at school, interact with peers, or otherwise function on a day-to-day basis,” says Tappana.

Dr. Sal Raichbach of the Ambrosia Treatment Center cautions parents that PTSD isn’t just something that happens to soldiers, “When we think of PTSD, we often think of active soldiers or veterans who have seen wartime and are plagued with flashbacks from the battlefield. But PTSD is a lot closer to home than we think. Any traumatic event can trigger PTSD, from abuse in the household to a school shooting, like the one we’ve witnessed in Florida,” says Raichbach.

But that doesn’t mean that teens are going to experience PTSD the same way as those in the military, or war veterans. “PTSD in children usually differs from that seen in adults, and teens fall somewhere in the middle. Kids tend to reenact their trauma during play or watch for signs that the trauma will recur and try to prevent that from happening. Teens, on the other hand, will often show more aggressive behavior and potentially engage in self-harm or use drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms.”

Unprocessed Trauma

Why do teens experience symptoms of PTSD after incidents like the mass shooting in Florida? “PTSD is the body and mind’s response to unprocessed trauma. When trauma is processed properly, with enough expression either through shaking in the body, through crying, or through the expression of rage and fear, it becomes ‘resolved.’ This means the body and mind won’t be haunted by the experience forever, which might lead to nightmares, chronic and constant fear, and the feeling of being perpetually unsafe,” says psychoanalyst Claudia Luiz.

Why do teens outside of Florida experience PTSD? It may be because of the extensive and inescapable media coverage of the event. “Research from 9/11 has shown that people can develop PTSD just from watching a traumatic event on television over and over again. Teens have been fascinated by this school shooting more than others because the distressed students have continued to speak out,” explains Dr. Carole Lieberman, author of Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How To Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror, who adds that the most important thing parents can do to help kids with PTSD is to acknowledge their reactions to the event as understandable. “It is important to talk about what happened and to get them to express their feelings about what happened. Ask them if they’re worried that this will happen at their school. Ask if they know anyone who they think has angry feelings and might be ready to explode like Nikolas Cruz. Ask if they know any classmate who has guns. Ask if they themselves sometimes get angry feelings that make them fantasize about hurting people or hurting themselves.

“If they have feelings about hurting others or themselves, get them into therapy. Also, if their symptoms of PTSD don’t resolve on their own in a month, get them into therapy,” says Lieberman.

Practical Tips

Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author, The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors and CBS TV offers the following practical tips for parents:

  • Before injecting too much information into your teen, first ask “What did you hear?”
  • Listen not only to what your teens say, but also pay attention to what they do.
  • Emphasize to your teen “You are safe.” Explain details of the measures schools have already taken to reinforce safety, for instance locking school doors and practicing emergency lockdown drills.
  • A senseless school shooting at their school or anywhere else can make teens (and adults) feel powerless. Give your teen a sense of control by suggesting she write a letter send it to a surviving child or family affected by a school shooting. Or offer to help your teen have a bake sale so she might send the proceeds to the families. These actions are proactive and also offer your teen an opportunity to feel helpful and giving.
  • Limit exposure to TV news, online broadcasts, and social media. Repeated exposure to the violent stories and graphic pictures can re-traumatize your teen.

What if you can’t tell whether your teen is experiencing PTSD or just normal teenage angst? “In my opinion, parents are the first line of defense against mental illness in children. They interact with their children more than anyone else, so they are usually the first to observe signs and symptoms. If you know your child or teen has experienced a traumatic event, talk to them and keep an eye out for any further signs of PTSD,” says Raichbach.

Dr. Goodman adds that teens aren’t the only ones affected by the mass shooting at the school in Parkland, Florida. “Parents must take care of themselves and get their own support so they can best support their teens.”

5 Tips for Managing Temper Tantrums

Temper tantrums are dreaded events most parents associate with the “terrible twos.” Many, if not most tantrums can be avoided (see: How to End Power Struggles with Toddlers). But when tantrums do occur, they are exhausting and upsetting for both parent and child. Five simple techniques can ease the experience for everyone: be empathetic; narrate your child’s experience; walk him to the goal (then walk away); hold your child facing away from you; and resist lecturing your child (more on these techniques later).

In toddlerhood, children become aware that they are beings separate from their parents. This is the time children begin to explore the limits of their independence and capabilities. It is typical of children this age to demand the right to behave according to their own wills. A power struggle results when the parent tells the child what to do. The child’s subsequent meltdown expresses this idea: “I am me. You are you. You don’t tell me what to do. I tell me what to do.”

Toddlers can only learn to fend for themselves as individuals by asserting their independence, and by exercising control over their own behavior. They do this as they learn how to stay dry and feed themselves. They learn that it’s possible to delay gratification: that dessert, for instance, comes after dinner. Their language skills grow in leaps and bounds and they become social beings, capable of making friends. These are the skills of independence: things that others cannot do for them. Toddlers learn these skills by performing them.

Toddlerhood is a critical period in a child’s development: the time when the child realizes he is an independent being, separate from his parents. This phase of development is mirrored by adolescence, in which teens shrug off their parents’ authority in favor of the independence of adulthood. When toddlerhood is positive and successful, the toddler feels empowered, rather than overpowered by his parents. This is a good foundation for the child’s upcoming adolescence, way off in the distant future, when the child must again assert his separateness and independence from his parents.

Tantrums Express the Desire for Independence

If the child was forced to behave according to a parent’s dictates in toddlerhood, the child will rebel and meltdowns ensue. The same is true of teens. The trick is to guide, rather than demand. If the child was guided to make safe, positive choices as a toddler, he will likely continue to make safe, positive choices as a teenager. Supportive parenting is the key to success in both toddlerhood and adolescence. One lays the ground for the other.

How then, can parents ensure a successful and positive toddlerhood for their children? How can we, as parents, avoid meltdowns and power struggles? And considering that none of us are perfect parents, and may not always handle things as we should, how bad is it if we screw things up, at least now and then? “Toddlerhood is the most challenging phase of human development for parents and the most critical one for children in the lifespan. Any adult that I have treated in psychotherapy in my private practice was found to be stuck somewhere in a toddler milestone,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author, The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors and CBS TV.

5 Tips for Managing Temper Tantrums

If you’re scared witless at this point, chillax. Making an occasional mess of things won’t scar you or your child for life. Besides, Dr. Walfish has you covered with these 5 tips for managing temper tantrums. Read these tips, follow them to the letter, then lather, rinse, repeat until your child turns 3 or so. (It’ll be fine. We promise.)

  1. Be genuinely empathetic to your toddler’s struggle.
  2. Narrate the struggle. Learn to speak reflectively with empathy in the moment of a conflict. You might say, “Johnny (use his first name since pronouns are not mastered by children until the age of 4 years) wanted more video and Mommy said it’s bath time. Johnny got mad. It’s hard to stop when you want more.”
  3. Physically walk your screaming child to his next destination. If your child resists the idea that it’s time to take a bath, for instance, walk him to the bath. This will help settle and calm him down in the space where he needs to be. Children will escalate their yelling, and protest, thinking you might change your no to a yes. If, after getting your child where he needs to be, you then walk away, your child will calm down faster.
  4. If your child is out of control or has been aggressive (for instance hitting, biting, scratching, or pinching), calmly hold your child on your lap facing away from you. By holding the child, you provide a safe container whereby you can act as a receptacle for your child’s rage. By remaining calm in the face of your child’s rage, the child learns that she can be super-angry and still, you do not attack, criticize, blame, or collapse as the target for his/her rage. Tell your child when she stops pulling on you, you will let go. The moment her muscles relax release her and praise her for learning to settle herself. You will not have to hold her too many times before you see a decrease in the frequency and intensity of her oppositional tantrums.
  5. Do not lecture your child. Kids hate to be told what to do. Rather, after a tantrum, talk gently with your child about what he wanted and was feeling when he was so upset. Together, the two of you can come up with alternative ways he can get what he wants without a meltdown.

Still worried? Dr. Walfish stress that the main thing is to “Always accept your child where he is.”

“We are all on a learning curve,” says Dr. Walfish. “No one is perfect. We all want the same thing: to be acknowledged, validated, and accepted—flaws and all!”

In other words, don’t be angry at yourself or your child, even when you forget to do the right thing, even as he falls apart in total meltdown. Realize that there are both good and bad days ahead. And love him no matter what.

How to End Power Struggles with Toddlers

Is there a way for parents to end power struggles with two-year-olds for good? Probably not. But parents can certainly aim for fewer power struggles. You may even turn most of the struggles into learning experiences, if you keep the goal in mind and work it with all you’ve got.

What causes power struggles with two-year-olds? It’s about a milestone in the child’s development. The child at two, now understands that she is an individual, and that her behavior is a choice, under her control. Exercising that choice reinforces the idea for the child that she is an independent being: no one can force her to do anything she doesn’t want to do.

“Toddlers must claim their separateness from their parents. The adolescent phase mirrors toddlerhood in that teens must resolve the separation they first declared during toddlerhood. This means, “I am me – you are not me! Don’t tell me what to do!” That is their way of asserting and declaring control and independence.  During this phase they must also learn control over their body functions including toilet-training, self-feeding, delayed gratification, language development, coping with disappointment, and social skills,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author, The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors and CBS TV.

Power Struggles: Testing the Limits of Power

This need of a toddler to be a distinct individual means that when the parent tells the child to do something, the child will do the opposite action, because that’s part of the process of individuation; or becoming a separate person, distinct from others. Going against a parent’s wishes, at this stage of development, is about children making decisions for themselves, and about testing the limits of their power as human beings. It’s about learning the boundaries of their own abilities, their choices, and their behavior.

The trick for us as parents is to guide children to make positive decisions, whenever possible. This allows the child to be independent in a productive and meaningful way. It’s the difference between demanding something, and helping the child see the smart thing to do. It’s about empowering children, as opposed to overpowering them.

Toddler playing with toy mobile phone
No power struggles here. This boy is comfortable exploring what it is like to be an adult with a mobile phone.

Let’s take a look:

Tracy wiggles her finger into a small hole in the fabric of the living room sofa. “Stop that,” says her mom. “You’re going to make the hole bigger. Leave it alone.”

Tracy, however, is two years old. Telling her not to do something is like egging her on to do exactly that. Which is why the little girl now pokes her finger into the hole of the fabric some more, casting a mischievous smile at her mother as if to say, “Ha ha. Who’s going to stop me?”

Now, we all have good and bad parenting days. If Tracy’s mom had been having a good day, she never would have demanded the girl stop what she was doing. Instead, she would have distracted her. “Oh look! The begonia has a new flower bud!” she might have said, pointing to a potted plant on the other side of the room.

Tracy would have forgotten all about the hole in the sofa. And the potential for a power struggle would have been nipped in the bud, right there and then. No raised voices, tears, or tantrums.

Tired and Cranky=Power Struggles

But because Tracy’s mom had been up half the night with Tracy’s new baby brother, she was tired and cranky. She was not in the mood to do the kind of creative thinking necessary to engage in positive parenting. And so, Tracy’s mom, without meaning to do so, set off a power struggle with her two-year-old daughter.

We’ve all been there: arguing with a two-year-old and feeling stupid when the child gets the best of us. Sometimes it is the child who sets the scene for a power struggle, doing something she knows she’s not allowed to do. At other times, the parent sets the power struggle in motion, by making a demand of the child that feels like a challenge. No matter how it begins, however, the power struggle leaves everyone feeling bad: parent and child (and anyone within hearing distance).

We’ve established that Tracy’s mom could have distracted her daughter to prevent a power struggle. But that isn’t the only tool available to end a power struggle before it begins. Tracy’s mom might have asked for the little girl’s help with the sofa, which would have made Tracy feel in control of the situation (not to mention powerful and cooperative). Tracy’s mom might have asked the two-year-old to help her turn the sofa cushion so the hole doesn’t show. She might have explained that a small child could get a finger caught in the hole and get hurt, and that the couch looks so much nicer this way. Using this tack, this mom can make Tracy feel really big about keeping other children safe and helpful in terms of making the family living room look nicer.

Requesting Tracy’s help prevents a power struggle in which Tracy would be made to feel powerless, overpowered by her mother’s demands. Instead, Tracy feels empowered, since her help is needed, even requested, to improve the situation. Compare this outcome to a power struggle, in which the child is made to feel as though she must obey: that there are no choices. By requesting a child’s help, a parent can put the power back into the child’s hands by making her feel part of the solution.

Toddler plotting mischief
This boy is plotting some kind of mischief–the kind that tends to end with power struggles. It would be good to give him something positive to do that will make him feel big.

That doesn’t mean we can or should let children do things that endanger them. Sometimes, we really do have to forbid behavior. Often, however, there’s a way to help children work through the logic demanded of the situation. Failing that, we can offer children a choice of behaviors to choose from, or distract them with something interesting.

Take the two year old child who is exhausted and needs to nap. Told that it’s time to take a nap, the child will scream, “No!”

That’s because you’ve taken away the child’s power by giving the child a command: take a nap. It’s a recipe for a power struggle. The child must protest. But once you’ve “blundered” by commanding your child to do something, you still have a way out of the power struggle. You escape the tantrum by offering your child a choice: “Which stuffed animal would you like to have with you for your nap? The brown teddy bear or your Snoopy dog?”

In offering a choice, you’ve found the way to restore your child’s power over the situation. Having a choice and the power to make a decision restores justice to your two-year-old’s world. He just wants to exert his human right as an independent human being. For this purpose, choosing between a teddy or a stuffed dog is all it takes.

Toddler girl paints the wall of her bedroom
This little girl thought she’d be like her mom and do some creative “decorating.” What would you do to prevent power struggles in a case like this?

Here, it should be noted that power struggles are more than just tantrums, or finding creative ways to prevent them. A power struggle is a negative experience with an unhappy ending. A command to take a nap sets up a negative experience that will always be associated with naptime. The mom who offers a choice between stuffed animals at naptime, on the other hand, gives her child a chance to feel happy and powerful. Nap, in this case, becomes an opportunity for a child to exercise his own free will, rather than a nasty, tear-filled struggle between parent and child. This mother sends a message to her son: “I trust you to make good decisions,” instead of, “You aren’t big enough to make decisions. I will tell you what to do.”

Let’s say you are putting your child’s coat on because it’s cold outside. The child is struggling and screaming, “No, no, no!”

It’s a full-blown power struggle. Can a parent end a power struggle in progress?

Often, the answer is yes. You might, for instance, ask if your child’s small rubber duck should sit in the right front pocket of the coat, or the left? Or you could sing a silly song to distract your child. The trick is not to let the crying and screaming go on without doing something to refocus your child. You want to turn the struggle into something else: a child’s choice instead of a parent’s command; cooperation between wise child and loving parent; or even an opportunity for the child to choose laughter over tears.

End Power Struggles with Humor or Distraction

Ending power struggles is about seeking ways to give your child more power in tricky situations. The child who doesn’t want to go to sleep may be able to choose the best way to sleep: his sleeping circumstances. The child who hates to wear a hat can earn a prize for wearing one, or choose the type of hat he must wear. It’s not always easy to find the way to a happy, independent child. It helps if parents remember that the goal is a raising a child to be a confident, capable adult.

Sometimes, all you need to do to defuse a power struggle is to change the tone. Picture this: you ask your child to pick up his toys and put them away. He says, “No!”

Instead of arguing or repeating your demand, you say the same thing in a funny, sing-song voice while rolling your eyes. He laughs and says, “Again!”

You say, in the same funny, sing-song voice, “Not until you pick up those toys and put them away. Now put away the truck!”

He laughs and puts away the truck.

“Now put away the policeman.”

He laughs and puts away the policeman.

Power Struggles Replaced by Laughter

In this way, the two of you continue until all the toys are put away. The child has learned that his good behavior—putting away a toy—is rewarded (with more funny-sounding, humorous commands). The child chooses to do as requested, instead of engaging in a battle of wills with the parent. He puts his toys away and the struggle is gone, replaced by laughter and a fun time for both parent and child.

In this case, instead of forcing the child to do as you say, you have inspired him to do the right thing of his own free will. This time you used humor. But next time it might be about offering choices, or making the child feel part of the solution, as with Tracy and the hole in the sofa.

High Level Parenting

But how does a parent get to this high level of parenting in which power struggles are a thing of the past? How does a parent get to this place of always finding the right thing to say to the child? In addition to keeping the goal in mind: restoring the child’s power, there are two other things we can do as parents to end power struggles:

Detach: It’s easy to get sucked into the emotion, into the wanting to be right. After all, you’re the parent, and the child is the child. The parent is supposed to rule, to be in charge, to make decisions for children. A parent has to learn that it’s better to be smart, than right. If you feel yourself getting steamed up, it’s sign you’ve already entered a power struggle. Stop what you’re doing and saying and take some deep breaths. Think: cut the emotion, just detach. Think: how can I restore my child’s power?

Self-Care: You know how on airplanes they tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before you help your child with his oxygen mask? That’s because if you become oxygen-deprived you’ll be no good to your child. By taking care of your own needs, you make it possible to care for your child’s needs. So do what you can to take good care of yourself. Get enough sleep, even if it means skipping housework for a nap. Do whatever it is that makes you feel fulfilled, whether it’s working out, or getting your nails done.

If you do feel cranky or sluggish, make a note of it. Make sure you don’t allow your mood to get you and your toddler into power struggle hell. Do something to baby yourself that makes you feel better. Go slow. Think.

And if you slip up and a power struggle occurs, don’t beat yourself up over it. Parenting a two-year-old is challenging. “Toddlerhood is the most challenging phase of human development for parents and the most critical one for children in the lifespan. Any adult that I have treated in psychotherapy in my private practice was found to be stuck somewhere in a toddler milestone,” notes Dr. Walfish.

“Toddlerhood is the time I prescribe parents, especially moms, to be all there with their kids.  If moms work, choose an ever-present warm, nurturing, and firm caregiver.

“Toddlerhood is the foundation (bricks and mortar) laid upon which adolescence must resolve. Parenting is most challenging and rewarding when toddlerhood is done well.”

Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny: Lies We Encourage as Parents

Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny are mythological creatures many of us believe in as children. We think of them as real and our parents encourage this belief. At some point, someone busts the bubble and a child might approach a parent: “Is it true there’s no such thing as (choose one: Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny)?”

This creates a dilemma for the parent. Should the parent come clean? How will the child feel on learning the truth? How will the parent feel to watch the child wrestling with the death of strong-held childhood beliefs?

These questions lead to more questions: Is the belief in mythological characters like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny beneficial to children? Does it harm a child to be misled by his own parents, even if the misleading information was meant kindly? Should parents continue or discontinue this practice?

Parenting coach Barbara Harvey doesn’t think that the focus on these mythical creatures is all bad, but she does think the practice of encouraging belief in make-believe figures sets children up for disappointment and disillusionment. “I encourage parents to tell their children about the origins of these fictional characters and to talk about how the stories have become bigger than life. Then it becomes fun to examine: ‘Okay, what’s going down with the Easter Bunny at Easter? Let’s look around and see how the Easter Bunny has become bigger than life.’

Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny: The Magic

“This way kids still get to enjoy the magic and the wonder of these characters without having to believe that they actually exist,” says Harvey, who is the executive director of Parents, Teachers, and Advocates, a parent development group in Atlanta, GA.

Teaching kids to believe in these creatures is, on the other hand, teaching them lies. What happens to the trust a child has in a parent when the lie is discovered? Wouldn’t it be only natural for a child to feel betrayed on learning the truth? Is it worse when the child hears the truth from a friend, and discovers his own parents have lied to him?

And what about the child who tells the friend that his mother told him that Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny are real creatures, and his mother never lies—only to discover that his mother has, indeed, lied.

And what is the effect of all this when you’ve never lied to your child about anything except for the “lies” about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny?

Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny: Benign Practice?

Do these questions show us that the subject of mythological creatures is more complicated that anyone might have supposed? Or is this just a lot of fuss and bother over the perpetuation of a belief in make-believe characters—something most of us think of as a benign practice, harmless. Part of childhood.

But is it? Must it be this way?

Well, according to Dr. Fran Walfish, author of The Self-Aware Parent, the answer is both yes and no. “Parents should never lie to their children about anything. However, when it comes to myths like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, many parents want to carry on the tradition of fun by nurturing a gentle belief in these myths when their kids are young.

“Usually, by age 7 or 8 years, most children wonder out loud and ask their Mommy or Daddy if Santa is real. It’s up to the parent at that point to respond honestly and openly by saying, ‘When I was a child, my parents thought it was a fun part of Christmas to teach us about the myth of Santa Claus. I loved it so much that I decided to share those teachings with my children. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to carry on this family tradition or do Christmas in your own special way,’” says Walfish, who serves as a regular expert on The Doctors, on CBS TV, in her capacity as a child psychologist.

Despite the advice of experts like Harvey and Walfish, there isn’t much science to guide us in understanding what we should do as parents going forward. The research tells us that most kids figure out the truth by age 7 or 8. The kids generally have a positive reaction to learning these characters aren’t real. It is the parents who report feeling sad when their children stop believing in Santa Claus.

Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny: Part of the Process

In spite of this scientific evidence that kids aren’t sad or damaged by the truth, at least one expert disagrees, believing sadness and disappointment to be part of the process. “When your child learns that there is no Santa Claus or Easter bunny, it is certainly sad for him or her and as parents, we need to be sure to validate their disappointment,” says Child and Adult Therapist Courtney Rodrigue. Rodrigue suggests that children, on learning the truth, be enlisted to keep the secret from others, “It is also helpful to tell your child that now he/she knows there is no Santa Claus (or Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy) you need their help to keep this special secret so their younger siblings or cousins can enjoy the magic of believing. Parents should emphasize that although there is no magic man in a red suit, this doesn’t mean there is no magic to the holiday spirit,” says Rodrigue.

Interestingly, one stand-out scientific finding is that Jewish children are less likely to believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy than Christian children, even when their parents encourage such belief. What makes Jewish children impervious to the hype? Could it be the emphasis of the Jewish religion on Old Testament beliefs? The Ten Commandments?

Perhaps. Child Psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids with Character, Dr. Elizabeth Berger, however, thinks children should be directed to share the beliefs of their peers, whatever these might be. Berger reminds concerned parents that, “Adjusting the nature of reality to the child’s developmental level is one of the main missions of parenthood. This involves adjusting the nature of reality for one’s child to the social reality of the community in which the parent has chosen to raise the child.

“In practical terms, this means editing the brutal truth about many matters so that the mind of a small child–a toddler or 6-year-old–can understand them. All parents do this, in order to spare small children overwhelming experiences which are part of an adult reality–terrible things on the news or painful events among one’s friends, neighbors, or family. We do a great deal to ‘spare’ our small children many realities and this effort is in their best interest.

Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny: Joyful Magic?

“Likewise, it is not harmful to encourage a small amount of joyful magic in a child’s experience, such as belief in imaginary creatures who single out the child for special events such as the Tooth Fairy. In our communities today, many children share these fantasy beliefs as part of special times. Encouraging your child to burst these innocent balloons which are enjoyed by other kids on the playground does not help the child get along with others in a comfortable way. It sets your child up as a nay-sayer and kill-joy,” says Berger.

That doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t prepare a child to realize the truth, which according to Berger is an inevitable part of growing up. “It is important that parents are empathic in easing along the transition to realistic thinking which most children do naturally as part of their growing intellectual depth and their awareness of peer attitudes. Few ten-years-olds believe in the Tooth Fairy, regardless of what parents do or say. Once a child wants to penetrate the fantasy and confront the parent with the truth, it is a good idea to congratulate the child on this insight and to validate the development of more complex understanding. You can always explain that these silly beliefs are for littler kids, and commend the child on his or her maturity,” says Berger.

Experts urge us to be empathetic to children who have just found out the truth about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. Isn’t it odd then that research describes children as having a positive response to finding out their parents have been lying to them their entire lives? It seems children see discovering the truth as a rite of passage. It means they’ve crossed the line and become big boys and girls, and are little babies no longer. They now know something small children don’t know. It makes them superior in their own eyes, more grown up, more knowledgeable.

 

Why are the parents sad when their children learn the truth? There’s something about the fantasy world of small children that is beautiful and moving, compared to the harshness of everyday reality. We like the idea that babies live in a sweet, pink world, where everything is soft and friendly. Growing up also means a loss of closeness to our children in some ways, because they no longer need to depend upon us—their parents—in quite the same way. They don’t need us.

That is bittersweet.

Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the EMythological creatures such as Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny, and practices like putting a tooth under a pillow (illustrated), allow children to experience wonderaster Bunny: Betrayal

Not all of us are sad when our children begin to figure it out. David Gerecht was proud as punch when his six-year-old asked him what the Tooth Fairy does with all those teeth. Children, meanwhile, aren’t always happy to be clued in. “I remember getting totally upset at age 6 when I realized that the Tooth Mice (in my family it was Mice) were an invention of my parents,” says the now middle-aged Miriam Kresh.

Do some parents find other ways to mark milestone events such as losing teeth? Shira Daniel says her husband, a dentist, told the kids that an angel gives the teeth away to new children. But even this attempt was foiled by discovery. “I think they bought it but at one point knew it was their father,” says Daniel.

The father in-law of Chana Roberts called himself the Tooth Fairy’s “agent.” “Kids gave him their teeth and he gave them money. [My own children] don’t have a Tooth Fairy. I just said I want to put the first teeth with the first pair of shoes, because sometimes mommies like to do that kind of thing,” says Roberts.

Some parents feel that it is the function of a child’s mind to fantasize, with or without our input. We don’t need to tell them about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny in order for them to invent their own fantastical worlds and the creatures that inhabit them. They dream this way despite us.

Such parents may point to children at play as illustrating this idea. They are endlessly creative at play.

Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny: White Lie?

These parents believe it is better to draw the line in the sand for their children, when it comes to the difference between truth and make-believe. They say that by being keepers of the truth, their children can use them as trustworthy guides for distinguishing fact from fantasy. These parents believe that in remaining truthful, they deepen the bonds they have with their children who will never discover they have been lied to, betrayed, even in the matter of the “white lie” of make-believe characters such as Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny.

These parents may feel that the only people who stand to lose from truth-telling are the marketers who plug these creatures at holiday time to make their wares more attractive to youngsters and their parents.

But Dr. Elizabeth Berger still sees the importance of maintaining the ruse. “The world of the small child is full of magic and unreality, and should be. Each small child should feel like ‘the best little girl or boy’ in the world and regard the Mom and Dad as the best Mom and Dad ever, and the local community as the best place on earth. The recognition of ordinariness comes gradually and later.”

Do you think belief in make-believe characters is no big deal?

Did you decide not to encourage your children to believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny?

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Close Physical Contact Important for Crying Babies

Close physical contact between babies and those who care for them is important. We’ve known that for years. A new study shows us that not enough close physical contact has an effect on babies at the molecular level of their very cells. It’s something that can be seen even four years later. That’s according to a new study published by the University of British Columbia, in conjunction with the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

The study found that the molecular profile of children’s cells was immature for their age in those four-year-olds who had experienced more distress and less close physical contact as infants. This begs the question: are such children behind their peers on a biological level? What would this mean for their health?

In an article for Science Daily, Michael Kobor, a Professor at the UBC Department of Medical Genetics and head of the “Healthy Starts” theme at BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute, explained what the researchers think it means. “In children, we think slower epigenetic aging might indicate an inability to thrive,” said Kobor.

While no one knows, at this point, what this lack of close physical contact, and the resultant lag in the development of cell profiles means in terms of child development or adult health, we’re a bit farther ahead than you might think. This study actually builds on the findings of a similar study performed on, um, rats.

Close Physical Contact in Humans

This study, however, is the first ever to show that the act of touching, for humans, is so important that having or not having close physical contact affects us at the molecular level. Whether our mothers and fathers hug and cuddle us may even have lifelong consequences for the epigenome. This is our personal biochemistry makeup that is responsible for the way our genes express themselves.

The study, published in Development and Psychopathology on November 22, included 94 healthy children in British Columbia. Their parents were asked to keep a journal detailing their 5-week-old babies’ behavior in terms of fussing, sleeping, crying, and feeding. They were also told to record how long they had close physical contact with their babies. Fast forward 4 ½ years later. This is when researchers swooped in to take painless DNA samples of the children, by swabbing the insides of their cheeks.

The researchers were looking for something specific in those DNA samples. They were looking for DNA methylation, a biochemical change where some sections of a chromosome get tagged with small molecules made from carbon and hydrogen. These little molecules serve as “dimmer switches” that tell each gene how active it should be, which mean the molecules affect the way the cells function.

Close Physical Contact and DNA

Mother enjoys close contact with her infant, in the baby's bedroomHow much methylation there is and where along the long chain of DNA methylation happens, is something that can be affected by outside influences, especially in children. Scientists also know how to predict all the ways these epigenetic patterns will change as a person ages.

The scientists in the British Columbia study saw methylation differences between children who’d had lots of close physical contact and those who’d had little. The difference in methylation was consistent and was seen in five places in the DNA. Two of these methylation sites are inside the genes. One of them plays a role in the immune system, while the other has to do with the metabolism. The scientists don’t yet know what this will mean for the children in terms of their development and future health.

What they do know is that children who were experiencing more distress, but receiving less close physical contact, had a lower epigenetic age than expected for their age. Many recent studies have shown a link between this developmental lag and poor health.

“We plan to follow up on whether the ‘biological immaturity’ we saw in these children carries broad implications for their health, especially their psychological development,” says lead author and postdoctoral fellow Sarah Moore. “If further research confirms this initial finding, it will underscore the importance of providing physical contact, especially for distressed infants.”

Asked how parents can gauge exactly how much contact is “enough”, Moore said, “Since we don’t have follow up outcomes of these children, we can’t extrapolate. I would say that if we further research this combination of infant distress and level of contact, that perhaps the ‘right amount’ of contact depends on the child’s needs, since we found that an association between contact and epigenetic age depends on child distress levels.”

In other words, if your baby cries, hold him/her. Then simply lather, rinse, and repeat as needed. One thing for sure: holding that baby can only help development, as it’s impossible to spoil an infant with too much close physical contact.

 

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Spanking? The Jury is in: It’s BAD

Spanking was never proven to be a bad thing, at least not scientifically. That is until now. University of Michigan researchers have looked at the data and finally and absolutely concluded that being spanked as a child may lead to an assortment of mental health issues in adulthood.

This new study was undertaken by Andrew Grogan-Kaylor and Shawna Lee, both assistant professors of social work at the University of Michigan. The work they did in tandem with their colleagues points to spanking in childhood as a form of violence, which leads to mental health issues such as depression, attempts at suicide, and moderate-to-heavy levels of substance abuse, such as alcohol or illegal drug use, later in life.

“Placing spanking in a similar category to physical/emotional abuse experiences would increase our understanding of these adult mental health problems,” says Grogan-Kaylor.

Spanking and Physical Abuse

The researchers noted the similarities between spanking and physical abuse: both involve using force and inflicting pain. Both are linked to similar mental health outcomes. These similarities caused the researchers to wonder whether spanking should be categorized as an “adverse childhood experience.” That would place spanking in the same basket with, for instance, abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. Household dysfunction would include, among other things, divorce, or a parent in prison.

To a layman, the questions that comes to mind are: are the scientists looking to label spanking as abuse? Could it be that parents who are likely to spank their children are also more likely to use physical abuse, neglect their children, or run dysfunctional households? Just how big a study was this?

Also: can we finally lay this to rest and rule, unequivocally, that spanking is bad? Or is this just some psychobabble being spouted? Must we, as parents, pay attention?

It bears noting here that the study is based on data pulled from the CDC-Kaiser ACE study. “ACE” stands for “adverse childhood experiences.” The ACE study definitely represents a large enough sample to be statistically relevant. The number of participants stands at over 8,300, with an age range of 19-97 years. As for the methodology, the data was gathered by having people answer questionnaires when visiting an outpatient clinic for routine checkups.

Clinic patients were asked how often they were spanked during the first 18 years of life. They were also asked to describe their childhood households and whether an adult had abused them. Physical abuse was defined for the participants as pushing, grabbing, slapping, or shoving. Emotional abuse was described as being insulted or cursed.

Almost 55 percent of those who filled out the questionnaires reported having been spanked as children. Men were more likely to have been spanked compared to women. Minorities, except for Asians, were more likely, compared to whites, to say they’d been spanked.

Spanking and mental health connection according to gender and color
(photo credit: Michigan News)

Participants who reported being spanked as children, were more likely to be suffering from depression and other mental health problems.

What constitutes “spanking” in this study? Is spanking any time the hand is applied to the bottom, whether or not the parent is angry at the time? The researchers came up with this definition: “spanking is defined as using physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain, but not injury, to correct or control the youth’s behavior.”

A fair enough definition. But how do we know it’s spanking that is causing the mental health issues later in life and not some other factor? This author put the question to researcher Grogan-Kaylor, who responded as follows: “The question is a great one. The key question is whether we are comparing children who are otherwise alike. That is to say, are we comparing families and children that are otherwise alike with the exception of spanking? Statistical techniques allow us to ensure that we are comparing like to like, and to rule out a number of other alternative factors as possible causes.”

Spanking as “Adverse Childhood Reaction”

Grogan-Kaylor shared with this author two other papers he’d co-authored, The Case Against Physical Punishment, and, Unpacking the impact of adverse childhood experiences on adult mental health. Both papers lend evidence to the theory that spanking can be seen as an “adverse childhood experience,” and therefore causes harm to the child, which may manifest only in adulthood, in the form of mental health issues. The former study illustrates this harm to the child through three theories: the attachment theory, the social learning theory, and finally, the coercion theory.

The attachment theory suggests that a child needs to feel absolutely sure of a parent’s love and care in order to flower. This sense of secure attachment to the parent is founded on parental empathy and sensitivity to children. Spanking then, is a way of responding to a child’s need for attention that erodes the child’s secure attachment to the parent by making the child feel degraded and rejected. Such children can develop feelings of being unworthy, which in turn can lead to depression and anxiety.

The social learning theory has children learning from example. The theory here is that when parents punish children for bad behavior by spanking them, children learn that violence is an acceptable method for correcting the misbehavior of others. Further complicating the message, is the fact that spanking stops the poor behavior, so that children learn that violence is an effective way to control and cope with interpersonal relations and for dealing with social interactions in general. In other words: violence is the way to work things out with people/relationships.

Coercion theory describes a cycle that occurs when the child rebels against the parent’s punishment. The parent may say, “If you don’t stop doing that, I’m going to spank you.”

Spanking: Vicious Cycle

The child may react with hostility to this situation, which causes the parent to “step up his game.” The intensification of the parent’s response comes with anger from the parent, which makes the child more rebellious. This “coercive cycle” continues to worsen until one side gives in. The parent may give up disciplining the child or the child may give in to his fear and pain and do as the parent wishes. In any event, one side “loses” and feels defeated. Defeated, one might emphasize, as opposed to feeling as though a problem has been resolved, or a lesson learned.

The latter paper shared with this author by Grogan-Kaylor does a fairly good job of showing that spanking in childhood is a risk factor for later mental illness independent of such adverse childhood experiences such as neglect; a parent in jail; or divorce. This suggests that spanking should also be included in an expanded understanding of the “adverse childhood experience.” This idea led to the current study, which concludes that spanking is absolutely an adverse childhood experience.

In terms of real life examples of how spanking is or isn’t used as a parent-rearing method, this author has often heard one mother say, “I don’t need to hit my children.”

The implication here is that there are other ways to make children behave, and they don’t involve violence.

Spanking as negative association

Another friend said she spanked her child just once, when her child ran out into traffic. This mother spanked her child out of equal measures of love and fear, out of a desire to preserve her child’s safety. It was a protective, knee-jerk reaction. In spanking her child this one single time, this mother meant to create an association: run into traffic=receive an unpleasant smack on the butt.

That child is today, what seems to be, to this author’s eyes, a well-adjusted adult, with no apparent mental illness. Also, that child never again ran into traffic. Thus, at least on a basic level, the parent achieved her aim: to create a negative association so the child would never repeat the behavior. Would that lesson have been driven home as effectively in any other manner?

There may be a generational factor in parents who did spank and parents who never do. Today, there is a greater awareness of abuse in all its forms. A parent may be reluctant to spank due to the perceived association between spanking and physical abuse. Back in the 1980’s, however, there was much less awareness of abuse and its effects. Even today, this is study is groundbreaking in that it suggests that spanking actually hurts children in terms of their future mental health.

Lead author of this study, Tracie Afifi, associate professor at the University of Manitoba, suggests we too often think about child abuse and its prevention, but not so much about harsh parenting. Afifi believes we need to put thought and effort into preventing this sort of parenting before it occurs. “This can be achieved by promoting evidence-based parenting programs and policies designed to prevent early adversities, and associated risk factors,” says co-author Shawna Lee, who is also a faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research. “Prevention should be a critical direction for public health initiatives to take.”

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Critical Thinking Skills: Resources for Parents

Critical thinking skills are one of the greatest gifts a parent can offer a child in today’s world of too much information. As a people, we humans are bombarded by information coming at us from our various screens. How we relate to that information separates us into two groups. We are either intelligent, sensitive people, or we are “sheeple.” Sheeple take in the data they see and hear and spit it back out at the world, without stopping to examine or assess the information in the first place.

Being one with the sheeple means being ripe for manipulation. The sheeple drink in false propaganda like it’s water. They’ll happily buy whatever moral code you plug without question and adopt it as their own. They’ll buy any product you tell them will make them happy.

We don’t want our children to be vulnerable to group think. We want them to stop and use their critical thinking skills before buying products marketers claim will make them thin and happy, when no product can replace diet and exercise, or fix their emotional baggage. We don’t want our children to buy into what the media tells them to think, rather we want our children to dig deep, find the facts, and develop their own, fact-based opinions.

Critical Thinking is a Learning Process

Critical thinking isn’t a lesson you’re going to sit down and teach your children at one fell swoop. It’s a process. One that takes time and patience.

Your children are going to demand you buy them pretty, sparkly things, based on advertising. Each time, you’re going to have to point out the manipulation in the marketing. When children come to you with ideas on current events, moreover, you’re going to have to press them regarding the facts. You’re going to have to show them how the media uses suasion to drive home an editorial stance. You’ll need to show them how the story is depicted in a completely different manner on a different website and help them understand how to read between the lines to learn the truth of any given news story.

Critical thinking is about questioning: is this all there is to this story? Is there another side? Am I being manipulated? Will a given product fulfill the promise, the claim of the packaging and advertising?

Is it any wonder that right about now you’re thinking you never signed up for this when you decided to have a baby? All this scrutiny, all this teaching your child how to think! It’s a tall order, this critical thinking business.

Critical Thinking Resources

Lucky for you, there are resources out there to help you do the hard work of helping your child separate fact from fiction. There are actually amazing websites that can help you teach your child the important skill of critical thinking, no matter the topic at hand.

Many of these resources were developed for teachers, but there is no reason why we can’t, as parents, partake of these free tools. Parents, after all, were the first teachers, and remain the go-to source of information for their children. One great place to start is NAMLE, which stands for National Association for Media Literacy Education. NAMLE is sponsoring the third yearly Media Literacy Week (November 6-10, 2017), a cause  near and dear to NAMLE’s heart.

A great place for parents to begin exploring what NAMLE has to offer is this recently released parent’s guide on teaching children how to be careful media consumers. The focus of the guide is on teaching kids to always ask questions. Here, parents can read up on how to have the conversation about fake news, how to teach children to identify scams, and how to guide children in avoiding plagiarizing information found on websites. An invaluable resource for instilling in our children the message of using their critical thinking faculties.

The Newseum, on the other hand, is more like a teacher’s treasure trove, with lesson plans galore for teaching children how to use their critical thinking skills to form opinions. Choose a topic, such as civil rights, women’s rights, the Holocaust, or an election campaign, and you’ve got everything you need to show children all about it. Looking at Newseum’s collection on women’s suffrage, for instance, there are downloadable units on the history of women’s suffrage; how the Suffragettes used media to further their aims comparing these tactics to today’s use of social media; and a unit on the new techniques women used to get the vote and how these techniques are still in use today. There’s a timeline for feminist milestones a map showing how women’s suffrage spread, and search engines to learn about people important to the women’s movement. We can see women’s movement-related government documents and newspaper clippings, too.

Sortable Resources

Newseum has neat things you can download, like a colorful poster with a mnemonic device to aid children in spotting media bias. The various offerings can be sorted according to grade, format, topic, theme, and century. There are even case studies relating to current events, such as this one about First Amendment rights and the cancellation of Milo Yiannopolous’ speech at the University of Berkeley campus. Good stuff here, whether for kids just cutting their teeth on finding their thoughts or somewhat further along with their critical thinking skills.critical thinking skills involve questioning, a girl at a desk raises her hand

Common Sense Media is devoted to providing unbiased media to and honing critical thinking skills in children, and offers resources to parents on media literacy and bias under the heading of “Parent Concerns.” Here, parents can find videos, articles, and infographics to help them navigate the news with children. The Common Sense Media statement at the bottom of the website’s homepage is a pleasure to read, a terrific moral statement:

“Common Sense is the nation’s leading nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in the 21st century.”

If all this wealth of information seems overwhelming, and you’d rather have everything you need on one page, try this resource at Internet4Classrooms: How to Evaluate News Sources for Media Bias. Written for teachers to use in the classroom, this resource breaks down the various forms of media bias for the student. This article can serve as a kind of checklist for the child who is trying to figure out whether a particular news piece is or is not biased. (Speaking of bias, the piece was written by this author, so there may be some bias in recommending the piece to you, the reader!)

Avoiding Cynicism

Critical thinking is an ongoing learning process. Once you get kids started on the right path asking lots of questions, however, it shouldn’t be difficult to encourage them to continue. Kids have a strong sense of morality and will enjoy applying their critical thinking skills to all situations. Helping them avoid bitter cynicism as they wake up to the deceptive nature of too many media outlets and advertisers, on the other hand, may be a lesson that’s harder to teach.

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Manage ADHD by Developing Skills

You can’t manage ADHD with drugs alone. Anyone who has ever parented one of the 6 million children in the United States age 4-17 diagnosed with the condition knows that. But with school now back in session, frustrated parents and their children may be asking what more can be done to manage ADHD and its symptoms. Because taking drugs isn’t enough, and may not even be the right way to go.

ADHD is complicated. It makes learning difficult. That’s why children with ADHD need a great deal of support from their parents, teachers, and school counselors. A school counselor, in particular, can play a special role in helping students with ADHD by serving as an intermediary between parents and teachers.

With so many children experiencing ADHD, it becomes crucial to offer them some sort of support system that goes beyond purchasing a prescription and hoping for the best. Here, school counselors can fulfill an important function, by serving as the pipeline for communication between parents and teachers. School counselors can also be an important resource for all those who work with children with ADHD, both in and out of the classroom. While most children are diagnosed with the combined form of ADHD, the presentation of symptoms can change over time. The school counselor can offer strategies to cope with changing behaviors as these changes arise.

In order to manage ADHD, however, it is important to gain an understanding of the skills a student with ADHD must develop. The aim of any therapies for ADHD must have, as their ultimate goal, improved impulse control, time management, and the ability to focus or concentrate on tasks. If students fail to develop these critical skills, they will remain in perpetual frustration, become worn out from trying so hard, develop poor self-esteem, and suffer from acute embarrassment, as well.

One practical way to help students with ADHD develop these skills is to provide them with a dependable structure. A student who struggles with forgetfulness, for instance, should be made to do homework at the same time every day. Over time, the student internalizes that homework is always done at 4 PM, so that when 4 PM rolls around, the student knows just what to do and never forgets. A student who tends to forgetfulness can also be instructed to store his schoolbooks in one designated space. Since the item is always placed in the same spot, there will never be a time when the child cannot find the item. These are meaningful methods for developing time management and organizational skills to really address and manage ADHD.

But let’s say there is to be a school field trip at 4 PM on a certain date. That can throw the student with ADHD for a loop, since 4 PM is homework time. The student should be prepared well in advance of any such changes in schedule or routine. Talking about how and when the child will get dressed, do homework, and eat on that day is going to be a necessary conversation that may have to be reviewed several times over several days or weeks. Students with ADHD need lots of help and much spatience in learning to organize their time.

As for developing a student’s powers of concentration and focus, ADHD expert Dr. Edward Hallowell believes Dr. Edward Hallowell, ADHD expertthat staying focused for shorter periods of time is the right way to go. “Kids with ADHD must learn to manage large projects. Break down large topics or tasks into small, manageable bits. For example, a book report might be subdivided into eight steps, or a science project outlined in a dozen doable steps. This helps the child with ADHD not feel overwhelmed.”

Strategies to Manage ADHD

These coping tips and tricks help students manage ADHD symptoms by teaching them strategies that have been proven to work, based on evidence. Such strategies are called evidence-based interventions (EBIs). An example of an EBI would be helping the parents of the student with ADHD to develop and put into place a system of organization to assist the student in carrying out more homework assignments and chores and getting them done on time. Parents might use calendars, charts, notebook or computer, and class syllabi to make it work.

Anil Chacko, a professor for Counseling@NYU’s online master’s in school counseling program from NYU Steinhardt, describes some strategies that school counselors can use when working with students who have ADHD. “School counselors should utilize methods that support students’ time management, planning, and organization,” Chacko says, citing the work of Joshua Langberg at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and Howard Abikoff at New York University’s (NYU) School of Medicine, leading scholars in the field of ADHD in children and adolescents. “I would also encourage school counselors to work directly with parents to create a school-home note system to support cross-setting changes.”

Dr. Langberg developed and published the successful Homework, Organization, and Planning Skills (HOPS) intervention. HOPS is about teaching kids to use physical organization tools, for instance book bags, binders, and lockers, and homework management tools such as writing down assignments and recording them accurately, entering test dates on a calendar, and in general, planning things out.

Dr. Abikoff researches interventions and training in children with ADHD, for instance Organizational Skills Training (OST). OST targets specific organizational skills goals. Here is a description of the OST program from program’s creators:

OST is a 20-session, twice-weekly, clinic-based program, which focused on building organizational skills in four areas:

  • Tracking Assignments: Teaching students a system for consistently recording assignments and due dates in a specially designed planner.
  • Managing Materials: Providing students with methods for storing and organizing their papers and materials through the use of an accordion binder system, materials checklists included in their planner, systems for organizing their desks, and by developing prominently visible checklists for backpacks and other tools for material transfer, as well as other related strategies.
  • Time Management: Helping students become more aware of their use of time and how to plan ahead to structure their time effectively through the use of an afternoon scheduling component in their planners; helping students improve their time estimation skills and their awareness of how much time they need to complete tasks; teaching students to work efficiently by minimizing distractions in their work spaces.
  • Task Planning: Showing students how to break larger projects and goals into steps and create schedules for task completion through the use of task-planning pages in their planners.

OST students are taught that each OTMP (organization, time management, and planning) problem area is the result of a brain “glitch.” Each glitch is depicted as a naughty character who likes to watch children make mistakes due to organizational problems. This concept helps motivate the students and makes the program “lighthearted and fun.” The concept of glitches is also meant to make the issues encountered by students with ADHD less personal. Kids come to understand that it’s not they who fail, but the symptoms of ADHD getting in the way of their academic and social success.

Each organizational skill is taught using the same basic method:

1) The new skill is discussed, defined, and explained. A rationale is given for the importance of the skill. The child hears about the settings in which the skill might be used.

2) The skill is demonstrated

3) The skill is practiced by the child under the guidance of an instructor and feedback is given. The skill is practiced many times. The student is taught to identify situations in which the skill should be used.

Studies as recent as this one from 2016, have found that early behavioral therapy (HOPS, OST, and the like), begun before any other interventions, such as medication, had “four fewer rules violations an hour at school than the medication-first group.” That’s not to say that behavioral therapy takes the place of medication. Medication has proven benefits for children with ADHD. What we should take away from the research is that 1) We shouldn’t begin with medication and 2) Teaching children to develop their OTMP skills even before they reach school age, can really make a difference. In terms of cost, by the way, behavior-first therapy is estimated to cost an annual $700 less per year when compared to medication-first treatment.

Strategies for Teachers

Besides using EBIs like OST and HOPS in their work with children, school counselors can also train teachers to support children who are coping with ADHD in the classroom. A school counselor might, for instance, suggest the teacher give out points or tokens for good behavior. Here are some other practical tips from the National Resource Center (NRC) on ADHD:

For the easily distracted student (predominantly inattentive)

  • Seat the student close to the teacher’s desk and away from distractions such as windows or school corridors
  • Split long assignments into smaller segments
  • Offer more breaks during class time

For the students that fidgets and squirms (predominantly hyperactive/impulsive)

  • Seat the student where the fidgeting and squirming will be least likely to disturb classmates, for instance along the side of the classroom
  • Offer opportunities throughout the day that allow the fidgety student to move, for instance, handing out work sheets.

More Tips to Manage ADHD

Scott Ertl, M.Ed., was an elementary school counselor for 18 years before he became the CEO of BouncyBands, a device to help fidgety students cope in the classroom. Here are Ertl’s top 5 tips for helping students with ADHD succeed in the classroom:

1) The child or teacher, depending on the child’s maturity, should clean out the child’s desk every Friday afternoon so the week starts off as organized and prepared as possible.

2) Allow movement. Let the child earn the ability to deliver a book to the media center, a note to the front office, or a message to a teacher when their work is completed correctly. Bouncy Bands, yoga balls, and standing desks in class are also great ways to allow movement throughout the day. Kids need appropriate ways to release their extra energy without distracting others.

3) Set them up for success. Give them advance notice that you are going to call on them to answer a question in class so they are ready. This works much better than catching them off task as a way to shame them into paying attention.

4) Have specific goals on their desk to accomplish, like: Check over my work when completed, Make sure all of my homework is written down before leaving class, and Raise my hand to ask for help when unsure of what to do in class.

5) Communicate. Give specific feedback during the day when these goals are being accomplished to recognize their improvements. Use them as model in class to encourage other students to improve those behaviors as well.

Teachers who must manage ADHD in the classroom may also want to try using sentences that suggest an order of action, for instance, “First read all the questions, then answer them,” or, “First put your crayons away, then take out your geography book.” In addition, enlisting a student’s help can increase self-worth and help refocus the child’s energy. Teachers and parents should always watch for good behavior and give praise whenever and wherever it happens!

How Can Parents Manage ADHD?

Here are some things parents can do at home to help their children who struggle with ADHD:

  • Use a system to acknowledge and reward good behavior, for instance, a chart with stickers
  • Stick to a home routine with as little deviation as possible (e.g. homework, dinner, bedtime, and etc., are at the same time each day)
  • Create written to-do lists for chores so that the child can cross things off the list as they are done
  • Practice at home, OTMP strategies learned at therapy sessions

Professor Chacko encourages parents to educate themselves. If you have a child with ADHD, seek out information on behavior parent training programs in your area. Some consider these programs to be the most important and most effective means to manage ADHD behaviors both in and out of the classroom. Parents, along with teachers and school counselors, should also be aware that ADHD often coexists (see: Comorbidity and ADHD: It’s Not Just About ADHD) with learning disabilities and difficulties. “The challenges these children face may be more than just ‘ADHD,’” says Chacko.

What do you do at home to help support your child with ADHD?