Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Planning for Success: Reducing the “Back-to-School” Jitters

Dear Dr. Mary and Lynn:

Every year I dread the beginning of school.  My daughter begins worrying about it weeks before it starts.  How do I help her feel comfortable?  During the summer she has a few special friends she plays with regularly, but school always seems a bit overwhelming to her.  ~Emma

Dear Emma:

By your description we suspect your daughter may be an introvert who prefers to observe before acting and may find moving into a room filled with new people a bit overwhelming.  If you haven’t read the book Quiet by Susan Cain grab a copy.  It’s a wonderful celebration of introverts.  Unfortunately in our culture introverts are often “pushed” to be more outgoing or bold, but Susan reminds us that your daughter shares this trait with greats like filmmaker Steven Spielberg, writer R J Rowling, scientist Isaac Newton and change agents Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt.  This is a quality to treasure!  But that still leaves us with getting in that room.  Here are some skills you can teach her that allow her to work well in a group and feel comfortable.  Being an introvert is NOT synonymous with shy. 

Teach your daughter to stand straight, smile and look people in the eye when she first meets them.  You can practice this at home.  Help her understand that she’s a planner and likes to be certain before she makes a move.  That means she is more comfortable when she knows what is going to happen and what is expected of her.  You can obtain this information by e-mailing the teacher ahead of time to find out the agenda for the first day or preferably stopping by school before then to meet the teacher, find her room, the bathrooms, her locker, seat and the cafeteria.  You can also discover who else will be in her class so she can look for a “friendly face.”  Explain to your daughter that when she first enters a new situation all of the noise, emotions, colors and sounds can seem overwhelming, so teach her to say hello, then find a place to step back and observe.  It might be by the drinking fountain or by her locker while she puts things away.  If someone “crowds” her she can put her hand out for a high five, or she can move around a table or chair to get the space that feels more comfortable to her.  Before that first day you can also talk about the things she has loved most about school in the past.  Often introverts like to go “deep” into a subject and are so passionate about it that it makes those new situations much more comfortable.  Finally expect that after that first day she may be too drained to immediately talk about what happened.  Give her space and time.  Start bedtime early because that’s when she’ll probably be ready to tell you all about her day. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Keeping Your Cool

Dear Dr. Mary and Lynn: 

It's hard to give my spirited daughter time to process emotions, because her actions push me away, when really, I think she wants me close.  It's so hard to be near her at those moments. I need time to process at that point... Tatum

Dear Tatum: 

Whenever Lynn and I are working together I’m always amazed at how quickly she notices a child is upset.  Once on a playground she stopped as we passed a little girl on a swing and asked her, “What’s up?”  “They won’t play with me.” The child whimpered, pointing to a group of girls near the fence.  Incredulous I asked Lynn, “How did you know she was distressed?”   “There was a little line between her brows,” she replied.  Then laughing, she explained, “I can ‘feel’ the intensity of others and knew to look.” 

The “red zone” of intensity is catchy and that’s what is happening to you, Tatum.  It’s a natural reaction.  We’re mammals and if someone in the “herd” is sending out vibes that something is “up,” our system automatically gets ready to fight or flee too.  But we don’t have to go there.  This is where we, the adult take the deep breath, recognize the child is struggling to bring her arousal system back into balance and know we can help.  It is not easy, because all too frequently the messages we are hearing in our head are things like, “Here we go again.”  Or, “I have no idea what to do.” Or, “This is so embarrassing, everyone is watching.”  Or, “I can’t believe she is treating me this way.”  These messages can leave us feeling powerless and angry and as a result just increase our own intensity. 

We can teach ourselves to screen that self-talk and change it to messages like, “This is inappropriate behavior and I am going to deal with it – but right now is not a teachable moment.  First I have to calm her.”  We can also remind ourselves that listening does not mean giving in – it’s seeking understanding.  Trying to figure out what is she feeling or needing so we can determine what words and actions we’ll need to teach her to express them more appropriately next time. 

So in the future try your best to stay “tuned –in.”  When you first feel that “twinge” in your gut, don’t ignore it.  Check out that “line between the brows.”  The earlier you catch it, the easier it is to calm your child.  If you innocently miss it and she’s upset, remind yourself, just like when she was a baby and needed help calming, she needs it now.  Let her know you’ll stay nearby, but you can see she needs space.  Remind yourself she doesn’t like to feel this way.  It’s very uncomfortable to her too.  If she’s hitting at you, hold her hands and stop her.  Keep your voice calm.  “I’m listening.  I will help you.”  Let go when you feel her body relax.  Be silent.  Know that like you, talking or too much stimulation makes it harder for her to calm. 

When she’s back in balance and her body is relaxed, that’s when you will do a “re-do” helping her to understand what she was feeling in that situation, then teaching her the words and actions that would be more appropriate next time she feels that way and finally actually practicing with her. 

By doing this, you will be modeling and directly teaching how to keep your cool – even in the “heat of the moment.”  And then don’t forget – get yourself to bed.  This is so much easier if you’re well rested! 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Misbehavior or Developmental Task?

Dear Dr. Mary and Lynn:

Yesterday, I told my toddler not to touch the entertainment center. She looked right at me, laughed and then did it again. Lately this has been happening every day. She knows better. Isn't this blatant misbehavior? How should I respond?  Becca

Dear Becca:

It really can feel that way, and may even be frightening too if you project forward and wonder if she is like this at 2 what will she be doing at 14! Fortunately you can take a deep breath, relax and even celebrate that your daughter has reached a new stage of development that you'll be guiding her through. She really is not “out to get you."

Everything in a toddler's brain is screaming, "Do it. Find out what will happen!" That's her developmental task, which is why words alone will never stop her. Your toddler is trying to figure out what the rules are around here. She doesn't learn this from trying something one time. Instead she will try it over and over again to make certain your response is always the same. It doesn't matter who is there, mom, dad, grandma, or the childcare provider, nor the time of day, she'll keep testing to figure out what the rule is.  So your job as the adult in her life is to always be sure the rule is the same. If you say, "Stop,” not only do you need to say it, but get up, go to her and help her stop. In the process you are going to be telling yourself, "She is learning what is okay and what is not. She has to practice to learn. This is a lot of work but not a plot against me. By following through I'm teaching her she can count on me to do what I said I would do. In the long run this is really going to be worth it."

The real magic is as soon as you say, "Stop," give her the "do." "Stop, here's your button." Then show her the toy remote or cell phone you have for her. If she resists - which is likely because she's really smart - follow through with empathy, "I know you really like those buttons, but here are your buttons.”  You'll notice we are not advising you to say, "Stop, do not touch the entertainment center." We're not even mentioning it, we're simply focusing on stop and do.

Question: When a toddler smiles at us and then does what we asked her not to do, it really can feel like she is intentionally trying to antagonize us. Do you believe a toddler has the ability to consciously think, "This is going to drive them crazy?" How do you keep yourself calm so you can follow through?