Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Toxic Free Zone: Rewriting the Script, Part Six

Try taking a step back if  your child is constantly failing to meet expectations.

There is such a wide, wide range of human behavior and abilities.  If your child does not behave exactly like his classmates, it's not necessarily a pathology.  These days we expect all children to have all the same abilities, be successful in only one basic type of environment, and develop along the same time continuum.  How realistic is that?  
In previous generations, only a small percentage of children went to school for hours and hours every day, and the rest learned a trade, or farmed or worked alongside their parents.  Frankly, not every person is suited for sitting for hours and hours in school every day all day, and it pains and saddens me that we think that there is something wrong with people who are obviously not cut out for it.

 Not all three and four year olds are emotionally or physically ready to sit still for long periods every day, to tolerate a great deal of noise and chaos, and to be forced into doing fine motor activities before they have developed the physical and cognitive skills necessary to support complex eye hand tasks.  And wouldn't it be wonderful if schools would be more able to accommodate the needs of individual students, instead of trying to cramp everyone into one homogenous mold.

Learn to pick your battles. Children are messy, unpredictable, stubborn, disorganized, and quixotic, and are not necessarily interested in doing exactly what the adults want and expect of them a hundred percent of the time.

 Be realistic about what you can and can't expect from your child.  In Manhattan, I see so many children whose behavioral problems, which stem from their sensory issues, are severely exacerbated by parents who have no concept about what constitutes normal behavior for their child's age and gender. 

 Children need lots of unstructured play time, preferably out of doors, and in Manhattan they rarely get it.  Their behavior and health suffers as a result.  Children also don't do well when their after school hours and weekends are crammed with activities {with more adults making more demands on them} in addition to too much homework.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Toxic Free Zone: Rewriting the Script, Part Five

In a previous post, I mentioned a friend whose husband used to use her as his emotional punching bag by picking fights with her after a stressful day at work.  Do you ever get the feeling that your child needs to let off a little steam by having a temper tantrum and is inventing an excuse to duke it out with you? 

There have been so many times I have seen children come into the clinic spoiling for a fight, which I'm not interested in having.  I have come up with some ways to avert this, as follows.  Consider the following two exchanges, both of which have actually taken place, with a three year old boy I treated a few years ago.

Old script:

Child:  I want my sister to play with me!

Me:  But she's in school today, so she can't.

Child:  I want my sister!

Me:  But she's not here!  She's at school!


Me:  Honey, she's not here.  Do you want an obstacle course?

Child:  WAHHHHH!!!  I WANT LAURA!!!!!

Me: {Frantically casting about the clinic looking for some way to divert him}  Should I put up the purple swing?  We can play wiggle waggle!


Me:  {Flummoxed and mortified} Let's go find your nanny.  You can sit on her lap until you feel better.

About 20 minutes of a 45 minute session wasted.

New Script:

Child:  I want my sister to play with me!

Me:  I want Laura to play with us, too!

Child:  I want my sister!!!

Me:  I do, too! I love it when Laura plays with us.   That was a lot of fun when she was here during her school vacation last week!  Too bad she had to go back to school!

Child:  Yeah!

Me:  We'll have to tell your mom to make sure Laura comes to play with us the very next time she can.  I like it when you both are here to play with me!  Do  you want an obstacle course or wiggle waggle on the purple swing?

Child:  Wiggle waggle!

{When this exchange took place, I could see the befuddlement and disappointment register when the little boy realized that I had managed to derail his tantrum.  But he was a good sport about it and went on to play and have a nice session.  I just hope he didn't take it out on his nanny or his mother later in the day.}

Or consider this scenario, as described by a friend with a two and a half year old.  She asked for a rewrite.

Old Script:

Mom:  We're going to the corner to get a taxi.

Child:  I don't want to take a taxi!!  I want to go on the bus!

Mom:  But we can't.  We don't have time.


Mom:  But the bus takes too long.  We're late.  We have to take a taxi.


Endless loop of argument ensues.  Mother wonders for the zillionth time what she did in a previous life to deserve this.

New Script:

Mom:  We're going to the corner to get a taxi.

Child: I don't want to take a taxi!   I want to go on the bus!

Mom:  I like the bus, too!  The bus is more fun, isn't it?

Child:  Yeah!

Mom:  What do you like better about the bus?

Child:  I don't know.

Mom:  I like looking out the window from way high up.  Do you?

Child:  Yeah.

Mom:  What else do you like?

Child:  I don't know.

Mom:  Hm... Let's see...  I like pushing the button for our stop, do you like that?

Child:  Yeah.

Mom:  And we can take the bus tomorrow, if you like. And today Daddy is waiting for us, and we have to hurry.  I'm looking forward to seeing Daddy, aren't you?  And then we are going to have dinner.  We're having pizza!  Do you like pizza?

Child:  Yeah.

Mom:  Me, too.  I love pizza. Which do you like better on top of your pizza, armadillos or dinosaurs?

Child:  What?  Mommy, you're silly!

Mom:  Let's sing the bus song while we wait.  Can you help me wave so he'll see us and stop?

They sing "The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round."

Strategies Employed:  Mom acknowledged the child's feelings, and aligned herself with him by telling him she felt the same way.  She stated the plan without asking for his input {in other words, she did NOT say, "We're going to take a cab, OK?} She used AND instead of BUT.  She gave him something enjoyable to think about, and then diverted his attention to an activity and treat to which he could look forward.

I was talking to a psychoanalyst colleague about my ideas for these pieces, and she brought up a very good point:  what if you secretly would rather have the fight than avert it?  She treats so many families who are stuck in an endless cycle of toxic interchanges.  If you find yourself irresistibly drawn to fighting and having hostile interactions with your children, it's possible that you are trying to work something out with your own parents and are using your relationship with your children to heal your own childhood wounds.  If you suspect this is the case, I strongly recommend speaking to a professional so you can break the cycle and offer your children a better model.  Cleaning up your own interactions with them ensures that you're not setting them up to interact with the other people in their lives in a dysfunctional way.

 I also heartily recommend that any parent read these books by Daniel Siegel.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Toxic Free Zone: Rewriting the Script, Part Four

Last week I discussed the joys of never having to say "How would you feel if someone did that to you?" 

Here are two more phrases that I have happily quit using, because they never seemed to get me anywhere:  "You need to..."  and "I need you to..."

"Oh, really?"  I can just hear the child thinking when I say he needs to calm down.  "Oh, no, I don't!"  

"I need you to" is equally as ineffective.

 For example, consider the difference between my telling you "I want you to come home by six o'clock," versus "I need you to come home on time."  The first one establishes my authority and is emotionally clean and clear.  The second one indicates that it's really all about me, and that I am needy.

 Life is so much easier since I started substituting "It's time to...".

"It's time to sit at the table" makes it sound as if an authority from high has designated the next piece of business, and leaves no loophole for discussion. 

Old script:

Me:  I need you to come out of the gym and sit at the table.

Child:  Ignores me, and continues to play on the suspended equipment.

Me:  You need to come out of the gym and sit at the table!

Child:  I want to play one more game!  You said!

Me: No, I didn't! I need you to do your handwriting now.

Child:  NO!!!  

Power struggle ensues. I start fantasizing about going back to my old job as a bank teller.

New Script:

Me:  It's time to come out of the gym and sit at the table.

Child:  I don't wanna!

Me: It's hard to leave the gym when you've had such fun.  And now it's time to sit at the table.

Child: NO!

Me: {Taking down suspended equipment and putting things away as I'm speaking}  It's hard to shift gears, isn't it.  And we had a lot of fun in the gym, didn't we?  And we can do it all again next time, and now it's time to sit at the table.  I can't wait to see how well you're doing this week!  Let's get you a drink of water, and would you like a lollypop or a piece of gum while you're writing?

Child:  Lollypop.  I get to pick which one!  {Runs out of the gym to the cabinet where the lollypops are kept.}

Here are a few more tricks embedded in the second exchange:  I used what my social worker friend refers to as the "broken record" technique: I kept repeating what I wanted to happen in the same tone of voice, over and over.  

I did not say BUT.  I used AND.  AND is a far better choice here.  AND smoothes the way forward, while BUT stops the flow and feels negative.  I also helped the child transition by giving him several things to look forward to when he reached the table, and by inviting him to make a choice about the treat he would get once he got there.  {I give the child something to chew or suck on when he is writing because it helps focus him, and because sucking pulls the muscles of the eyes in close, which is helpful for reading and writing.}

And AT NO TIME during any of this did I say "OK?" to the child.  Don't ASK.  TELL.  If you want your child to obey you, don't say, "Put your shoes, on, OK?"  Don't say, "Do you want to put your shoes on?"  Say, "It's time to put your shoes on."

I absolutely guarantee less heartache, less argument, and less stress this way.  The clearer you are in your expectations and demands, the more the child is able to live up to them.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Toxic Free Zone: Rewriting the Script, Part Three

A couple of years ago, I read the very smart and funny book, "Why Men Marry Bitches."  The author maintains that men think that women are too emotional.  Consequently, they tend to shut them out during arguments or negotiations. A woman sounds less than rational to a man when she starts talking about her feelings when trying to reach consensus.  She suggests that a better way to get what you want when negotiating with a man is to jettison the feeling words, and use terms like strategy, analyze, sensible, logical, and objective instead.

"How would you feel if someone did that to you?"

I used to just dread hearing that when I was a kid.  If I even thought a grownup was going to head in that direction, I would leave my body so quickly you could see the skid marks.

So when I started working with children and heard that exact same phrase coming out of my mouth, I knew I needed to call for a rewrite, stat.

Do grown men know how they really feel?  In my experience, often they don't.  Do I know how I really feel? Much of the time, not until I have had the chance to mull it over.  Preferably in private.

So how can we expect four year old boys to be able to pinpoint just how they would really feel, especially when we are being hypothetical?   How many emotions can you name off the top of your head?  Mad, bad, sad, glad. That's about it.  I was once at a school observation where a kindergarten teacher was trying to get twenty restless children to sit still and think of some examples of how people feel.  "Hungry?" one boy asked, uncertainly.  The other kids knew this wasn't right, but couldn't come up with much else.  I had to restrain myself from suggesting that she give it up as a bad job and let the poor kids go to recess, which they were obviously dying to do.

I have come to realize, however, that a large part of my responsibility to the children I treat is to help to socialize them.  It's unfortunately true that most children do not come into this world with a fully developed sense of empathy and must be taught to think of others.  I have to do my part, along with the rest of the adults in the child's orbit.

In order to not have to utter the dreaded phrase, I have taken to substituting, "I wonder what you would think of me if I...?"  By asking the child what he would think of me, the onus is off the child, and is now on me for my bad behavior, which the child thinks is hilarious.  It's a more teachable moment when the child is not feeling attacked, shamed, or intruded on.

Here is my old script:  

I am working with a child at home, sitting at a table in his bedroom.  I pull out a bag of therapy supplies.  Child grabs it out of my hand and starts rummaging through it, exclaiming, "What's in here?"

Me: {Outraged, judgmental voice} How would you feel if I did that to you?

Child:  Shrugs and pouts.  

Connection between us is broken.  Now I have to work extra hard to  reestablish our rapport and get him interested in the project I was about to introduce.

New script:

Me: Now, I wonder what you would think of me if I started going through the drawers in your dresser?  You would probably think to yourself, "Wow, that lady is really nosy!  She should learn how to keep her hands to herself!  Who does she think she is, coming in my room in my house and going through my things?  What's in my dresser is none of her business."

Child:  Giggles and hands back the bag.  We hunker down and get to work.  Later in the session, he starts to grab something out of my hand, then stops himself.

Another young boy that I see has problems with body awareness and pragmatic social skills, like turn taking.  When I first met him, he barreled through doors ahead of others who were in front of him, often pushing others aside to get through the door before them, and he did not understand the concept of turn taking during games or sports activities.  Along with the usual sensory integration techniques for improving his body scheme, I  asked him what he would think of me if I shoved him aside every time we walked through a door together so I could go ahead of him.  "You're not nice!" he said promptly.  "Right!"  I said.  "What else?"

  "I was there first!"

"What else would you think of me?"

"Don't push me, I don't like it!"

The beauty of this is that he immediately understood what I was driving at and never did it again.  He did better at turn taking, too, after I asked him what he would think of me if I grabbed all of the cards out of his hand and knocked his hand away from the game board.

If you try these techniques, let me know how it turns out.