Teaching Empathy to Older Kids: Video Tips from a Japanese Classroom

Empathy. Happiness. We know we want to teach these essential life skills to our kids. But how? This series of short videos showcases the attitude one Japanese schoolteacher uses to teach his students how to be caring, happy kids. This first segment introduces Mr. Kanemori -- a kind, tough, funny teacher whose goal is to teach kids how to live a happy life -- and how to care for other people. But he doesn't sugar-coat life, and the challenges even children confront:

In the second segment, the kids learn key lessons about bullying and what it means to be a true friend. I was amazed at how long he stuck with the lesson. A good lesson for us in how long it takes to convey these complex skills to the kiddos:

The third segment gives a great lesson on how to negotiate with kids. Mr. Kanemori doesn't hide his aggravation -- but he doesn't rigidly stick with his punishment when the kids explain it wasn't fair, either. This is especially hard in parenting, because you want the kids to know you are serious in setting limits, and don't want to let them think they can run over you. Yet sometimes, the kids have a point, and we can model what a reasonable negotiation looks like:

The fourth segment shows us how even children can be taught how to handle life's tragedies. We want to bubble-wrap them to protect them from the uncertainties of life. We can't -- but we can give them skills to be more resilient:

Finally, the school year comes to an end. Have the kids learned anything from Mr. Kanemori? You be the judge. (Get your kleenex ready.)

Empathy and happiness CAN be taught -- but it's not easy. It takes more time and dedication than most of us realize. Do you teach these lessons at home? And how can we even start doing this in school?

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert Sign up for my Newsletter and Follow Me:

Parenting Tips: Talking To Children About Tragedies

 12/14/2012 Unfortunate update: It's time to talk about this again. My heart is broken, as is yours. Feel free to connect with me here or on Twitter to ask about how you can approach this in your family. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The Colorado shooting has come and gone -- and now the Connecticut school shootings, and we're left trying to explain things to The Littles. One well-meaning mom criticized me on Twitter for even suggesting we talk to young children about violence. "Why even bring it up?" she wondered. Her life is much more insular than many of ours -- I have a 2 year old. But I also have a 6 year old. And a 9 year old. And an 11 year old. And those kids have completely different levels of awareness and understanding of these situations -- and they talk. In front of The Littles. So parents like us need talking points for those tricky situations. So here are my thoughts about how to navigate these unavoidable conversations. Let's be ready, because unfortunately, it won't be the last time. I was also quoted in Newsweek/The Daily Beast about the issue. I hope I made the point that parents taking their young children to movie theaters aren't the problem. Untreated mental illness and widespread availability of guns ARE. Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Older Kids: My Third Kid Hates Kindergarten Too!

Remember this guy? This sweet, cuddly, awesome 4-year-old? Well, now he's a big 5-year-old, and he's been in kindergarten for about 7 weeks. He started out with an enthusiastic bang, but now we're dealing with tears and major foot-dragging when it comes to going to school.

 

I know, I know -- I shouldn't be surprised. "Help! My Kindergartener Hates School All of a Sudden!" is one of my most popular posts -- and a very common parenting dilemma. Fact is, young children are totally different animals than "school aged" kids -- and by that, I mean 8-year-olds and up. Little kids are still developmentally more like preschoolers. And that means they're likely to change their minds about -- well, just about everything. So, starting off kindergarten all excited -- then losing steam after a few weeks -- isn't a surprise. Check out my post (and the growing comment section, with my additional suggestions) for coping ideas.

And hang in there, if you've got a balking kindergartener. Usually, if you can support your child through this tricky developmental stage, the protests wind down by Thanksgiving.

In the meantime, Happy Halloween!

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

"Cutoff" Birthdays & Kindergarten Readiness: How to Decide?

Dear Dr. Heather,

My daughter turns 5 right before the “cutoff” age for kindergarten – so she’ll be able to attend, but I’m not sure she’s ready. Should we have her start this fall, or wait another year?

Sam in Philly

Dear Sam,

All over the country, parents are going through the same dilemma. For many, like those with “early born” kids, the decision is easy. For others who have “late-borns” (like yours, and my fourth child -- an October baby) -- or for those who’s kids are a tad behind, developmentally -- it’s a tough call. There’s no “magic” test for readiness, and no single developmental accomplishment that means your child is 100% ready.

Here is my basic Kindergarten Readiness Checklist of the areas I consider essential to success in the fall:

  • Enthusiasm about learning
  • The ability to speak understandably
  • The ability to listen and follow instructions
  • The desire to be independent
  • Playing well with others (most of the time)
  • Willingness to separate from parents
  • Basic letter and number recognition

Here are 3 steps to help you make your decision:

  1. Have a basic “Kindergarten Readiness” test administered at your intended school. There are many such tests available.
  2. Discuss the results -- plus the above readiness checklist -- with the important adults in your child’s life, including prospective teachers. Your pediatrician can help too.
  3. Revisit your decision over the summer. A child who’s not ready in the spring might quickly become ready in the summer.

Consider YOUR child’s readiness, and make the decision independent of the “trends” in your neighborhood. Ignore the tendency to “go along with the Joneses” – whether to “hold back” or “push ahead”. Whether your kiddo starts kindergarten this year or next is irrelevant compared to the fantastic developments that he’s gone through in the past 4 or 5 years. Remember that tiny newborn bundle they handed you that day 4 or 5 years ago? Look at your baby now! Good work, Mom and Dad!

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Is It Bullying Or Not?

As a psychologist and Parent Coach, I’ve noticed that we’re constantly bombarded with negative messages about our children. It seems that every new headline gives us another reason to worry about our kids. But often, our kids are doing great – it’s we as parents who need a little attitude adjustment! That’s why I’m happy to be a part of the Positive Parenting Network’s Spring Fling – to help get out the message about positive parenting approaches. Because sometimes, our fears get the best of us. It reminds me of a recent situation when a parent stopped me, worried about a 6-year-old “bully”. The child in question — in my observation — wasn’t a bully, but rather a fairly typical little girl, testing out her advanced verbal (and not-so-advanced social) skills. Did she hurt her friends’ feelings? Probably. And did her friends reciprocate by saying something mean right back? They sure did. The parent was very upset about the impact of this “bully” in the classroom — and wanted to know what could be done to stop her. But was this truly “bullying?” No, it wasn’t. And I worry about the little girl being labeled “bully”, because the word has such negative connotations. So, what IS the definition of bullying?

Bullying is being intentionally, repeatedly cruel and belittling to smaller or otherwise less powerful kids. 6-year-old girls telling each other “you can’t come to my birthday party”, or “you don’t get to talk!” don’t qualify as bullying. And defining normal social “sparring” as “bullying” does everyone a disservice. Bullying has been getting some much-deserved attention in the media, and as a shrink I can attest to the terrible damage that TRUE bullying does to kids. But as an Early Childhood specialist, I know that little kids — especially girls — “practice” their social skills quite a lot with their classmates, and those skills get quite a bit of needed refining in 1st and 2nd grades. Teachers in those grades know that this is common behavior, and gives the kids the opportunity to do some social “practicing” in a fairly safe situation. Do they need limits, structure, and guidance in the process? You bet. But labeling them “bullies” is a major overreaction.

If you have a kid in these grades (as I do) — here’s what to keep in mind:

  • Kids need to “try out” their peer-to-peer social skills. Like lion cubs, they need to practice — but they don’t really mean any harm.
  • "Victims” at this age tend to shrug off the insults with no problem. Don’t jump in to protect your cub until you see she’s truly struggling.
  • Talk early — and often — about the little social struggles among your kids’ friends. Make it a point to ask about all the details, not to get anyone into trouble — but to help your cub think through the next incarnation of the battle. We’re building “social muscle” here.
  • Role-play regular situations that crop up. Cutting in line, saying “mean” things, and “who is best friends with whom” are typical arguments. Walk through these issues with your child frequently to try out new approaches and solutions. Ask, “What might you say instead next time?”
  • Be interested, open, and empathic — and try to hold back your parental protectiveness, unless there’s something more serious going on.

And of course, if your child is truly being bullied — or is, in fact, the bully — please step in immediately to involve the teachers and other parents. This is an age where this kind of behavior can — and should be — nipped in the bud. The Mom in question arranged a Parent Coaching session with me – via a conference call, so we could also include her husband – and we discussed strategies especially for their daughter. After a brief follow-up session, they’re now confident their daughter is gaining in confidence and blossoming in the classroom. It’s wonderful how one or two short sessions can relieve parents’ guilt, worry, and stress – and guide the whole family forward, in a positive way. With some practice (and a little luck), you’re setting the stage for your child to come to you with social problems in adolescence and beyond — for help and support in solving ever-more complex social dramas and situations.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Please check out the other experts at PositiveParentingNetwork.com to read some of the other great advice!

Is Your Child Ready for Kindergarten?

Child I started BabyShrink when this cute guy had just turned 2. And now look at him -- he's the "big boy" in his pre-kindergarten class.  It was easy to decide that he'll start this fall -- he's a January-born guy, so he's already 5. And as the third child of four he's been waiting to be like "the big kids" his whole life. His baby sister might be different, though -- as October-born, we may eventually decide to hold her over for the next year. We'll see. So, how do you know if kindergarten is in the cards for your 4 or 5-year old? Despite the official-sounding "readiness tests" used, there's really no sure-fire way to know. But ask yourself if your "baby" has these skills as we move through kindergarten application season:

  • The ability to speak and be understood
  • Enthusiasm about learning
  • The ability to listen and follow directions
  • The desire to be independent, and a willingness to separate from parents
  • Playing cooperatively (much of the time). Can he handle sharing, playing, and taking turns?
  • Basic letter and number recognition

Having these skills makes it far more likely that he'll be ready in the fall. And if he's not -- that's OK too. He'll get there!

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

1st and 2nd Graders: Is It Bullying Or Not?

 

Recently, a parent stopped me, worried about a 6-year-old "bully". The child in question -- in my opinion -- wasn't a bully, but rather a fairly typical little girl, testing out her pretty advanced verbal skills in more complex ways. Did she hurt her friends' feelings? Probably. And did the friend reciprocate by saying something mean right back? She sure did. The parent was very upset about the impact of this "bully" in the classroom -- and wanted to know what could be done to stop her. But was this truly "bullying?"

No, it wasn't. And I worry about the little girl being labeled "bully", because the word has such negative connotations. So, what IS the definition of bullying? There are many definitions, but all involve the bully being intentionally, repeatedly cruel and belittling to smaller or otherwise less powerful kids. 6-year-old girls telling each other "you can't come to my birthday party", or saying "you don't get to talk!" don't qualify as bullying. And defining normal social "sparring" as "bullying" does everyone a disservice.

Bullying has been getting some much-deserved attention in the media, and as a shrink I can attest to the terrible damage that TRUE bullying does to kids. But as an Early Childhood specialist, I know that little kids -- especially girls -- "practice" their social skills quite a lot with their classmates, and those skills need quite a bit of refining -- in 1st and 2nd grades. Teachers in those grades know that this is pretty common behavior, and gives the kids the opportunity to do some social "sparring" in a fairly safe situation. Do they need limits, structure, and guidance in the process? You bet. But labeling them "bullies" is a major overreaction.

If you have a kid in these grades (as I do -- with 4 kids, it seems someone is always going through this) -- here's what to keep in mind:

  • Kids this age need to "try out" their peer-to-peer social skills. Like lion cubs, they need to practice -- but they don't really mean any harm.
  • "Victims" at this age tend to shrug off the insults with no problem. Don't jump in to protect your cub until you see she's truly struggling.
  • Talk early -- and often -- about the little social struggles among your kids' friends. Make it a point to ask about all the details, not to get anyone into trouble -- but to help your cub think through the next incarnation of the battle. We're building "social muscle" here.
  • Role-play regular situations that crop up. Cutting in line, saying "mean" things, and "who is best friends with whom" are typical arguments. Walk through these issues with your child frequently to try out new approaches and solutions. Ask, "What might you say instead next time?"
  • Be interested, open, and empathic -- and try to hold back your parental protectiveness, unless there's something more serious going on.
  • And of course, if your child is truly being bullied -- or is, in fact, the bully -- please step in immediately to involve the teachers and other parents. This is an age where this kind of behavior can -- and should be -- nipped in the bud.

With some practice (and a little luck), you're setting the stage for your child to come to you with social problems in adolescence and beyond -- for help and support in solving ever-more complex social dramas and situations.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Parenting Tips: Talking To Preschoolers About Tragedies

The news was on, and our preschooler came into the room. Before we could turn off the TV, he saw a good stretch of footage he shouldn't have: Shootings. A deranged killer. Sobbing parents. A child murdered. "Why is that lady crying, mommy?"

Every ounce of our parenting instinct wants to wish this moment away -- to press "DELETE" on our little ones being exposed to such horrors. Erase! Rewind! Pretend like it didn't happen! They're so innocent. How to explain such a terrible, grown-up reality? Can't they stay in their little world of princesses and unicorns awhile longer?

Adding to the complexity of the situation was the presence of his 7-year-old brother and 9-year-old sister. What explanation to give them all? Our daughter jumped right in -- she had been discussing it at school. "A man who was sick in his head went to the store and shot a politician plus a whole bunch of other people!" 7-year old: "What's a politician? Like a donkey or an elephant?" 4-year-old: "Sick in his head? I was sick in my head last week! Remember mom? You took my temperature!" 9-year old: "He killed a girl my age!" 4-year-old: "Don't die, OK?"

Graduate school lists of "how to talk to kids" at various ages started swimming through my head. But how to answer the 9-year-old with her more realistic questions and fears, while not confusing the preschooler? How to explain to the 7-year-old that death for people was much more serious than finding the dead fish in his classroom aquarium that morning? How to reassure the 4-year-old that he was safe -- and so were we? And how NOT to infect them with my own fears and reactions?

I jumped into psychological triage mode. Job #1: Make sure to minimize the fear here. Explain and reassure. Job # 2: Respond to their questions -- at their level. Job #3: Fall back on our routine. Demonstrate that things haven't changed at home. Job # 4: Allow them to support each other, even as you try to correct the misinformation they may have. Siblings can be great resources for each other, giving reassurance in a way that we just can't.

If there's something big going on, and you need to stay tuned to the TV to follow anything for safety reasons, keep in mind who's watching. Mute the sound when you can, and turn it off when possible. Little kids confuse "replays" with reality, and may think things are happening over and over again.

Here are more preschooler-specific tips for talking about tragedies:

  • Don't assume -- anything. Your preschooler may completely tune out the situation. If that's the case, it's normal -- and OK.
  • Think in "fairies and pirates" language when answering questions. Your preschooler simply can't understand the world of objective reality. To him, magical thinking applies.
  • Keep it simple, and always follow up with reassurances. "Sometimes bad things happen, but Mommy and Daddy always protect you. We're all going to live for a long time, until we're very old."
  • Keep an eye out for questions coming up in different ways -- like play. We've had a lot more "shooting" games going on around here these days (despite the fact that we don't allow toy guns in the house). It gives me the chance to butt in and ask more about the games, and how they're handling things.

If your kids are having a tough time adjusting to a tragedy, make sure to ask for help sooner -- rather than later. It' far easier to help a child adjust when the trauma is new. After awhile it gets more and more difficult. Ask her doctor, teacher, or a clergyperson for a referral to someone who works with young children. Here is a nice summary by Dr. Joel Dvoskin, posted on the American Psychological Association's website:

Q. What should parents tell their children about this incident – especially since one of the dead was a 9-year-old child?

Dr. Dvoskin: Don't be afraid to talk to your kids about these events. The most important thing after any trauma is to maximize real and perceived safety for the child.... Letting kids know that they are safe is likely to help and not likely to make things worse.

Don't flood kids with too much information. The best way to decide how much information is appropriate is by the questions children ask you. Answer their questions honestly and directly, but remember that they are kids, so keep it simple (depending upon their age).

Parents should not lie to their children when talking about this tragedy. To the extent that children are unable to trust their caregivers, it is very difficult for them to feel safe.

Don't "pathologize" normal human responses to frightening events. If your children are frightened or upset, it doesn't mean there is anything wrong with them. However, if problems such as misbehavior, sleeplessness or other signs of depression or anxiety become especially severe or extreme, then seek professional help.

Limit kids' continued exposure to television coverage of the event. Depending upon their age and developmental status, they might not be able to tell if it's one event being repeated or many events. This is especially true of younger kids. Parents might even want to limit their own television watching.

Pay attention to your own fears and anger. It is unlikely that you will successfully hide your feelings from your children, who usually pay keen attention to what you say and do. Take care of yourself, and if your own feelings or behavior become extreme and problematic, don't be afraid to seek help for yourself as well.

If it is necessary to refer the child to a mental health professional, as always, step one is screening and assessment. Assess the child as a child, in totality, and in developmental context. Kids who have exaggerated reactions to what they see on TV may be kids who aren't strangers to trauma. The real question is why this event traumatized this child.... Community trauma can bring to the fore issues that were already there.

I've also included a couple of additional links below for more information. In the meantime -- stay safe.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Here is a nice guide from my colleagues at the American Psychological Association

And a helpful PDF that was written in response to 9/11 -- still very relevant to any tragedy -- that breaks down parents' responses by age range

Psychological Development: Why Your 6-Year-Old Is So Awesome

I recently wrote about 4-year-olds, and why they're so awesome. No longer toddlers, but not yet "big kids", they still snuggle like the baby you miss, but have enough independence that they're fun to hang out with.

Not to dis on the 5-year-olds, but SIX is an amazing age. I learned this when our oldest child's first grade teacher turned me on to a classic, fabulous book about early childhood development -- with an educational focus. It's a little technical and geeky, but if you like this stuff you'll LOVE this book. The upshot is this: Something magical happens in first grade. At some point during the year, each kid will go through an amazing transformation. She'll start out like a kindergartener -- still a little clingy and whiny, and living in the magic world of imagination -- ponies, princesses, and fairies. But she'll end up the year like a KID -- an honest-to-goodness Grade School Kid -- who can be swayed by logic, her peers, and the rules of the world.

Schools in many European countries understand this developmental fact, and that's why they don't do serious academic work until age 7.  But their outcomes are much better than ours -- because they're working WITH development, not AGAINST it. You can use this to your advantage by not falling for the ubiquitous pressure to force younger and younger children to do "academics".  Having realistic expectations for the behavior and learning of your preschooler and kindergartener will potentially save you a lot of worry when you're told they're not performing up to "standards". The "standards" of most school systems weren't created with normal development in mind. But that's another big topic for another day.

Read this lovely description of the 6-year-old mind here, and promise me you'll come back to read another article I've written about first graders -- and why yours probably doesn't have ADD, too.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Teaching Your Children About Money Good Financial Values

There's lots of talk (and worry) about money these days, and we're all thinking about our families' budgets. My friend and colleague Dr. Brad Klontz talks about financial well-being, and how it doesn't "just happen". Like part of any healthy lifestyle, there are skills to be learned, bad habits to be eliminated, and good attitudes to be built. The good news for your family is that you can start the process out in a good way at even the youngest of ages.

Age 2-3 Your children will start to internalize your money attitudes every time you discuss (or argue about) household expenses or take a trip to the grocery store.  Be conscious about spending and Use Your Words with your little ones. "Hey! Our favorite cereal is on sale. That's a great price! Let's get an extra box today."

Age 3-5 Build an awareness about money -- actual coins and bills. In our house, we've gotten the kids those inexpensive State Quarters collecting kits, and they're excited to look for the coins, trade for ones they need, and show them off to friends. They also learn cool things about the States. Also, have them help you plan your shopping list, and make them responsible for holding the list and "checking" it. Make up a computer list of regularly purchased items and a little picture of the item next to it, printing out a new one each shopping trip. Your preschooler can color in the things you need that week and keep track of it in the store.

Age 6-7 Now you can start talking about the price of things, saving, and allowance.  Include them in plans to save for special purchases, help them donate to good causes, and support "lemonade stands" and other budding entrepreneurship.

Parents But the most important job is ours. Money is the main reason for couples' arguments and divorce. This issue is worth your time and effort, people: Take stock of your financial problems, and how your attitudes are involved. Examine the weird money "scripts" from your family of origin. Challenge assumptions like "it's bad manners to talk about money". Get yourself in the habit of good financial behaviors. I highly recommend Dr. Klontz's books on the subject, which are easy to read, yet powerful. Check them out here.

And finally, GIVE. Every religion and moral/ethical tradition talks about the needy and the importance of giving. Use Your Words to model gratitude for what your family has. Help your child pick a cause and put aside a small amount of her savings to her cause on a regular basis. Carry it through by showing her how you donate the money. Make visits to learn about the cause and help in person, if possible.

Happy Saving!

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

How the Economic Downturn Makes Us Better Parents

Families have been hit hard by the recession -- I see it every day in my practice. But you'd think that wealthier parents would be having an easier time than they are. Instead, they're scrambling. Because parents who relied on money to raise good kids had their priorities messed up, and now they're getting their assumptions challenged. I'm talking about the competitive, "keeping up with the Joneses" kind of parenting that results in this kind of stuff:

  • Trying to find the "perfect" stroller
  • Getting on a years-long wait list with the "best" preschool
  • Overscheduling even young children, from "Mommy and Me" to "enrichment" classes
  • Parents not having any adult life (or getting any sleep) because their lives are 100% kid-focused

But even for those of us who weren't ever considered "wealthy", there's a lesson here about priorities, and what it truly takes to be a Good Enough parent.

When you take money out of the equation, all of the extra garbage is drained out. And parents who are used to parenting by spending are forced to start parenting by being.

Being with the kids -- just hanging out. Getting to know their temperaments, tendencies, personalities and foibles. Helping them learn about themselves, and how to  be a good person. And helping them to learn about money -- what it CAN buy, what it CAN'T buy, and how to make budgeting and saving fun.

This is a really good thing. Because your kids don't need lots of money to grow into happy, healthy, productive human beings. They need YOU -- your interested time and attention.

I know by experience, people. I'm not much of a shopper, but I LOVE baby gear. I've spent 10 years searching for "the perfect stroller", and wasted tons of money on the 7 or 8 strollers moldering away in the Stroller Cemetery in our garage. But none of our four babies ever loved being in ANY stroller, and if I had just waited to get to know them a bit before I started buying, I could have saved a ton of cash. Patience and careful thought are worth a lot -- in life, and in parenting.

It starts at the earliest ages. In our family, we've discovered that toys, balloons and candy shouldn't get bought at the market as an incentive for good behavior. Toddlers in our family get told, "Let's put the balloon away now that we're done shopping. The balloon lives here -- let's say bye bye to the balloon." When they don't expect a lot of buying as young children, they enjoy the stuff we DO buy much more.

This is an opportunity to re-focus on the simple (but powerful) fact that it's US, not our "stuff", that make our kids into great human beings. Staying home, cooking together, reading, and running around outside is not only cheaper, it's a better way to focus on the enduring priorities of parenting.

And in the process, we get to know ourselves better, too.

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Kindergarten Haters And Dumb Potty Training Rules in Preschool

Very Common Problems. We bloggers check our blog traffic to see how many "hits" we're getting. My software also tells me how you got to me -- what you entered into the search or URL line to get to BabyShrink -- and this is where it gets interesting. This time of year, I get a lot of searches that look like this:

SHOULD+I+SNEAK+MY+TODDLER+INTO+PRESCHOOL+IF+SHE+IS+NOT+FULLY+ POTTY+TRAINED?

AND

MY+KINDERGARTENER+HATES+SCHOOL+WHAT+SHOULD+I+DO? The demand is so strong for these topics that I'm re-running these 2 posts together. So without further ado, here's my post on potty training rules in daycare and preschool - you'll see that I have some pretty strong opinions.

And here's my post on what to do if your poor little kindergartener decides that they would rather NOT be a big boy or girl anymore and stay home after all.

I've been there more than once myself, so I can sympathize. Check out those posts and let me know what you think!

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Parent Tip: Advice For Easing School Pickups

Today is the first in my series of quick parent tips designed to make your life easier. As a shrink and parent of 4 young kids, I feel your pain -- and I've worked out some of the wrinkles along the way. I hope you enjoy these -- and comment below if you have a question you'd like me to tackle. Today, I'm picking up my 2 big kids from school, with a baby and preschooler in tow. Sibling rivalry is a common problem, especially after school when everyone is jockeying for your attention. The energy of the house totally changes once the big kids are in the mix. PREVENTION is the key to a smooth afternoon. Try this:

Greet each kid separately, even if it's just for a few seconds. Get down on his level for a sincere smile, hug, and as much of a discussion as you can.

RE-GREET the little ones so they don't feel left out of the special attention given to the big kids. Yeah, I know they've had more of you during the day, but it's still hard to let go and share with the big kids. Give a special few seconds as you strap them back into their car seats.

Music and other media in the car make it tough to decompress and talk after a busy day. Turn it off to bring everyone's stress level down.

When you get home, limit your computer and phone use to a different time of day. Your kids will ratchet up the activity and noise level when they notice you aren't "present". Give them this time with you and your sanity will improve.

Give big praise when siblings get along, and let them know you LOVE when they talk and play nicely after school together. Try to ignore negative behavior...practice the Deep Breath and Look Away approach for copious use. The less attention you give to their antics, and the more you give them props for their good behavior, the better it will get.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Toddler Behavior: When Parenting Your Toddler Gets Rough, Remember This...

Parenting a toddler can be one of the toughest jobs you'll ever have. Then one day, they become....KIDS. And then BIG KIDS. You get the idea. It makes those tough days with a toddler a lot more bearable when you can re-gain some perspective on the whole process. Check out today's installment of one of my favorite comic strips, Zits. If you're like me, you'll print it out, put it on the fridge, and weep a little every time you look at it.

Enjoy! (sniff!)

Check out the link to the 1/31/10 Zits If the cartoon has rotated, click "previous" to go back to the Sunday, 1/31/2010 installment. You can click on the comic strip and it will open in a new window, allowing you to print it out for your fridge. Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Developmental Issues: Why Your First Grader Probably Doesn't Have ADD or ADHD

One of my pet peeves is the tremendous pressure that schools have been putting on our young children to "perform". Over the past several years, schools have been ratcheting up their demands for the performance of academic tasks on younger and younger children. But the developmental realities of young children don't change just because No Child Left Behind wants "results". Young children aren't yet capable, cognitively or psychologically, to tackle heavy-duty academic work -- without paying a price. And I worry about those children, like Linda's daughter below, who may be unfairly flagged as having "problems with focus", or even labeled ADD/ADHD, at such a young age.

Read on for Linda's question, and my answer below:

Hi Dr Heather,

My six-year-old daughter is in first grade. Her teacher says she has "focus" issues, and is worried. While this is a small class in a private school, she is there for about 10 hours every day. That's a long day. I think she just gets tired in the afternoon…at that age the best thing would be for her to be at the house at 3p I think. However we both work full time so it's not an option.

I asked the principal about holding her back. However because she is so smart, there is a chance she would be bored and the principal says in her experience (30 years) holding back children due to focus issues rarely solves the issue at hand. She was tested at age three with a district program that checks for ADD and other issues, and the assessor saw no warning flags.

I think she is just a kinesthetic learner who is dreamy and in her head..and should probably be in school for a shorter day. Am I missing something? Can you really say "ADD" for sure at age six? I am worried that this could just be normal range of behavior for this age, and the requirements of schools these days are just the stress trigger, making her hard to work with.

Thanks,

Linda

Hi Linda,

In general, I do agree with you that our educators are expecting WAY too much of our children these days, when it comes to "performance" at an early age.

First grade is an interesting age. Teachers will tell you that they typically witness a huge change in children as the year progresses. Most kids will make the transition from what I see as more of a "preschool" sort of mentality, to more of a "grade school kid" sort of mentality. It's a big step that's made sometime during the year, and many issues of the kind you describe are sorted out in the process. That's why standardized tests are viewed (at least by testing specialists) as being NOT super-valid until SECOND grade. There are too many variables up through the first grade. That's also why we typically don't diagnose a child with ADD/ADHD until at least age 7.

Our own daughter was "flagged" in first grade for variable performance on standardized tests that year. It made me crazy that they made the first graders sit for standardized tests at all -- they're worthless at that age! By the time they had a specialist test her (at the END of the year), all the issues they were concerned about had "vanished". She is now doing beautifully in third grade.

Now of course I can't directly evaluate your daughter, but I do think the questions you are asking are valid, developmentally. Asking a 6-year-old to focus for 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, is pretty unrealistic. But of course you want to make sure to take any legitimate concerns seriously.

You might consider asking the teacher to reinforce "on task" behavior, instead of simply worry about "off-task" behavior. You and she can collaboratively set up a plan whereby your daughter is rewarded (with something simple, like stickers or checkmarks, to trade in for small prizes) on a chart for demonstrating a few minutes at a time of "on-task" behavior. You want to set it up so that the goals are ACHIEVABLE -- not something diffuse like "having a good day". You will get much farther with rewarding her for focusing, than by making a federal case out of her being "off-task". You also want to avoid giving her undue attention for NEGATIVE behavior, especially at this age. Kids have a way of absorbing the negative attention directed at them, and can internalize the idea that they "have a problem". You're much better off by reinforcing -- and praising her -- for doing what you'd like her to do more of. You can also tie her performance at school to things you want her to do at home -- listen, complete chores, etc. If reinforcement and praise are coordinated between home and school, you have a better chance of improving things in both places.

See where this gets you, and let us know how it goes.

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Developmental Issues: Did Swine Flu Cause Autism In My Son?

There's a lot of confusion out there about illness, the flu, vaccines, medications, and autism. This poor Mom is terrified that her son may have contracted Autism from a bout of Swine Flu. Here's her email to me: Dear Dr. Heather,

Please help. I saw your article on autism, and I am very intrigued and impressed by your knowledge and insight.

I don’t know what to do. I have two beautiful, 91/2 month old identical twin boys who were always very social, smiley, interactive, looking directly into the face, etc. The one I am most concerned about would turn his head and smile at his brother in their crib, smile at everybody, I would play the ‘up’ game with him and he would gaze into my eyes, smile, and giggle… and they both almost always responded by looking when I said their names.

Then one of them got sick with Swine Flu on August 6th. His brother got sick on August 8th. I will never forgive myself as the last time I remember him (the baby who got sick on the 8th) acting distinctly like himself was the 6th when I went to pick up his sick brother at daycare… he looked right up into my eyes, threw up his arms, smiled, and said ‘Mommmmm’…. And I barely paid attention to him, I rushed to his sick brother… I should’ve thrown my arms around him and hugged him and praised him…. I have such guilt and keep worrying/wondering what if that is the last time he ever does that?

They were both put on Tamiflu due to being high-risk (they have asthma symptoms). The baby I am most concerned about didn’t get as high a fever, but the virus infected his eye, and we think he also got a bacterial infection, so he got eye-drops and Amoxycillin as well. He was miserable and cranky for days. I know he can hear (by testing by loud noises, etc.) and he doesn’t have an ear infection, as he’s seen a doctor.

Now he is not himself. I first noticed this as he got better. He is not responding when I say his name, hardly ever. If he does he just looks for a second. He will make eye contact, but only for a second or two. He looks away when I try to play the ‘up’ game with him. He is still babbling, but not as much. He did this weird whisper-babbling this morning and smacked his lips. He is still playing with his toys, but is also playing with non-toy objects like straps and blinds.

The doctor has an ear test set up for him, but I have to wait two weeks just for a call to make the appointment.

Can a virus or antibiotics trigger autism? Does a flu ever attack the ears, eyes, or brain which might cause sudden symptoms? What are the other possibilities might be going on if he doesn’t have an ear infection? This is a very, very abrupt change.

What tests should I push for to find out what is wrong as soon as possible? What are the possibilities?

So far his brother is acting normally, but I am terrified as I'm worried about it affecting both twins eventually.

Please, I would love a response. We have (mega-large HMO) and it is hard to get tests/things done. I am eagerly awaiting your response and guidance.

Very, very sincerely, Concerned Mom

Obviously, this mom is in a state of desperation, so I responded immediately:

Dear Concerned Mom,

Of course I cannot evaluate your son myself and as such, I can only provide some educational information for you. But I did want to respond right away because you sound so very upset and worried.

First of all, please know that autism is thought most likely to be a genetically-related developmental issue, and I have seen no convincing information that it can be caused by a simple flu or other virus in a child, nor by antibiotics or antivirals. Additionally, the timeframe you mention of the abrupt changes in your son do not sound like the onset of autism. After all, it's been barely 2 weeks since the onset of his flu symptoms.

A (temporary) step backwards in response to illness However, it is VERY common to see temporary developmental regression in response to illness. This means that your child can take several steps BACKWARD developmentally -- in response to illness and/or stress -- and then "bounce back" days or weeks later. It's all part of the normal developmental process,which is full of starts, stops, and reversals -- the old "one step forward, two steps back" thing. Young children don't understand that the course of illness is temporary; that they will get better. They simply know they feel lousy. They are not up to showing off all their "best" developmental skills. They commonly regress to earlier stages of development, temporarily, until they feel better. And often times, symptoms of illness can linger for WEEKS in children -- especially for something as yucky as a flu. If he is showing regression in response to illness, the regression itself can linger for weeks as well, past the time that he gets better. This may vary from child to child and from illness to illness, so his brother may be fine (at least this time). Personalities vary in response to illness and stress I don't know about your husband, but when mine gets sick, he just wants everyone to GO AWAY. (is this a guy thing?) He's crabby and won't talk to me and is just a completely different personality than when he's feeling well. Everyone is different, and your boys also will have different responses to stress and illness. The point is that there are very reasonable possible explanations as to why your son is acting so differently than his usual self, for this relatively short timeframe.

It's important that you respond in a positive and supportive way, and not convey to him that you're so worried. He's able to pick up your anxieties, and internalize the message that "something must be wrong with him". He needs reassurance that he WILL get better, and WILL feel better, but for now he still feels lousy and needs to be babied -- and that's OK.

As I said, however, I cannot evaluate your child from afar, so it's important you get your doctors' advice, as it sounds like you are doing. But since you have to wait for appointments, I would take this time to hang out with your boys in a relaxed way, giving them the chance to fully recover.

Please let us know how you're all doing in a few weeks' time.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

How to Talk to Kids: A Great Book

Our 6-year-old is in the throes of a really anxious phase. He often needs to be reassured about where we are, even if we're all just in the house. He's afraid to go to sleep at night. And he's terrified of "ET", a classic we allowed the babysitter to show the kids one night. You'd think my shrink-training would help in these situations, but often it doesn't. You know how it goes: When it comes to your own kids, rational knowledge goes out the window. Intellectually, I remind myself that 6-year-olds aren't rational creatures yet. They can't hang on to the logical reassurances we give them. They haven't reached the stage where logic "sticks" in their minds. In many ways, they're still like preschoolers; apt to live in the "magical world" of fantasy, imagination, and fears.

But when he's scared out of his wits, part of me wants to scream, "Snap out of it! We're not leaving you, we never have, and we never will! Enough, already, and go to sleep!"

So I'm calling in reinforcements. I've pulled an awesome book off my shelf and am reminded why I think this is one of the world's best parenting guides. If you haven't seen it, go spend 10 bucks on Amazon for the paperback version, or check it out of your library. You'll refer to it again and again (and I promise, I get no "cut" from promoting anything here). It's called "Between Parent and Child", by Dr. Haim Ginott. It was first published a million years ago, but it couldn't be more appropriate today. His sensitivity and approach to dealing with children simply can't be matched. Reading Ginott again has lifted a weight from my shoulders and reminded me that all will be well with our son, soon enough. It's also given me lots of good ideas for how to approach this phase-specific anxiety he's going through.

I hope you enjoy it!

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

A New Post for a New Year

Those of you who follow me here at BabyShrink haven't had much to follow lately. The economic crisis has hit my "day job" pretty hard, so like the rest of you, our family is struggling to come to terms with some tough new realities. The end result is -- fewer posts. But that doesn't mean my dedication has flagged. In fact, this week marks the ONE YEAR ANNIVERSARY of BabyShrink, and I'm taking the opportunity to review the excitement of the past year, and thank you all for the success that this site continues to be.

BabyShrink started as an outlet for me to share my passion for understanding the development of babies, young children, and parents. In my practice, I evaluate and treat (mostly) toddlers whose development has somehow gone awry. Many of these cases involve complex problems like autism, chromosomal defects, trauma, or abuse. But the majority of questions I get about these children have less to do with their complex disorders -- and more to do with basic, "run-of-the-mill" child development and parenting issues. Parents in rural areas such as mine have little access to this kind support and information. So I decided to make my parenting suggestions and resources available online.

It's been a thrill to discover that parents all over the world have found helpful information on BabyShrink. Each day, I eagerly check my "stats" to see what parts of the world my readers are from: Latvia, Australia, Singapore, Turkey, Hong Kong, Trinidad and Tobago, and Canada are on today's list of visitors. And I'm especially thrilled to give a shout-out to all my American compatriots and readers; today I see you coming in from Yonkers, Berkeley, Des Moines, Anchorage, and a dedicated reader from Cranberry Township, PA who pored over 13 posts this morning. Aloha and mahalo to you all!

Over the next week, I'll be revisiting some of your all-time favorite posts...you might be surprised (as I am) at my "most-Googled" articles. I'll also give you a bit of an insider's glimpse into what it's been like for a shrink like me to reinvent herself as a blogger, with a shoestring budget and not a lick of technical know-how (all while juggling a marriage, three young children, and my PAYING shrink job). I hope I can inspire you to chase down your own dreams in the process...and continue to encourage you to let "good enough" be GOOD ENOUGH in our efforts to raise our kids.

For a trip down memory lane, I've included a link below to my very-first introductory post, published one year today. It's fun to see that, despite some unpredicted twists and turns, we've been able to stick to our goals and interests here. Enjoy!

Welcome To BabyShrink: March 6, 2008

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Child Development: Does Your Child Have Food Allergies?

Having a child with food allergies is tough -- first, there are the obvious safety issues involved. You don't want your child to accidentally -- or intentionally -- eat something that may make him sick, or even kill him. Then there are the practical challenges; finding acceptable, palatable food substitutes for the things he can't eat. I know many families who have to spend tons of time (and money) planning and making separate meals for their allergic kids, and strategizing about "dangerous" situations like birthday parties and school lunch rooms. But it doesn't stop there. The doctors and nutritionists who diagnose the allergies, and prescribe the necessary diets, unfortunately don't often have the time to get into the psychological aspects of food allergies -- and leave the parents wondering how to handle this very tricky aspect of the allergy.

The behavioral and emotional effects of the allergy and related diets include the resentment caused in the child by not being able to eat foods his friends CAN eat. The feelings of deprivation and being "different". The parents' worry that these food issues will lead to eating disorders in adolescence. All of these problems are very real challenges of raising a child with a food allergy.

I recently got a phone call from a friend who's daughter has multiple food allergies -- gluten, casein (dairy protein), tree nuts -- the works. They've been able to reasonably control her food intake up until recently; she's now an active, busy second-grader who is starting to get resentful that the other kids can get all kinds of foods that are forbidden to her. My friend was mortified to tell me that they discovered a stack of 30 or more string-cheese wrappers stuffed under the couch recently. And a rash that preceded the cheese-eating was diagnosed by the doctor as "psychological". Poor little thing is itching herself raw, and hoarding and "sneaking" disallowed foods.

I've got some ideas about how to handle these issues, and I've had to do the gluten and casein-free diet in our home for awhile when we were ruling out food allergies with our daughter. But I know there are a LOT of you out there struggling directly with these challenges in your home. I'm hoping some of you will post your comments to my friend here, giving us some tips for what works -- and what doesn't -- in your home. I'll collect your responses and include them with some of my own in my next post.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink