BabyGeek: Chronic Stress In Children

I recently wrote about amazing findings showing that stress in early life actually causes DNA damage. Researchers at Duke have taken the next step, finding the exact receptor that is disabled by chronic stress, resulting in genetic damage.

This adds strength to what I believe about making sure our kids are brought up in Good Enough environments: We already know that a LITTLE bit of stress is a good thing. It toughens us up and helps us learn new lessons. But too much stress, over a long period of time, is a bad thing.  That's why children brought up in chronically abusive or deprived environments fare so poorly. And these folks at Duke have found a glimpse into exactly how that works, on a molecular level. Cool stuff.

Their research is connected to how our cells are damaged in a variety of ways -- including by the aging process -- and I know I'm not the only 40-something parent out there hoping science will help us push the envelope of healthy life way out into the future, giving us more time with our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Do you think science will offer us a cure for stress and aging -- in our lifetimes? I hope so!

 

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

BabyGeek: Infant Sleep "Rules" Don't Work

I've been sleep deprived since April 2001, when our oldest was born. Since then, I've tried every "trick" in the parenting book. And nothing seems effective at "making" my

kids sleep better. They've all evolved into being better sleepers over time.

That's why I'm so interested in the line of research discussed in this study. Penn State scientists found -- despite common parenting advice -- that parents' EMOTIONAL response to their children at bedtime was much more successful than any specific behavioral "trick" in getting children to sleep.

As a shrink, I tell parents that babies absorb their emotional messages. Parents are often surprised when I tell them that even the youngest babies sense their emotions -- but it's true.

In the shrinking world, we've been struggling internally for years over the predominant theoretical orientation -- Behaviorism, and its spin-offs -- and the power it holds over the way we do our work. Those of us who work with very young children understand that simple behavioral and operant conditioning simply doesn't apply with the little ones. That's why "Ferberizing" and related approaches are often ineffective.  FIRST, babies need to feel emotionally (and physically) safe. Other learning can proceed from there. But sleep is an inherently scary proposition, and often triggers resistance and regression in children. It's a weird and scary thing to transition into a sleep state.

So the fundamental message of this research at Penn State is both obvious to me -- and very reassuring -- as an Early Childhood specialist. I'm eager to see what else they discover in this line of inquiry, and I'll be sure to share it with you.

Here's a link to some of my "getting to sleep" advice. What's yours?

 

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

BabyGeek: Early Trauma Damages Babies' DNA

It took me over a year, but I finally started to understand the fabulousness that is Twitter. And no, it's not because I want you to know what I had for lunch (although I had some amazing Indian food today). It's because I meet a lot of interesting people on Twitter, and am directed to some fascinating info. The geek in me LOVES the immediate access I get via Twitter to all sorts of interesting infant research. But I do realize that most of you don't share my fascination with primary-source research -- you just want to get through your parenting day with your wits reasonably intact. And that's why I'm here -- to help sort through all the clutter, and show you what I think is TRULY interesting, relevant, and important to parents. So I'm starting a new category on BabyShrink -- BabyGeek. It will give me the opportunity to use more than 140 characters to help interpret the most current findings from the world of infant and child development, and the mind-boggling findings from brain and neuroscience. I hope I can make it all interesting for you, too.

And now, for my first moment of BabyGeek:

Early Trauma Damages Babies' DNA

This heartbreaking study confirms what shrinks like me have long suspected: The mind and body are closely linked, even from the first months of life. This study shows how deeply linked: Traumatic emotional experiences such as institutional care actually damage the child's DNA. Scientists have been investigating how the length of the telomere (the cap that protects the ends of the DNA strand) is related to health and longevity -- and the orphans in the study had significantly shorter telomeres. Here's the study report.

In college, we used to argue about "nature vs. nurture". Now, we know it's nature AND nurture -- down to our DNA.

I'm waiting for the research that shows longer telomeres in babies from "good enough" homes.  I wonder what other aspects of parental care will show impacts -- positive or negative -- on DNA?

What are your thoughts?

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

And I hope to see you on Twitter! Follow me here.

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!

Sleep, Toddlers, and Mental Health (Hopefully, Not Mutually Exclusive)

Mental Health Blog Party Badge I'm blogging for mental health today -- but not in way you might expect. Mental health isn't just some esoteric list of psychiatric diagnoses. It starts with simple -- but critically important -- things. These include the support of loved ones, meaningful work and relationships, and enough resources to have a little fun. On the top of that list, though, is getting adequate SLEEP. Having young children is the quickest way to ruin in the sleep department (and I speak from vast experience). Here's a quick tip on tackling the sleep issue for toddlers (and by extension, YOU):

Dear Dr. Heather,

 

My 2 year old started climbing out of the crib a few weeks ago. We transitioned her to a toddler bed and she continues to wake up around 2 am to play! And doesn't go back to bed until after 4 am. I've tried cutting her nap, which resulted in a miserable little girl in the afternoon and still waking in the middle night. I know allow her to nap for an hour and she's still up and playing at 2 am. Her bed time is around 8:30pm every night. Help!

Holly

Dear Holly,

It's very common for toddlers to start waking in the middle of the night after transitioning to a bed. That's why I always recommend WAITING to give up the crib as long as possible. But don't worry: Your late-night party-girl will remember how to sleep through the night -- with your help.

During the day, remind her that it's her job to sleep when it's dark outside -- plus, Mommy and Daddy get grouchy when she wakes them up at night. Everyone needs their sleep to be healthy.

Adopt the "broken record" approach -- she needs to stay in bed. Lights out. Time to sleep. If she gets up or makes a ruckus, calmly guide her back to bed and repeat the rules. Don't get emotional, don't turn on the lights, don't talk much, and certainly don't offer any food, drinks, or TV.

It may take a zillion or so reminders (or just a few, depending on her personality), but eventually her internal clock will win out and she'll start to sleep again -- as long as YOU'RE consistent in your approach. And when she DOES sleep through the night again, congratulate her for a job well done in the morning, and tell her how great YOU feel after having a good night's sleep!

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

 

Exciting Work -- BabyShrink's Updates

Whew, I've been busy! Make sure to check me out all month on ParentsConnect.com, the Nick Jr parenting blog. You know, "We're not perfect, we're parents." We had an awesome connection over my "Good Enough" parenting posts, and it's exciting to interact with so many of their families. It was all made possible by the fab folks at Learning Care Group -- you probably know them by their 1,000+ schools in the US, including ChildTime, Tutor Time, La Petite Academy, Montessori Unlimited, and The Children's Courtyard. I've been blogging for them on the LCG Blog Learning Together too. They have exciting plans for showing off their expertise with kids -- and they want my help. I'm honored and thrilled -- and I'll keep you posted as things develop.

I recently spent a bunch of time with the LCG folks on the mainland, creating a series of parenting videos. I'll post them here soon, and they'll also be on the LCG website. It was a wild ride, creating top-notch, scientifically-based, but accessible info for parents in the most professional, high-quality, high-tech media environment.

In the meantime, I'm expanding my Parent Coaching practice, and juggling not one, not two, but THREE kids' basketball team schedules. What the heck -- it's all good experience for my LCG writing -- they want to focus on work/life balance in the future, and my house is the perfect crucible to test out some new approaches.

Thanks for your continued support, and I hope you'll stick around to check out some of my parenting tips!

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

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

Sudden Fears in 12 to 15-Month-Old Babies

Let me tell you about a cool conversation I had the other day with my Infant Research/Rock Star Guru, Professor Joseph Campos (at UC Berkeley).  He helped me understand more about a funky phenomenon I've written about here before: The Weird, Wacky, Sudden Fears of the 12 -- 15-month old. You know: Crazy fears of the bath, bizarre fears of mustached men, and other kooky things like Fear of Flowers (I kid you not -- I've heard 'em all -- many from my own kids). As I've said before, these sudden fears are NORMAL -- but now I understand a little more about WHY.

It's a combination of what I've already written about here -- adjusting to the exciting (and scary) new world of mobility, as well as an inborn fear of sudden, unexpected unfamiliarity. Babies this age tend to freak when they see something that looks out of place -- a man with facial hair (if they're used to clean-shaven guys), dogs that suddenly bark loudly, or things that move in unexpected, uncontrollable directions (like flowers in the breeze). Turns out that adult chimpanzees also have similar fears. Interestingly, our toddlers grow out of these fears -- chimps do not. Rapidly developing baby brains are starting to compare "familiar" to "unfamiliar". It's likely protective -- which is especially needed now that the baby is toddling around, away from parents.

Sudden baby fears are also related to a similar parent frustration at this age: Resistance to car seats, strollers, changing tables, high chairs, or any similar baby-jail. Why? Because they remove the element of control from your little one -- and CONTROL is what helps to decrease baby's fears.

So here's how to cope with those intense and sometimes inexplicable fears in your young toddler: Give her as much control as possible (given safety factors, and of course your need to do other stuff, too.) Fear of the unknown and unexpected is always best soothed with CONTROL. Let baby approach (or avoid) fascinating/scary things (or people) at her own pace. Explain to her when it's time to get into the car seat -- and let her try to negotiate herself into it, if possible. (She just might do it, if you give her a minute to think it through.) Take the pressure off if she's feeling shy or fearful. And most of all: DON'T WORRY. Weird toddler fears mean nothing about future psychological adjustment (and the more YOU freak out about her fears, the more SHE'LL freak out about them.)

But on the flip side: If baby needs to get into the car seat NOW, or if she MUST have a bath tonight -- that's OK, too. Explain it to her. "I know you don't want a bath, but you have enchiladas in your hair, honey. I promise to make this as fast as possible, then we'll be all done." Be supportive and understanding -- but shampoo away. You won't do any psychological harm. The trick is to give her the general message that, WHEN POSSIBLE, you'll give her as much control as you can. But sometimes the grown-ups have to be in charge (and that's a good lesson, too).

The good news is this: These fears almost always dissipate by 18 months of age. (Then you'll be on to bigger and better things -- like Full On Temper Tantrums.) Whee!

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four and Parenting Expert

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

Cool New Gigs

Is it possible that BabyShrink is approaching it's THIRD birthday? This site was launched with much anxiety on my part -- and also, great hopes and dreams. Sort of like having a REAL baby. Come to think of it, there are lots of similarities between writing a parenting column and having a baby -- the staggering amount of work -- 24/7 -- being one of them.

So as I was toiling away out here in my island home, pressing the "Publish" button every week and wondering whether anyone would even read my stuff, an interesting thing happened -- people DID start reading, and more importantly -- enjoying their parenting adventures a little more because of it.

So it comes with a great sense of satisfaction (and even joy) to announce the next step for me -- adding the title of "Expert", in affiliation with some pretty impressive folks. You've probably heard Dr. Oz talking about his great new health site, ShareCare, powered by some of the most prestigious names in the country. I'm excited to be on ShareCare -- here's my bio -- answering your questions about parenting, child development, and family life. It's a super user-friendly experience, so I hope you'll sign up today, along with the 200,000 others who have already jumped on board to Dr. Oz's Move It And Lose It personalized diet and fitness plan -- and countless others looking for real answers to health questions.

I'm also really excited to be featured alongside some awesome names in parenting and family health over at Parents.Com. They have a cool Q and A tool where you can submit questions -- and the panel of experts answers for you. Check me out on the same list with gurus like Dr. Harvey Karp (of "Happiest Baby on the Block" fame), Dr. Ari Brown (of the "Baby 411" series), and Dr. Alice Domar, a fellow shrink who's done tons of fantastic stuff on women's health at Harvard (among others).

Thanks for all of your support and encouragement -- as always, send me your parenting questions. In addition to these cool new ways to reach me,  you can always comment here, tweet me, or drop me an email so that we can arrange some individualized Parent Coaching for you and your family. I'd love to talk with you personally.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Toddler Behavior: How To Stop Children From Grinding Their Teeth

Another good question from the Parent Coaching files: Toddlers who grind their teeth. Why do they do it, and are we -- as parents -- doing anything to cause it? And more importantly, how can we get it to STOP?!

For some, this is a nighttime tendency that seems to be hereditary. For others, it's a passing phase -- and more likely to be heard in the daytime.

Teeth-grinding is usually just a really annoying -- but common and normal -- thing for toddlers. Aside from any medical causes you must rule out first -- dehydration, nutritional deficiencies and pinwoms (yech, I know) being among the rare but true culprits -- it's probably not a reason to worry.  It's likely related to all those new choppers growing in -- she's getting used to them. Grinding is a way to feel where they are, make weird new sounds with them, and "sand down" the sharp points that often accompany new teeth. It may also alleviate the pain of teething. PLUS, it's a way to irritate you, if you show it gets under your skin! So watch your reaction -- getting upset about it might be just the fuel she needs to start doing it all the time.

The majority of these cases aren't caused by -- or reflective of -- any parenting flaw. You can  think of other ways to occupy her energy, time, and mouth -- like singing, word games, and crunchy snacks. But don't pay too much attention to the grinding itself. My strong recommendation is to IGNORE IT. I know it can be like nails on a chalkboard, but really -- there is no other way. The more you point it out, the more likely she is to increase the grinding. If your toddler still does it frequently after a few weeks, then it's time to have it checked by a good pediatric dentist. But I bet you'll be on to the next parenting dilemma by then.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Getting Your Child To Eat Fruits And Veggies

Direct from the Parent Coaching files, an issue that plagues many of us: The Preschooler Who Won't Eat Healthy Foods. Common variants of this plague include The Preschooler Who Only Eats White Foods, The Preschooler Who Only Eats Starches, The Preschooler Who Only Eats Chicken Nuggets, and my niece's current version: The Preschooler Who Only Eats Raisin Toast. (What can I say? Our family always has to be a little different.)

Seeing as though we can't force our children to Eat, Sleep, or Poop, we must BACK OFF. Yet, how to encourage healthy eating habits? And how to cope with the obvious complications of No Healthy Food -- constipation, and it's negative impact on potty training?

I wish it was as simple as many of our pediatricians say: "Encourage fruits, vegetables, and whole fibers. Have them drink a lot of water." OK -- but HOW?! Most preschoolers will turn up their cute little noses at a plate of healthy food -- or even something that looks just a little DIFFERENT than what they're used to eating.

My take on it: This is an opportunity to walk the precariously thin line between ENCOURAGEMENT and PRESSURE. Do we give up trying? No. Do we get frustrated and beg, plead, cajole, or bribe them? Nope. But we DO encourage -- with a parenting trick up our sleeves.

So, try this, a daily tactic in our house: It's the One Molecule Rule. We serve meals in courses: Healthy foods first. Each kid gets a serving of either a fruit or vegetable -- kid-friendly -- think carrot strips and ranch dressing, banana "coins", or apples with peanut butter. Each kid's serving must be finished before the rest of the meal becomes available to them. And by "serving size", we start with One Molecule of something different. The other day, we tried pomegranates. One kid LOVES them, but one kid freaked out when he saw them. For him, the rule was One Seed. He had to eat ONE pomegranate seed before "unlocking" his turkey sandwich. And next time, his serving might be TWO seeds. Whatever it is, be reasonably sure that it's a serving size he can handle -- and maybe even feel proud of finishing. SMALLER IS BETTER, until they graduate up to the next level. Praise and reinforce even the most incremental progress. And of course -- model the behavior you want them to emulate. OOH and AAH over your artichokes, brussels sprouts, and avocados. But let them go when they've had their molecule.

Because:  Little kids are biologically programmed to avoid weird, unusual foods. It's a survival thing from back in the day when weird foods could (and often did) kill them. So don't blame your kids, work with them.

And the good news is this: With lots of encouragement over time, this too shall improve. To wit: My 9-year-old daughter, previously a card-carrying member of the "I Only Drink Juice And Eat Goldfish Crackers" club, asked for a CHICKEN CAESAR SALAD last night. And she LOVED it.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Tammy Pescatelli: TV Star, Comedienne, and "Good-Enough" Mom Extraordinaire

 

I've been doing some serious writing now for several months, so it was refreshing to have a fun conversation with Tammy Pescatelli recently. She's mom to a preschooler, star (and producer) of her own TV show, and hardworking stand-up comedienne. With credits like Leno, Carson Daly, and Last Comic Standing to her name, plus winner of Comedy Central's Standup Showdown, she's a force to be reckoned with in entertainment.

But I was more interested in her approach to motherhood. She's a hard-working lady in a family that values family -- so much, in fact, that they're full of advice. We're talking enmeshed Italian family here. (As a member of an enmeshed Jewish family, I feel I can say it -- Jewish, Italian -- same thing.)  And like many of us, Tammy is an older mother has had enough life experience to have more confidence in her decisions and in her parenting. She tells me that being in the public eye has reinforced the notion that you can't make everybody happy all the time.

For instance, Tammy revealed to me that she didn't breastfeed her son. Despite her valid (and personal) reasons, she was judged and criticized for it. Long-time BabyShrink readers know this is a pet peeve of mine. So many moms suffer rude (at best) commentary from others who feel somehow justified in crossing over this very personal boundary -- involving our babies and our bodies. And Tammy's story is actually worse than most I've heard -- she received a phone call from a "lactivist" organization, saying that they had "heard" she wasn't breastfeeding her child, and could they send a lactating mother right over as a wet-nurse? SERIOUSLY!

But Tammy has strength and confidence in her convictions. She's focused on her son and her family -- and she knows that balaning their needs with the needs of her demanding career may be difficult -- but ultimately worth it. She's nurtured her internal voice of what's best -- her "Mother's Intuition" -- plus she does her research and consults with experts. And she doesn't apologize or get depressed when others criticize her -- she laughs about it. And she's as pleasant, funny, happy, confident, and centered as she seems on TV.

After all, if we've lost our sense of humor in this kooky journey of parenting, we're in trouble. So thanks for the reminder, Tammy, and good luck with your new show! I can't wait to watch the first episode, this Tuesday, January 25 on WeTV, at 10 pm Eastern.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

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

Psychological Milestones: Why Your 4-Year-Old Is So Awesome

I'm really enjoying our 4-year-old. He's sort of an "Entry-Level Kid" -- no longer a squirelly toddler, he can join in the group for some fun, manage his feelings pretty well, and tells silly stories that have us rolling.

Common parenting wisdom has remedies for the "Terrible Twos." But they leave out the "Terrible THREES," which can be mighty tough.

Three-year-olds are really just glorified toddlers who still need a lot of special attention, and are prone to frequent meltdowns, tantrums, and making wacky demands.  But the difference between three and four is huge -- and hugely fun.

 

Here are some of the major emotional developments that come along with being four. Your 4-year-old can:

  • smoothly enter into new play situations without much help from you
  • start to be responsible for small, regular chores like carrying his laundry to the laundry room
  • take turns and share (most of the time)
  • create elaborate, vivid play scenarios, and stick with them for longer
  • be goofy beyond belief, and play around with silly words and "jokes"
  • boast and brag with the best of them
  • "use his words" more often than resorting to violence
  • start to follow rules (and even insist others do so)
  • enjoy family outings and trips more than ever

But it's not always rosy. Some 4-year-old challenges include:

  • tattling, name-calling and complaining
  • resorting to whining and tantrums when tired, sick, or overwhelmed
  • trying to change the rules mid-way through games
  • "lies" -- still can't understand the difference between "truth" and "fiction" -- and won't, until age 6+

No matter the challenges, it's a special time -- and I'm making the most out of it. Soon, he'll be starting school, and sometime in 1st grade his focus will shift away from family -- and towards school and peers. It's really our last chance to enjoy the special, intense, close parent-child bond before he starts launching into the wider world. (Sniff! I'm going off to have a little cry now -- for my awesome boy who won't be little forever.)

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Parenting Tips: More Thinking Points

 

One of the reasons I produce BabyShrink is that I've had to learn the hard way with my own 4 kids -- what works, what doesn't -- and why. Those of you who know me know that my doctorate in Psychology, and a license to practice in two states, didn't get me much closer to answers. Doing a ton of research -- practical and applied -- has gotten me to this point. Why should YOU have to go through all that effort to reinvent the parenting wheel? Believe me, people -- it CAN be easier -- and a lot more fun. Keep these things in mind as you confront the seventy bazillion or so parenting challenges you face each day:

TEMPERAMENT makes a big difference. Your child's inborn nature: whether he's irritable, easy, shy, or bold (among other things), will shape the way he deals with your guidance -- especially when he's young. Pay close attention and figure out his temperament -- it will help you decide what's best for him. For instance, an "easy" baby might be pressed to give up his Binky at 6 months. An irritable, easily overstimulated little guy might be given a pass until age 2 or even 3.

AGE makes a big difference. Sleep issues (among other things) change dramatically over even a few weeks. A newborn isn't a 3-month-old, who isn't a 9-month-old, who certainly isn't a 3-year-old. You shouldn't expect your newborn to put himself to sleep -- nor should you try. But it's very reasonable to work on it with your 12 or 15-month-old. Vary your approach based on age.

FAMILY NEEDS make a big difference. Culture, style, the state of the parents' relationship, and personal preference matter. If you don't mind co-sleeping -- if it works well for your family -- great. But if the baby keeps you awake, interferes with your relationship, or you just don't wanna -- then DON'T. Your baby takes his cues from you, and he'll be fine either way. It's the "trickle down" theory of family happiness.

And now I hope you browse around for specific tips on your questions -- potty training, bath time fears, sleep issues, behavior, sibling stuff and more.

Here's another Thinking Points article, if you're interested.

(And I hope you like some of the new changes here at BabyShrink!)

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Child Devlopment: How To Play Your Young Toddler (12-18 Months)

Those of you long-time BabyShrink readers know that my Baby #4 is now officially a toddler. She's toddling, lurching, and careening around the house like she owns the joint. And now that she's officially past her "baby" days, her brain is going through a big burst that allows her to tackle more organized and complicated projects. It's why she now enjoys "working on" toys, as opposed to just chewing on them, or looking at them.

Your young toddler can remember more now, stay focused for longer, and is eager to try out her rapidly improving motor skills. She's also getting interested in trying to imitate you. She can't "play pretend" yet -- when she picks up the play phone and jabbers on it she's not pretending to talk to grandma (yet) -- but she's imitating YOU. It's an important step towards creative play -- which is the watershed development that leads to the ability to think and work creatively all her life.

You have the opportunity to make the most of this incredible time of development. Don't make yourself nuts by thinking you have to provide a ton of educational "stuff": simple things (and not too many of them) work best. Make yourself available to play with her, when she's receptive -- strike a balance between staying out of her play, and overwhelming her with your own play agenda. Follow her lead. When she picks up the dinosaur and looks to you questioningly, use it's name -- and offer a play option. "That's a dinosaur. Do you want to put him on top of your block tower?" Acknowledge her interest, and suggest a creative direction. It's called scaffolding -- letting her set the pace, but giving her a "boost" to build up to the next level of complexity in play. But don't push it -- you're there as a benevolent observer, and part-time participant.

Be ready to add these elements to your young toddler's playtime:

* Add another character, so that the play becomes about people and relationships.

* Add another object so that things can function in relation to each other. Think prepositions -- put something On Top Of, Underneath, or Inside.

* Modify the pace of play, based on her energy level. If she's getting too wound up, introduce some slower action. If she's not interested, try something new.

And most importantly, have fun!

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Sleep & Nap Issues: When Your Toddler Looks Tired -- But Won't Nap

It was 2 pm, and my toddler STILL hadn't gone down for her nap. Routines were followed, milk was drunk, and the house was quiet (no small feat around here, I assure you). She was rubbing her eyes, complaining -- but plowing ahead. Throwing her little arms in the air, she was chanting, "Up! Up!"

Some of you are pretty mellow about your toddler's nap schedule. But I'm the type who has to have "mellow" beaten into me with the stick of experience. "Toddlers are supposed to nap. Go to sleep, toddler of mine."

Not always that easy, is it? Turns out, none of my 4 babies ever read the Weissbluth or Ferber books, and they totally failed the "How Many Hours Per Day Babies Need To Sleep" test. They didn't follow those rules, and I was left fretting that something was wrong (and trying to soothe an overtired baby).

But guess what? I'm up at 3 am writing this post. Why? I can't sleep. I did my nighty-night routine, but my BabyShrink work beckoned me from bed. Your baby has important work to do, too. Sometimes, it's more important than sleep.

But what does a poor parent do with an obviously sleepy (but not napping) toddler?

Here on my 4th baby, I've discovered some important truths about nap schedules:

* The best-followed routine doesn't always work. Sometimes a nap simply isn't in the cards.

* Yes, an over-tired toddler sometimes means a cranky and difficult afternoon. But often, your toddler can rally and make the most out of the day.

* Toddlers are notoriously wacky about following nap schedules -- some more than others. Focus on nighttime sleep, and an earlier bedtime when there's no nap.

* Some parents attempt to hang on to that second nap for too long. If she used to be a good napper and now isn't, experiment with dropping the nap.

* Yes, I know: Sleep is important to a baby's brain. But as with food, parents need to focus on the overall amount, over time. A bad day ( or week) of sleep isn't going to do any lasting damage (except to us).

Now it's off to bed for me. If you're still awake, go and read more about your toddler's sleep challenges here.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert