Goal-Directed Parenting

What are you parenting for? What do you want your child to become, to be like, when they are 18?  When they are 20?  When they are 30?  What goals do you have for your child?  What type of adult do you want to produce?

If your child is young, you are likely thinking “Who cares! That is many years away!”  And it may be far away now, but the skills your child needs for success as an adult are built step-by-step, starting with infancy and continuing until they are an adult.  Over time, as your child ages, you have less control over what influences your child. When they can start to go places without you and read what they choose to read and watch what they choose to watch, your influence has begun to wane. You need to make hay when the sun shines and be thinking long-term when it comes to shaping your child into the adult you want them to be.  

Most parents tell me they want their child to be healthy and happy when they are grown.  Many add they want their child to go to college or have a good career.  Some mention wanting their child to have healthy relationships.  These are great goals- but if you only start thinking about them when your child is 17.5, you are in trouble.  

What skills does a person need to be healthy?  Well, your child will eventually need to know about eating healthy foods, how to cook a healthy meal, and exercise regularly.  Obviously your aren’t going to teach an three year old how to cook major meals, but can your three year old help in the kitchen by tearing up lettuce leaves for a salad?  Can your eight year old help you layer the lasagna?  Can your 13 year old be taught how to scramble eggs?  Over time, the skill of “eating healthy” and “cooking” are gradually taught in age appropriate ways so when your child is grown, they have that skill.

Most parents want their kids to be mentally healthy and happy.  Mental health skills can and should be taught throughout the lifespan. In the early years, your child learns by watching you- so be sure you are modeling appropriate behavior.  Talking to your child about how you are handling emotions is also crucial.  You can say to your young child, “Mom is a little upset, so I’m going to take a few deep breaths.”  That is a great way to help your child connect a feeling (“upset”) and a coping skill (“taking a deep breath.”)  Kids imitate the skills they see their parents using (including the unhealthy ones! So be warned.) 

Other mental health skills client need to learn from parents are things like “how to talk to someone when you are upset” and “how to solve a problem using words.”  When your child has a conflict with someone (maybe a sibling or friend) help your child find the words to explain what happened and what he or she was thinking and feelings, then help your child communicate that.  Find opportunities to teach those skills, starting young, and continue doing so throughout your child’s childhood.

Also find ways to encourage independence, starting at a young age.  Your kid should learn how to spend a night or two away from home starting in elementary school.  Camps or scouts can provide that opportunity.  Your child should learn how to talk to “official” adults, such as clerks in stores and the school secretary when in elementary school, or maybe even preschool.  Start this young and don’t let excuses such as “my child is shy” get in the way.  If your child has genuine anxiety, then you will need to do more teaching and get your child appropriate help, but avoiding the task all together just increases fear of the task.  

When you think big picture about long-term goals for your child, you start to see that everything is a learning opportunity for your child.  Children are sponges for information and the course of a child’s life is easily swayed by the right supports at the right time. If you are unsure what supports your child needs or if you are struggling with how to help your child with certain tasks, the sooner you seek help, the easier it will be for your child to be successful.  As they say with planting trees “The best time to plant a tree was 10 years ago. The next best time is today.”

So, Why Art Therapy?

Why art therapy?  I get asked this question from time to time.  It usually comes from people who know art therapy exists and have a vague idea what it is for (unlike my parents’ neighbors who asked me if art therapists “fix bad art” when I told them what I was going to grad school for.)  But why art therapy is a good question.  Why not talk therapy?  Why not play therapy?  What is special about art therapy?  I have my own ideas about this, although other ideas are equally valid.  The following is my top reasons for “Why art therapy?”

1.        Art is non-verbal. I’m a hyper-verbal kind of person- I love my words, I love my books.  But when it comes to emotions, I can talk about them without feeling them.  In therapy that is bad news, as you are trying to process emotions, not words.  Art allows me to access emotions in a very real way and then talk about them while I am feeling them.  It allows my client’s to do the same, particularly children who may not have as many words as adults do.  Often, I end of teaching specific emotion-words to kids who can draw and describe a feeling, but may not know the word for the feeling of “happy, but sad too, cause I know I can’t have him back” is “bittersweet.”  Then the child has more words to use to express him or her self, along with a visual vocabulary of symbols, colors and pictures. 

2.       Memories are often formed in pictures.  This is particularly true of traumatic or negative memories.  We remember in pictures, in visuals, the hardest of our memories.  We often then ascribe words to the pictures, but the words may feel incorrect.  I have visual memories from when I was 3; they are not easily described in words and seem more real when drawn.  When I try to talk about certain memories, it is the visuals that cause me to feel emotions.  That is valuable for therapy. 

3.       Art is permanent and exists beyond the session. Kids forget things left and right.  Heck, I forget stuff too.  But an art piece tied to a skill, idea or moment in therapy, it is easier to use the skill, hold onto the idea or relive that moment of connection.  Art serves as a cue and as a transitional object for kids. 

4.       Art is fun.  Therapy, on the face of it, is terrifying.  “Hello, child, I am someone who you get to tell your deepest fears to and we are going to talk about your worst self-perceptions and memories!”  I have always got butterflies in my stomach when I go into a therapy session; why do we expect kids to be any different?  Art makes therapy less like a doctor’s visit and more like a joyful moment, something to look forward to in a week.  That isn’t to say therapy isn’t challenging, but making it joyful as well is key increasing a child’s (or adult’s) engagement in therapy. 

These reasons are my reasons; they matter to me and are the reasons I chose to be an art therapist and use art therapy with my clients.  If any of this resonates with you, consider coming in for a session and seeing how an art therapy approach could benefit you or your child.   

Consequences, Not Punishment

 Many parents ask why I use the word ‘consequences’ instead of punishment.  In my opinion, consequences are not the same as punishment.  The difference?  Punishment implies that the parent (or teacher, or whoever else is interacting with the child) is imposing something on the child.  Consequences, on the other hand, imply (correctly) that the outcome is what it is because of choices the child is making. 

However, to be a consequence, not a punishment, a few things have to be true.

  1. The consequences must be established before the child has chance to misbehave.  So Mom or Dad needs to say “If you hit your brother, you will have to go to your room.”  If Mom or Dad just screams “GO TO YOUR ROOM” when the child hits his or her brother, that isn’t a consequence, it is a punishment, because the child isn’t choosing to hit his or her brother knowing what the result will be.
  2. Consequences need to be consistent and unchangeable.  Like when an apple falls from the tree, it hits the ground, so too should the rules be clear and unchangeable.  If a child can whine, beg and plead to not go to his or her room after hitting a sibling and Mom or Dad lets him or her stay in the living room, then it isn’t a consequence.  If Mom or Dad can change it on a whim, it is a punishment, not a consequence.
  3. There should be both positive and negative consequences.  That is to say, if a child chooses to play nicely with his or her siblings, the consequence of that is that he or she gets to stay in the living room and Mom or Dad praises him or her.  And that should always happen when a child plays nicely with their sibling, just as fighting with a sibling should always get a child since to his or her room.

Consequences are a parent’s friend.  They remove the sense that the parent rules by fiat.  Instead, the parent just enforces consequences that are as immutable as the laws of gravity.  Consequences, as opposed to punishment, also help kids develop an internal locus of control (a sense they have some control over the world).  Research shows that kids who have an internal locus of control have less depression and anxiety-after all, they have control of themselves and, to a large degree, their actions dictate what happens in their world.  Consequences are helpful to kids, even if they are not enjoyable.    

To set up consequences, follow these steps. 

  1. Choose a problem behavior (Johnny hitting his sister)
  2.  Come up with a consequence for the problem behavior (When he hits his sister, Johnny has to go to his room for 10 minutes)
  3.  Come up with the positive opposite of the behavior (Johnny plays nicely with his sister)
  4. Come up with the consequence for the positive opposite (When Johnny plays nicely with his sister, he gets verbal praise)
  5. Explain to the child in age-appropriate language this system. (Johnny, when you choose to hit your sister, you will have go to your room.  If you can play nicely with your sister, I will be proud of you and tell you that!)
  6. This is the hardest step: Follow through!  You (and your co-parent if applicable) must follow through after you talk to your child.  Expect the first couple times to the hardest.  Once your child knows the system and consequences for behaviors, the negative behaviors will decrease.  But you must be consistent no matter what.  No matter if there is company, it is Christmas day, it is your child’s birthday party- no matter what, the consequences must be enforced. 

If you need help setting consequences, consider coming and talking to me.  I can coach you through setting consequences for your child that are reasonable, enforceable and efficient at meeting your goals for your child. 

When Older Kids Have Tantrums: 8-12 Year Olds

So your older school-age kid is throwing fits?  Or breaking things? Or hitting others?  While older kids are less likely to have tantrums or get really upset to the point of hurting things or people, it isn’t that unusual.  A lot is changing in their young lives!  School is getting harder, parents expect more, teachers expect more, friendships get more complicated.  If your child is struggling with fits, throwing things, full-on tantrums or fighting with siblings, you will want to figure out what is going on and find ways to stop this behavior now. Here are some ways to get started.

1.        Sit down with your child to talk about this- but not after something has just happened.  Pick a time when your child is calm and you are calm.  Tell your child you are trying to understand and promise you won’t punish them for what they say about why they are doing these things.  Keep that promise. Help your child identify warning signs they are getting mad.  Do they feel different in their body?  Do they notice their voice change?  What do you as the parent see?  Help your child decide what safe things they can do when mad, sad or frustrated.  Can they go to their room?  Can they read a book?  Can they swing on the swing?  What would help and what is a realistic option?

2.       Remind your child to use these skills when you notice they are starting getting mad.  Do it in a neutral tone of voice and not as a punishment. You might want to offer a reward if your child uses a coping strategy.  Don’t expect your child to turn into Mary Sunshine when they are prompted to use a coping skill either!  They maybe grumpy about it and that is ok- grumpy is better than throwing a fit!

3.       Have clear consequences for negative behaviors, but don’t let your child know if you are upset when you are giving them.  A neutral tone of voice when telling your child about a consequence is key!  Also, be realistic about consequences. Parents who tell their 10 year olds “You are losing the X-Box for a MONTH” drive me crazy.  At 10, they aren’t going to remember at the end of the month why they lost that X-Box.  Trust me, I’ve asked them.  They forgot what they did to lose the X-Box, meaning they are likely to do whatever it was again.  A day or two is sufficient, with the bonus of when they get the X-Box back, it is again something you can take away.  If you take away TV, the computer, time with friends, the tablet, playing outside and sports, all for a month, your child has no incentive to start being good that month.  They are already miserable and know it won’t get better for a month.  Why not torture mom and dad? 

For kids 8-12 with behavior problems, I often use CBT and DBT exercises, as well as coaching for you, the parent.  CBT lets us figure out more about your child’s emotions. How big are they?  What warning signs does your child see or feel?  What coping skills work?  How can your child alter his thoughts to change the way he feels. 

Mindfulness, a DBT skill, increases awareness of the self and has some coping skills to offer as well.  For you as parent, I will help you learn to stay calm and in control and set up reasonable consequences.  No one is going to enjoy you giving consequences.  But the right consequences, given at the right time, for the right behaviors, will decrease those behaviors.  At the same time as we focus on decreasing undesirable behaviors, we will look at positive, healthy behaviors and find ways to increase those. 

More about consequences later! 

Tantrums, Not-Listening and Negative Behaviors: What Parents Can Do

If you are reading this, you likely know a child who doesn't listen.  Maybe your child struggles to follow directions or has regular tantrums.  When a child won't listen or throws tantrums, parents have to take action.  Most parents feel helpless in dealing with this behavior in their kids.  Maybe you are scared of your child.  Maybe you are scared of your reaction to your child.  Maybe you blame yourself.  Whatever you are thinking and feeling, you must act to address the behavior.  

For kids in the 3-7 age range, often this behavior is a way of expressing emotions or testing limits.  Sometimes it is both!  First thing to do is identify what triggers this behavior.  If you can identify people, places or activities that trigger extreme reactions, you can take one of the first steps, which is to modify the environment.  Maybe that means no late-afternoon play dates if having a friend over too close to nap time leads to tantrums.  Or maybe that means that the park, however much fun it is, is too much for your kid at this time- we can work on your child being ready for it over time, but for now, put that trip on hold while you prepare your child for that intensity.  

Somethings can’t be modified though- for instance, you have to shop for food and you may have no choice but to bring your child to the store with you.  If that is the case, setting expectations and rewards up for a trip to the store can be crucial.  Tell your child what is going to happen, then offer a simple reward if he or she stays safe and calm.  For instance, “Johnny, we are going to the store to buy milk and bread.  I need you to stay by me in the store.  You can hold my hand or ride in the cart.  At the checkout, I will pay for the groceries.  You can help me by carrying the milk out of the store.  When we get home, we can play a game of your choice if you stay with me the entire trip.”  Notice that the expectations are couched in positives “you need to stay with me” vs. “don’t run away.”  

Notice that Johnny is given a choice- hold the hand OR ride in the cart.  That gives the child some say in HOW they obey.  Notice also, the reward comes right after the trip, so Johnny can associate “staying with Mommy” with “I get to play a game.”   As a pro-tip, make the reward rely on ONLY ONE BEHAVIOR.  Focus on one thing at a time- that keeps your child from being overwhelmed.  Even if Johnny cries on the way home, if he stayed with Mom at the store, he gets the reward of play time. 

My motto for this kind of situation is: Prepare your child, give limited choices and reward the good behaviors.  

When helping young kids with this kind of behavior, I focus on coaching parents on how to address the behavior.  I might use Helping the Non-Compliant Child, a parent and child coaching program that targets those kids who just won’t listen.  We set up structures, predictable routines and times for positive interactions between parents and children.  Contact us for more information on this approach or to get help with parenting. 

Next week I'll tackle not listening and tantrums in older school kids.  

Welcome! And News!

This month marks the beginning of the launch of my private practice, Cedars Creative Therapy.  This blog is my space to talk to folks about my practice and offer help for families struggling with their children's behaviors.  I hope to address topics such as bullying, autism, behavior problems, anxiety and more from an art therapy and evidenced based practice lens.  I hope each post is both helpful and illuminating.  Stay tuned for a weekly update on therapy and helping others.