Twins And Postpartum Depression: Amber’s Story

postpartum depression twins-min

“Recent research pinpoints hormonal imbalance as the cause of PPD, making mothers of multiples particularly at risk for this condition due to the increased hormonal fluctuations that accompany their pregnancies. The intensified demands of caring for two, three or more infants make it even more likely that a mom of multiples will feel overwhelmed, drained or depressed after her babies are born.” ~ Multiples.about.com

There are times I look back on the early years with our twins and wonder if I had some form of postpartum depression. I didn’t think I had anything at the time, other than exhaustion, anxiety, irritation at my husband and the occasional bouts of depression I had battled all of my life.

Whether it was full blown PPD, I can’t say for sure. However, given that some research shows that 43% of mothers of multiples experience Postpartum Depression, it’s certainly a possibility.

Recently a mother in my multiples club shared her story of PPD and kindly agreed to let me interview her here. Amber Weitz is a stay at home mom to 28-month old twin boys, Connor and Jake. She is also a photographer and former Photo Editor at People Magazine and Berliner Photography.

Please read Amber’s story and, if you are moved to do so, share your own in the comments. If you have resources to share, please add them as well. The more we recognize the symptoms of PPD, the more likely we are to reach out to friends and family to help.

The more we see our own behaviors and experiences in others, the more we know we are not alone.

The Twin Coach: What were the early days with your babies like?

Amber Weitz: For me, it was very difficult to recognize the difference between sleep deprivation, the complete life changing event of having a baby (much less, twins) and depression. I truly thought I was going to go crazy when my boys were around 3 months old and still not sleeping more than 2 hours at a time. Their sleep was getting worse, not better. I was doing the nights by myself because my husband needed to sleep in order to work 12-15 hour days. We were all barely surviving. I was keeping it together on the outside because I loved my boys and needed to be strong for them, but I was falling apart on the inside.

It turned out that my husband had the male version of postpartum depression during the first two months. He had a very difficult time adjusting to our new life. I was 38 and he was 52. We both had lived long lives of being able to do exactly what we wanted to do at any given time up until that point. Having twin boys with colic knocked us into oblivion.

I just didn’t expect it to be that hard.

TTC: Had anyone told you and your husband what to expect with having twins?

AW: I remember attending an Expectant Parents Meeting and listening to everyone talk about hiring nannies and night nurses, and I was thinking that they were all crazy. How hard could it be? But, once the boys were born, I was constantly irritated at my husband for not helping enough or being able to predict what was needed.

I had to have a heart to heart with him to explain that I didn’t get pregnant alone and that at some point he had wanted these babies, too. I was pissed off that he expected me to thank him for every little thing he did. I told him he wasn’t just helping me, he was the dad and needed to jump in and just “do.”

It didn’t help that he dropped one of our boys on his head at 8 weeks old. He was paying more attention to our dogs than our infant so the baby slipped and landed on his head on cement. I spent the rest of the day in the ER with doctors running tests to check for brain damage. Talk about adding to the stress!

My husband hadn’t bonded with our babies and didn’t know what to do with them. All they did was cry, eat and poop. They were blobs to him. He didn’t have a drop of paternal instinct in him and I had to teach him everything (not that I really knew what I was doing, either). During those first 8 weeks, I could see it in his eyes; he just wanted to jump out the window and escape. I could read his mind, “When will I ever play volleyball again? When will I surf again? When will I get my life back” It was so bad that we had to stage a family intervention. Around this time I realized that I blamed my husband for contributing to my PPD. In order to move on, I needed to forgive my husband for his lack of baby knowledge, for having PPD himself, and for dropping our son.

That was my first step toward healing.

TTC: What did you do to try to make things better in the beginning?

sleeping-minAW: I sleep trained my boys at 5 months and they were sleeping through the night by 6 months. By 7 months, they were sleeping 11-12 hours each night. 6-8 hours was not good enough to me, I went for the full 12 hours. I needed the break and the sleep. I was overwhelmed by all the tasks that went along with taking care of twins on a daily basis – the feedings, the dishes, pumping, supplementing, changing diapers, dressing, bathing, simply being “on” all the time.

I had a lot of anxiety which went along with these tasks. Even leaving the house brought on anxiety. I didn’t believe in myself as a mother, I didn’t think I could do it all, especially alone. We ended up hiring a nanny at 4 weeks to work 1.5 days per week, though I wish we had hired a night nanny those first two months. I was mad at my husband because he got to escape and have adult conversations. I almost went back to a job I hated because it was a lot easier than staying home with my babies!

TTC: Was there anything that you feel may have made you more vulnerable to experiencing PPD?

AW: My 17-year old sister died in 2007 of unknown causes. I was absolutely devastated for years afterward. She died a week before my bridal shower and 3 weeks before my wedding. She was supposed to be my maid of honor and was leaving for college the next week.

Looking back, I know I was in and out of depression due to her death and also not being able to get pregnant. We started trying right after her death because I wanted to create a life, not to replace my sister, but to bring something positive out of a tragic event. It took us 3.5 years to get pregnant.

After every test, I was diagnosed with “unknown infertility.” Five failed IUIs later, we decided to try IVF. I had a sonogram prior to my first round of IVF which detected three uterine polyps. Once those were removed, we proceeded with IVF and two months later, I was pregnant with twins! We were elated!

I had a fairly easy pregnancy and loved being pregnant. Feeling my boys kick and constantly move around was the best feeling in the world! So, to go from that feeling to having crying, colicky twins and relatively no sleep was a shocker. I wish I had known that my earlier bouts of depression, plus all of the drugs I was given during fertility treatments, could contribute to my having PPD!

TTC: What made you realize your level of stress wasn’t typical?

AW: What is a normal amount of stress when raising two infants at the same time? It felt normal at the time, given the circumstances. In the past, I had seen news items where a mother killed her children due to Postpartum Depression. The stories I heard always seemed to involve parents forgetting their children in the car, moms who couldn’t be in the same room as their child, and more extreme cases. That was what I thought PPD was, not what I was going through!

Recently I watched the trailer for a documentary called “When the Bough Breaks,” which is what inspired me to finally write down my thoughts. Awareness is key, even if it is after the fact. If you can look back and think, “Wow, I was not in my right mind,” you have made progress.

Once my boys turned 1, I still wasn’t back to normal and I knew it. I did everything I could to get back to “normal” on my own, including stress relieving acupuncture, Neuro-Emotional Technique (NET), and massages, but I was still depressed. I also saw a therapist, sought hypnotherapy, and received a handful of readings from psychics. I finally sought help through my doctor and he prescribed anti-depressants. After several different prescriptions, the feelings of being overwhelmed and anxious were finally gone.

TTC: How did things change for your husband?

AW: Once my boys developed personalities, started walking and playing sports, my husband finally bonded with them. I never would have thought it would take that much time. Unless men, or sometimes women, have grown up around younger siblings, taken care of babies, changed their friends’ babies diapers, they don’t always have that instinct most women have.
My brother and sister were born when I was a teenager. I felt like I had already been a mom because they were so much younger than I was. I changed their diapers, babysat, took care of them until I left for college.

My husband’s postpartum depression may have shifted naturally, but I think our family intervention helped. My mom, brother, and brother- and sister-in-law gathered in our living room and said the words I couldn’t. They told him how he was making me feel, how he needed to become a dad and help more with the babies. They were so good at not making him feel backed into a corner. His moods and attitude started to shift from that moment.

TTC: Why are you sharing your story now?

AW: I realize it’s a very sensitive subject, which a lot of people don’t want to talk about. I have never seen a post on our multiples club forum about postpartum depression, nor do friends, other moms, or family tend to talk opening about PPD. I remember a friend of mine mentioning she had postpartum depression, but it was after the fact. She was able to tell me stories after she had already gone through it with both of her children – and it was extreme. I wish someone, anyone, had clued me in on the many different forms PPD could take. Even a hint would have helped.

Just remember, you can only reach out for help when you are ready and self-aware. You are not alone! Be sure to get help if you feel like you are drowning.

TTC: Are there any tips or resources you can offer friends, family and parents of multiples themselves to be aware of so they don’t suffer for as long as you and your husband did?

AW: Therapy is a good first option. I know it is difficult to get out of the house, but make time for yourself. Talk to fellow multiples moms and dads. I think a good percentage of parents have some of the symptoms of PPD. If you don’t have a close friend or relative you can talk to, get help through a therapist.

Be sure to join a multiples Mommy and Me class and a multiples club/playgroup. It is so important to have the support of other parents in your same situation. I bonded with many moms over how difficult it was to take care of two babies in those first few months. Leaving the house used to be very difficult, now I don’t think twice about it. My playgroup has been instrumental in helping me overcome my fears. I can’t stress enough how supportive a playgroup and fellow parents in a multiples club can be. It has been a truly amazing experience and now I want to help other parents!

If you do not feel like you are experiencing any symptoms of PPD in the first 6 months, hooray! But be aware of late onset PPD, which can present symptoms up to one year later or sometimes more (like me). Once my boys were sleeping through the night, I didn’t understand why I still felt overwhelmed, anxious, and angry. It became worse between 12-18 months. Maybe I had a form of PTSD from the first 6 months. My hormones may have gone crazy once I stopped breastfeeding at 12 months. Or I might have had premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) or been in early peri-menopause. Either way, the symptoms were the same. If you are experiencing sadness, depression, anxiety, feelings of being overwhelmed, extreme moodiness, irritability or anger, please talk to a doctor.

Fear Is What We Must Unlearn: Mindfulness And Happier Parenting

I went to bed, crying, the other night.

I told my husband it had been a bad day. The children argued often. Our daughter was especially difficult at various moments. I lost my temper too much. No one listened to what I needed. It felt as though everyone, including the dog and cat, wanted something from me every single minute of the day.

I felt disconnected, both from my family and from myself. It was my son’s special night to fall asleep in our bed with me and when the lights went out he was on the far side of a king-sized bed feeling like I didn’t want him there.

So he cried.

And I cried.

This, Too, Shall Pass

Recently, on a Facebook page I moderate for families with neuro-diverse kids, I was having a conversation with some friends about the phrase, “This, too, shall pass.” Parents use it often in jest when talking about tough moments with their children. Sometimes for parents of a neuro-diverse child it does seem like perhaps their kid will always be “that kid” and maybe “this” won’t actually pass. Maybe, you think to yourself, I will always be taking my child to different therapies every day of the week. Maybe my child will never be comfortable making friends. Maybe my child will always struggle with being especially anxious and rigid.

Fear Talking

The fear of “what should be” can take over for some people. This is not just for parents of special needs kids. I know plenty of parents whose kids are typically developing and yet, the parents get themselves tied up in knots, thinking “she is never going to eat vegetables!” or “he is always so shy with other kids, how is he ever going to make friends?” Or “He should be potty trained by now, why is he still in diapers? ”

You may notice, in your more mindful moments, that what happens when we start speaking like this is that most likely there is a little commentary that comes after those worried sentences that you say only to yourself:

“She is never going to eat her vegetables and I am afraid she is going to develop terrible eating habits and get fat and have cavities and feel terrible about herself!

“He is always so aggressive with other kids, how is he ever going to make friends? I am afraid that no one will like him and he will end up being a bully and have no friends and maybe he will blame me and maybe I am a terrible mother because I don’t know how to help him!

“Why is he still in diapers? His brother was potty trained at this age…is there something wrong with him? Maybe he has a terrible delay that I have missed! Maybe it’s my fault! I should be doing more/less/something different than I am doing!

I often refer to this as “Fear Talk”. The insidious thing about it is that we aren’t even consciously aware that we are Fear Talking. Because these are sentences we don’t dare say out loud for fear they will come true or for fear they will make us look crazy. They live somewhere in our subconscious. But Fear Talk can make us lash out at our children or we internalize the emotions this talk creates and we erupt in myriad other ways. We let our fear take over and it has a mind of its own.

But if we did dare, if we did say them out loud, we could really understand the things we fear when our children’s behaviors push our buttons.

The night I cried myself to sleep I think I had gotten caught up in feeling as though my daughter’s difficult behaviors were never going to change. Going through my head were phrases like “she is never going to stop overreacting!”, “she always refuses to take other people’s perspectives!”, “she makes everything so difficult!”, “She’s being mean and obnoxious to her brother!” Additionally, I fall into a habit I like to refer to as SHOULD-ING: “she should be different than she is”, “she should be less obstinate”, “she should do what I ask her to do without throwing a fit”. But where does shoulding-ing on my kids get me?

Pay Attention As The Weather Changes

Obviously, I know in my heart that our daughter doesn’t always do anything. And I know, logically, that focusing on how I think things “should be” doesn’t help and only makes me miserable about what IS. And really, truly, I know she is struggling with a lot of things that cause her difficult behavior. But, in tough parenting moments when her emotional challenges make even the smallest conflict into a cataclysmic event, I sometimes have trouble being logical. I get triggered. and my negative frame of mind can take over in such a way that I get stuck feeling like my life is just a big, black cloud of crap.

And it will continue to be crap.

Forever.

I know many of you struggle with those same sort of thoughts – whether it’s depression, exhaustion, stress, overwhelm, special needs kids, single parenting – whatever it is, it’s not easy to drag yourself out of that pit you keep digging with your Fear Talk and should-ing. “I am afraid I will never be the mother they need”, “I am afraid they will end up on the therapist’s couch talking about how I ruined their lives”, “I am afraid to tell my husband that today was so hard because I don’t want to give him anything else to stress about” “I should be able to handle this without losing my temper” “I should be a better parent/partner”…there are so many variations.

you are the skySo, I do know my life isn’t a big, black cloud of crap.

There are moments I feel like it is, but if I don’t latch on to those moments, they really do pass. It is sort of like watching the weather. We can lay back and notice the sky or the temperature changing and we simply notice it. We don’t give meaning to the weather; we don’t try hold on to a beautiful day because we fear it will never come back. We don’t curse the storm as it happens, because we know it will ultimately pass. There is no should-ing. Weather just is. Hot sun, cool wind, blistering cold, dark nights…they are backdrops to our daily existence.

So are our emotions.

To be mindful of our emotions means, in essence, to notice them as they rise up, to be aware of them as they shift, pass on and new feelings show up. Like the clouds. These emotions do not need to have meaning attached to them. There does not need to be Fear Talk. The process of noticing an experience with my daughter as she is expressing herself in a rigid and anxious manner might go something like this:

When she acts this way, I feel so tense! I feel angry!
I notice my heart beating fast.

When she rolls her eyes and sticks out her tongue I feel like throwing something. My hands are clenched.
My body feels so tight.
I feel the urge to yell.
I feel the urge to change her behavior.
I notice how much I want to do something.

That is curious to me.
Why do I need to do something?
Deep breath.

I need to remember who she is and what my goal is.
Deep breath.
Remember what you love about her.

I notice how small she is.
My body is feeling more calm.
I feel sympathy for how hard this can be for her.
I remember that she struggles with so much.
I feel softness in my face and jaw.
I want to help her.

All of this is in my head and can take many minutes from start to finish. Because it still doesn’t come so naturally to me, I am not always able to accomplish this intention of being so present with my daughter. But because I know what extreme anger some of her behaviors trigger for me, I have to set a real intention to make mindfulness a part of my daily life.

The more I practice, the easier and the more automatic being mindful in such a stressful environment becomes. But mindfulness needs to be practiced for its own sake in stress-free situations, not just when there is an urgent need for it, so that one gets a feel for it. Only then does it becomes a resource.

Mindfulness practice is greatly aided by choosing to set time aside regularly to meditate. There are always other pressures, many responsibilities and lists of things to get done that take precedence over just sitting, or just walking, in a mindful manner. However, that kind of practice provides a base, or anchor, for remaining mindful when habitual tensions or reactions are triggered.

Finding Sunshine Amid The Clouds

The funny thing is, I have been trying to write this post for about a month but kept getting stuck because I didn’t know what point I was trying to make. But today, now that I finally got back to it, coincidences are hitting me over the head about the point I am trying to make.

Rachel Macy Stafford’s blog, “Hands Free Mama” is a favorite of mine. Yesterday she shared a post called “Thank You Not-So Pleasant Moments In Life” in which she wrote about finding a new perspective:

“…discover life’s daily blessings among the distractions and challenges of life. I call this approach “Glimmers of Goodness.” Because having a full and complete day of goodness is hard, maybe even impossible, with life’s daily stresses of children, bills, schedules, deadlines, responsibilities, and pressures. But finding Glimmers of Goodness within a day is possible—even when you are irritated, annoyed, or frustrated. In fact, it is in times of overwhelm that I can find these bright spots most easily. It may sound odd, but I’ve been taking each not-so-pleasant experience or feeling and thanking it. And from that place of gratitude, I find a Glimmer of Goodness.”

hardwiring happinessAnd because I’m sitting in jury duty today (hence the free time to actually write a long-delayed blog post) I am also reading Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence which has been on my “must read” list for a while. Strangely enough, this book is not simply about brain science (one of my geeky loves), but it is also about mindfulness.

In the early pages of the book, the author reminds us that we must not only observe our minds in order to get past worries, stress, anger or sadness, we must actively seek out positive experiences – what he refers to as “growing flowers” in our brains – so we increase our inner strength and ability to handle tough times.

“Merely witnessing stress, worries, irritability or a blue mood will not necessarily uproot any of these. […]the brain evolved to learn all too well from negative experiences, and it stores them in long-lasting neural structures. Nor does being with your mind by itself grow gratitude, enthusiasm, honesty, creativity, or many other inner strengths such as calm and insight that enable you to feel all your feelings and face your inner shadows even when it’s hard” ~ Rick Hanson, PhD

So, focusing on the “shoulds” and the Fear Talk keeps our brains – and thus, ourselves – rooted in the experiences that make us suffer. Instead, noticing the good moments (or thanking the no-so pleasant moments) and being aware of them for more than the fleeting second we usually zoom past them, helps us ultimately cultivate the sort of brain that stays connected, peaceful and dare I say…happy…during times that would have previously sent us flying into tantrums and tears.

Happiness Revealed

This 2011 TedxSF video from Louie Schwartzberg originally planted the seed for this post. As I watched it, I heard these words from Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast:

“Look at the sky. We so rarely look at the sky. We so rarely note how different it is from moment to moment, with clouds coming and going. We just think of the weather, and even with the weather, we don’t think of all the many nuances of weather. We just think of good weather and bad weather. This day, right now, has unique weather, maybe a kind that will never exactly in that form come again. That formation of clouds in the sky will never be the same as it is right now. Open your eyes. Look at that.”

After watching this beautiful video numerous times, I sat with that quote and something in my mind prompted me to replace the word “sky“, with the words, “your child“. I then replaced the word “weather” with “behavior“. And so I began to think about her good weather, her bad weather and her unique weather.

Was I really seeing it?

Or was I simply should-ing it?

Parenting Children With Explosive Temperaments: An Interview With Dr. Ross Greene

As you all know I have reached a new level of understanding about our daughter’s challenging behavior, in part due to discovering Dr. Ross Greene’s book, The Explosive Child. I was thrilled to have the chance to interview him for my latest contribution to The Mother Company.

An Interview with Ross W. Greene, Ph. D.

Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of raising twins so far has been learning how to parent children of the same age with two drastically different temperaments. Our daughter is one of those kids who has been described as willful, bossy, rigid, oppositional, and more. For parents with children like this, the sense of overwhelm can be incapacitating and the comments from outsiders that you must not be disciplining your child enough can be disheartening. I was honored to recently have a chance to interview Ross Greene, Ph. D., Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of The Explosive Child. I asked him to shed some light on how to understand and parent a child with such challenging behavior.

What are the differences between explosive anger and a more common kind of anger in young children?

On a technical level, the differences involve frequency, severity, intensity and duration. These are typically the hallmarks that make something diagnosable as opposed to something more typical. However, this is not the most important question for people who are concerned about their children’s behavior. The truth is, what is concerning to one parent may not be as concerning to another. Some people have a higher tolerance to certain behaviors and may respond less reactively, thus adding less fuel to the fire. What needs to be asked is, “is my child’s behavior negatively impacting him or her and our family?”

Why are some children so easily frustrated and “chronically inflexible”? Is this sort of temperament genetic? Do children tend to outgrow the behavior? Are there typical triggers?

We all want what we want. Kids who are not behaviorally challenging can get what they want in an adaptive fashion. But not all children have those skills, thus they try to get what they want in maladaptive ways. As a parent, assuming your child is not using their skills on purpose is a losing place to operate from. But if you assume a child doesn’t have the skills to get what they need in an appropriate way, you are never going to go wrong. You will not be a pushover. You are not a wishful thinker. You are not having the wool pulled over your eyes. Instead, you are being compassionate and are able to treat each situation as a moment to connect and teach. Children do not choose to explode any more than a child would choose to have a reading disability.

I wouldn’t count on children outgrowing their temperament. As time goes by, skills may be acquired and sometimes, just because of maturation, they are better able to handle what previously set them off. As for the genetic question, a child’s temperament is 100% nature and 100% nurture. That is, some kids are wired so that they are more vulnerable, but these genetics are also influenced by the child’s environment. Such things as maternal stress or the foods a mother ate while pregnant might have an effect. It’s impossible to answer this question accurately, but more importantly, it doesn’t change what you, as a parent, need to do to help your child.

Triggers are different for every child, but typical ones often include homework, chores, bedtime, waking up in the morning, hygiene, screen time and food. It’s important for parents to get a clear picture of all the instances in a child’s day that cause him or her to be triggered. Additionally, every doctor needs to be open to the full range of factors that influence a child’s behavior. Although these are not the most common factors, I have seen them often enough that I would be doing a disservice not to mention that looking at possible sleep disturbances, blood sugar levels, thyroid issues and food intolerances (particularly to gluten) can sometimes make a difference in improving a child’s behavior.

What are a few specific tips for parents, to help a child who has an explosive temperament (both during the explosions and during the calm between the storms)?

During the storm what you need to focus on is diffusing and de-escalating the storm. You can’t reliably and predictably solve challenging episodes when you’re in the midst of them. The calm between the storms is the time to work on what will maintain the calm so the storm doesn’t occur. Parents must figure out what lagging skills a child has that lead to unsolved problems. These lagging skills can include things such as:

  • Difficulty expressing concerns, needs, or thoughts in words.
  • Difficulty managing emotional response to frustration in order to think rationally.
  • Difficulty considering a range of solutions to a problem.
  • Difficulty handling transitions, shifting from one mind-set or task to another.
  • Difficulty handling unpredictability, ambiguity, uncertainty, or novelty.

Lagging skills are why kids explode more easily, more often and in more extreme ways than your average child. Unsolved problems are the specific things a child explodes about. Once you have identified the lagging skills and unsolved problems, you can work toward solving them proactively and collaboratively with your child. And yes, even very young children can do this!

Let’s say your child has 10 unsolved problems that cause him to lose control. Choose 2 or 3 that are causing the most episodes. You may find that just solving these 2 or 3 problems reduces 70 – 80% of the challenging episodes. Once this happens, parents notice that their child isn’t always challenging and they then have an easier time seeing that their child is actually lacking skills. They are able to see their child in a more empathetic light, which has the effect of changing the dynamic of their relationship.

Can the standard way of thinking about behavior and discipline work with a child with an explosive temperament?

Studies show that typical interventions such as time outs or reward charts are ineffective. Once the intervention is removed, the challenging behavior returns. In addition, many of the children with challenging behavior are simply lacking the skills to do the tasks demanded of them. Punishing a child for not having a skill is counterproductive and using stickers to try to coerce a child into a desired behavior if they don’t have the developmental skill to do it, makes no sense. You wouldn’t expect a toddler to be able to tie his shoes simply because you promised a reward. However, if you collaboratively solve a problem it improves both the relationship and the communication and that problem no longer triggers the challenging behavior.

Solving problems collaboratively involves the following:

  • Figure out unsolved problems.
  • Prioritize problems.
  • Figure out your child’s concern.
  • Find out why he/she is not doing well on activity or demand.
  • Put adult’s concern on the table.
  • Put heads together to collaboratively solve the problem and address all parties’ concerns.

Do these children do well in typical educational and social environments? Are there special precautions parents can take to make these environments more conducive?

Some challenging kids do well in environments when they have the specific skills to meet the demands being put upon them. But when they lack the skills needed, the challenging behavior surfaces. Knowing your child, knowing both their skills and their lagging skills allows you to try to put them in situations where they can succeed. If your child is in a situation where she doesn’t have the skills to be successful, then you have to make sure she has the support to navigate those situations so she can eventually do it independently. For example, you wouldn’t simply ask a kindergartener to do long division and tell him “you’ll have to do it some day, so you might as well get used to it now!” No, you would provide the scaffolding of learning all the steps that come first so that he would eventually be able to do the complex math problems on his own. It’s the same with social skills. You need to remember that not every child develops his social skills at the same time, just as every child develops their skill at math at different times.

What do parents need to know about parenting a child with these sorts of challenges?

The most important thing to remember is to be responsive to the hand you’ve been dealt. Focus on the hand you’re holding, not the preconceived notion of what you think your child “should” be. That is, parents should be asking, who is my child? What skills does my child lack? How can I be more responsive to my child? If you had a child who couldn’t walk you wouldn’t spend all your time trying to find ways to get him to walk, you would, instead, focus on making life as simple and easy for that child as you could. It’s the same with a child who has lagging skills and challenging behavior. Find ways to improve the child’s chance of living a happy and successful life without trying to change who that child is.

Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the originator of an innovative, proven approach to solving problems collaboratively, as described in his highly acclaimed books The Explosive Child and Lost at School.

Connection, Empathy And Respect. Parenting The “Challenging” Child

There are many strategies recommended by “experts”, pediatricians, family and friends for shaping children’s behaviors. We have all been told to try reasoning, redirecting, reassuring, maybe even ignoring, rewarding or punishing. Some of these methods work some of the time. Others work as long as the threat (or promised reward) is present.

empathy and challenging behavior

Along the way I fortunately found mentors and friends who taught me that empathy, respect and connection were the keys to peace and happiness in my home. But as my children neared the end of preschool, I realized it wasn’t working as well with our daughter as it was with our son.

My husband, frustrated by our daughter’s hour-long tantrums over seemingly insignificant disappointments, her increasingly aggressive behavior toward me when she was raging, her extreme anxiety over separating from me, and what he saw as rude and obstinate behavior, began to worry that “this empathy thing” wasn’t working.

In my heart, I knew his sense that what she might need was for us to be more firm, to put our foot down, just wasn’t right. He didn’t insist on it, but her challenging behavior was getting worse and was taking all of our time and energy.

I knew what she needed was compassion, but I also knew things couldn’t go on like this. So much of what worked with our son, or with my clients’ children, wasn’t working with her. I started doubting myself and doubting the way I had been parenting.

Connection-based parenting works like a dream with our son. He and I have an wonderfully connected relationship. Of course he occasionally does stuff that makes me nutty, but I can talk to him about his behavior, I can explain how it affects other people, and he (most of the time) can change his behavior or help me to understand something he needs in the moment that’s causing him to act out. He feels totally at ease about telling me when I have hurt his feelings and will ask for what he needs from me to do a repair. Connection, empathy, respect. It works.

Except when you need more.

moody girlOur daughter is often a world of difference from her brother. My connection with her is deep and warm and wonderful. But at around age 3 and a half, I noticed it had taken on a clingy and desperate feel. Where he is outgoing, comfortable in social situations and makes friends easily, she can be anxious, shy and rigid. It’s not merely a tendency toward introversion, which I have myself. I think it often goes beyond that to a state of real agitation. On top of it, I began to realize that she was not making friends on her own and I began to wonder about her social skills.

What do you do when you have a child who isn’t developing in the usual way and has extreme difficulty handling transitions or shifting from one thing to another? What about when your child has no ability to take a broader perspective about their behavior or can’t fully grasp that the way they act affects those around them? What about a child who has intense difficulty beging flexible or seeing multiple solutions to a problem? When you have a child like this, do the usual methods of parenting work?

Well, yes. And no.

In the last couple of months I had what amounted to a revelation about our daughter. Having spent countless hours pouring over articles, researching methods, visiting specialists, consulting psychologists and changing diets in an effort to help her, I suddenly realized that what I was, in fact, doing was trying to change her.

The thought struck me one afternoon, “What if she is always this way?”

All along I have been trying to do all of these things because I thought if I hit on the right combination she would be “fixed”. She would be more like her brother. She would be easy. But maybe this is just who she is. Maybe what she needs is not to be fixed, but just to be understood and to be accepted. Maybe what I needed to be doing was to find ways to make life easier for her, not me.

This change of thought along with realizing that my daughter wasn’t just being willful, wasn’t just being obstinate, but actually had lagging skills in certain areas completely shifted my perspective. I no longer had the same frustration when she lost control when we didn’t have a particular food she wanted or when she would blow her top when I asked her to stop drawing because it was time to leave the house. I understood…really understood…she couldn’t help it.

“Kids [like this] do not choose to explode any more than a child would choose to have a reading disability. These kids lack crucial skills required for handling life’s challenges. There’s a big difference between viewing these kids’ explosions as the result of a failure to progress developmentally and interpreting them as planned, intentional and purposeful” ~ Ross W. Greene, Ph. D.

the explosive childDr. Greene’s book, The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children has been such an eye opener for me. Whereas before I saw her behavior as being willful or obstinate or rude, now I understand that she actually doesn’t always have the skills to meet her needs. Things like problem solving or being flexible, which I totally take for granted in her brother, just aren’t so simple when it comes to her. She’s not being inflexible on purpose. She just doesn’t have the developmental skill to do it yet.

It’s been extremely challenging to work on this because up until now it’s nothing I had ever had any knowledge of. If a child misbehaved, I just assumed more connection and more empathy was needed. But sometimes there is more to it. I knew children could have speech and motor delays, but I just didn’t realize the sort of behaviors she had trouble with fell into the category of developmental delays.

And what about outsiders? When they see her screaming at me or melting down, they may think I am too permissive a parent and that my daughter is spoiled and throwing a temper tantrum because of that. It’s bad enough to feel I am being judged as a mom, but I can take it. Knowing that my daughter is also being judged is another story.

This journey has made me exquisitely aware of how everyone has things that they struggle with. For some, the struggles are obvious and perhaps that makes it easier for us to have empathy for those people. Sometimes the struggles are commonplace and we feel some comfort in knowing “it’s just a stage”. But for others, the struggle is internal, invisible, less obvious from the outside. When the struggle results in behaviors society deems unacceptable, what are we to do?

All I know is that I will continue to parent with connection, empathy and respect. It just turns out that our daughter needs it in an even deeper way than I thought.

Finding Help For the “Difficult” Child

For those of us parenting a more intense child, a more needy child, a more emotional child, a child who is just….more, there are days that can feel so overwhelming and so unending that perhaps you may want to just crawl into a hole and hide. Or you find yourself yelling, losing your temper, losing the connection with your child.

I know. I’ve been to all those places.

grumpy girl

Our daughter is one of those kids. Of course she’s delicious, kind, innocent and I love her deeply. And she makes me bat shit crazy sometimes. Much of this blog has been dedicated to me being as brutally honest with myself about my own triggers, behaviors and reactions, as well as learning better ways to relate to both of our children in an attempt to create more harmony in our home. And frankly, in order for me to also help our daughter find some peace in her own mind and body.

She was always a little more of everything than her brother was. Her demands got more difficult around the time she was 2 1/2. By the time she was 5, I was pretty much losing my mind as her tantrums had become so long and so intense. Her oppositional behavior, reactivity and anxiety ruled our days so often that I felt depleted, resentful and desperate.

No matter how much I gave her, she wanted more. She was like a vessel full of holes…always empty. She would rail against me and then clutch at me desperately if she succeeded in pushing me away. I could feel she was in pain, but she made it so hard to comfort her. She had built a wall 10-feet thick to protect herself.

Many parents have children who go through difficult phases which make the parents want to tear their hair out. It feels like it goes on forever, but generally it’s a developmental phase and with some support and some knowledge in how to respond effectively, these phases do tend to pass eventually and the sun begins to shine again.

And then there are those of us whose children have sunny days, but the storm clouds seem to take over more frequently or for longer and longer periods. I know there are many families who struggle with conditions and issues far, far worse than what we are dealing with. Yet, I do think that for each family where a child needs some special help, no matter the details, the struggle feels insurmountable until you discover those small miracles that let you find your child again.

This is all very hard to talk about and there is a part of me that wonders if I am sharing too much of what is her story to tell. Yet, like everything I write about, I am working through my own feelings and ideas in an effort to get myself to the other side.

And I imagine there are many of you reading who can relate to the struggles we have. I am still searching for answers, but we have begun to have some real breakthroughs. In the hopes of helping others, I wanted to share our story.

Western Medicine, But Mostly A Shift In Perspective

We have been to numerous psychologists, a developmental pediatrician and a social skills therapist in trying to uncover what would work best for our daughter. Each helped a little and although I’m very happy not to have a diagnosis of something “wrong” with her, it’s was frustrating to know she needed help, but to not have a script or plan to follow.

Although each visit gave me another piece of the puzzle, I felt like I was in a fog. There were answers out there, but I felt blocked and fuzzy-headed. One morning I opened my computer and this quote caught my eye:

“It is true that a highly insecure child can be exhaustingly demanding of time and emotion. The parent may long for respite, not more engagement. The conundrum is that attention given at the request of the child is never satisfactory; it leaves an uncertainty that the parent is only responding to demands, not voluntarily giving of herself to the child. The demands only escalate, without the emotional need underlying them ever being filled. The solution is to seize the moment, to invite contact exactly when the child is not demanding it.”
~ Gordon Neufeld & Gabor Mate

happy brainThe very first words shifted my perspective on our daughter in an instant. “The insecure child”. I hadn’t considered her attachment to me to be insecure. I didn’t understand how it could be because I spend so much time with her. But it all made sense.

In many ways she was unsure of how I felt about her because I had such a hard time remaining connected through her explosive behavior. As a result, she felt unloveable and unworthy of being loved. She expressed this by constantly testing me to if she could push me away and, sad to say, she often succeeded!

I totally understood how Neufeld and Mate’s words would work. I had tried having “special mommy time” with her before and when I did it on a consistent basis I saw what a huge shift it had made in reducing her neediness and clinginess, but I hadn’t linked it to the fact that what I was really doing was offering connection when she wasn’t asking for it!

Hand in Hand Parenting’s methods for Staylistening have been lifesaving in working with our daughter’s oppositional and reactive behaviors. I only wish I had found this approach sooner. Staylistening allows children to express huge emotions and experience the release that comes from having them, while feeling safe and supported because a loving, connected parent is close by.

Understanding that I didn’t have to fix her feelings or stop them, but rather that I could just support her, was a game changer. Additionally, their course No More Hitting, which gives insight into hitting and aggressive behavior children often exhibit, helped me understand so much more clearly what was going on behind the tantrums.

Because I could shift the way I was responding, our daughter became able to express big emotions but the explosions didn’t last as long. There wasn’t the same irritation on my part, and I no longer always have the desire to run away from her when she seemed rigid and unyielding. I began to see things in a different light and that simple shift of perspective of my part shifted behavior on her end. It’s amazing how children are so exquisitely sensitive to our moods and energy.

Eastern Philosophies And A Reconnection

Happy girl collageI began to wonder what else needed a shift. I decided a difference in doctoring might be helpful. We went to see a board-certified family medicine doctor who also practices various types of alternative medicine including energy work, allergy elimination and Oriental medicine.

I read an article in which this doctor was quoted as saying, “Western medicine asks, Why are you sick? Alternative medicine asks, Why are you not healing?” Yes! This is what we needed more of.

We found that both of our children had food intolerances and when the offending foods were removed from her diet, our daughter’s mood swings radically lessened. She still experienced difficult periods, but they were decidedly less awful.

I realized I was going down a path that was working. Traveling this way was slower and had some twists and turns, but I knew in my heart it was the right path.

The next step was reconnecting with the healing work I used to do. I took our daughter to see a man who was one of my teachers way back when I used to practice various types of energy work. I signed our daughter up to receive a polarity therapy session from him and even though I knew what it entailed, I wasn’t sure what to expect for her.

Polarity therapy, very basically, allows for integration of mind, body and spirit. When our thoughts, emotions and physical body are out of alignment, energy imbalances occur. This results in physical, mental or emotional dis-ease and is a signal for us to learn, change and realign our lives.

I was nothing less than floored by her reaction to his work. She liked him instantly and proceeded to lay on his table for almost a full hour without squirming, complaining or even talking. When he was done, she sat up with flushed cheeks and a faraway look in her eyes. Then she jumped off the table, ran to me and gave me a huge hug.

Afterwards she was joyously happy…like, dancing and singing happy. She had a huge emotional release that evening when out of the blue she turned to me saying her throat hurt and just started crying. She cried and cried for no apparent reason and just lay on top of me, receiving comfort during the episode, which was so unlike her usual behavior. For two weeks after that she was more cuddly and more affectionate than she had been in ages.

We’ve since been for 3 more sessions of polarity therapy and each one has has provided her a subtle shift into feeling more integrated. None were as dramatic as the first, but the results were wonderful, nonetheless: more happiness, more peace, less raging behaviors, less flying off the handle for the smallest reasons. It was easier and easier to feel more connected to her. And I have to believe it was easier for her to be with her emotions.

The Last Piece of The Puzzle?

mischievous girlThings were so much better, and I wondered if I would be pushing my luck to try anything else with her. So far she was enjoying visiting all these different people and we were getting along so much better and there was much more peace in our home. I often feel that when things show up in your life, there is a need to pay attention to those things. And that is how we found flower essence therapy.

Basically, flower essences are a form of vibrational therapy, like homeopathy, derived from the flowering part of plants. They generally expand and shift our consciousness to help us see beyond our normal limitations and struggles and offer insight and new perspective on why certain challenges are happening and what we can do about them.

I consulted with a practitioner who integrates Co-Creative parenting with flower essence therapy and based on her observations of both of our personalities, our communication style, and the patterns of emotional resonance as well as frustration in our relationship, she prescribed certain essences for both of us.

Again, I was amazed at the results. I expected them to be so subtle I wouldn’t even notice. And, frankly, the few people to whom I mentioned I was doing this thought I was bananas. But that first week after we started the essences, our daughter was incredibly loving and happy. She must have told me she loved me a hundred times that week, something she doesn’t do nearly that often.

During this third week, she’s remained calmer and seems to be having a much easier time handling change and disappointment. The most amazing part of it though was that, again, she got a terrible sore throat that lasted for 4 days and caused her to almost lose her voice. I assumed she was sick, but she really had no other symptoms. On the 5th day of her constant coughing and croaking, after having written this post, I remembered the sore throat she had after the first polarity session.

I sat with her and held her close and began to talk with her about her 5th chakra which is housed in the area of your throat. This chakra, among many other things, has to do with expression and finding “your voice”. I told her about how I used to have so much trouble with my 5th chakra and held back from talking about my ideas and what I wanted because I was afraid, embarrassed, and ashamed.

I spoke for only about 2 or 3 minutes, but she sat with me, listening quietly. This evening I remarked to my husband that I hadn’t heard her cough all day and that her sore throat was completely gone. It’s as if it needed acknowledgement and it cleared. Who knows?

It’s all a work in progress, but I’m really impressed with what we are experiencing so far.

As for me, I have been having incredibly vivid dreams since starting the flower essences. The most powerful one involved a moment with our daughter in which I felt I was seeing her scrubbed clean and fresh, shining and happy. I leaned in to whisper in her ear how proud I was of who she was. How proud I was that she was unique and just herself…like no one else. She looked up at me, smiling and radiant.

Learning and Healing. Not Just Her, But Me, Too.

The Co-Creative parenting practitioner we saw for the flower essence therapy said something that has stuck with me since:

“Parents have the ability to bring healing to their children with their openness and the soul searching they undertake out of love for their children. Our ability to grow alongside our children, whose growth we nurture so ardently, is a key factor [in this healing process]”.

I don’t know what the future will bring. We’ve just started on this alternate road. But what I can tell you is that after perhaps the most difficult few years of my life, I feel at last as if something has shifted subtly.

I feel at last as if I am able to be the mother she needs. I feel as though I am healed enough (not fully, but enough for now) so that I can see her clearly. My daughter has taught me more about myself than I ever thought I could learn. I have worked incredibly hard in the last 5 1/2 years on understanding myself so I could be a better parent to her and to be able to say I truly am proud of the unique person she is.

I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher than my daughter. I am so grateful to be learning right along with her.

Parent Like Someone Is Watching

You know that famous saying that begins “Dance as if no one is watching you”? The idea being that we might be our true selves and live happier lives if we weren’t so self-conscious. But what if what we really need is someone watching over us to make sure we are constantly striving to be our best selves?

This morning I recorded one of my numerous, frustrating interactions with my daughter. I recorded it, at the suggestion of my therapist, both to help me keep my tone of voice where I want it to be, as well as to help dissect what I am doing that is prolonging the battles. Listening to the play back makes me sad. The one conversation I taped lasted 8 minutes. 8 minutes spent arguing about eating more food after she had already finished eating breakfast. 8 minutes spent asking her to speak to me without whining. 8 minutes spent trying to keep a calm voice, not roll my eyes, not sigh deeply out of frustration.

And that is only the 8 minutes I recorded. I spent 30 minutes earlier trying not to engage in a battle about her family obligations (otherwise known as chores). But I got very angry with her during that half an hour. So, I decided to start recording the next time a power struggle started. I often pretend there is a camera on me, with the thought of “how would I act if someone was filming me?” I want to be my best self with my children as often as I possibly can. Sometimes pretending that someone else is watching or listening helps me control my tendency to “flip out”.

me and my girlOne of the aspects of engaging in these battles with our daughter that I hate the most, is how they affect our son. On the tape where we’re discussing food, he’s in the background trying to get attention in the midst of it in the way he’s figured out works the best – by teasing her. Teasing her takes the focus off of her and gets it squarely on him. Even if what lands on him is parental irritation. When he’s not teasing her, he tries to get the arguing to stop – often by reminding mommy to “be kind” or saying “I don’t like when you talk to her like that, mommy”. He protects her when he’s not teasing, and his reminder for me to “calm down” is like a pause button. His quiet voice rings loudly in my ears, somehow cutting through the whining and crying sounds belonging to his sister.

I worry that her battles with me are some convoluted way to get me to pay more attention to her. I worry that my kids are going to end up polarizing themselves as “the good one” and “the naughty one”. I worry that he will ultimately resent her for taking up so much of my time and attention. I worry that as she gets older our struggles will drive us apart when what I want most is to understand her and help her be happy.

Although I sometimes pretend there’s a camera watching me, as I wrote about this, I was thinking about the idea of “the observer” and that there is something in all of us that is aware of everything we do. There is always a part of us that is aware of right and wrong, and aware of right action and selfish action; although often, in the moment, we choose to ignore this awareness. This observer can be thought of as the “still, small voice” of our conscience. So, just as my son’s voice cuts through the chaos and stops me in my tracks, tuning in to this inner voice can help me do the same. If I think about it, I don’t need a camera crew to keep me on the path I want to be on, but I do need to remember that someone is watching. And that this someone is me.

What about you? Do you ever get that sense of being outside of yourself and looking in? Are you able to stop yourself mid-tantrum? Would recording your interactions with your kids help you? I’d love to know your thoughts.

A Little Brain Science Can Help Us Raise Children Who Thrive

what's going on bookDr. Tina Payne Bryson began her Whole-Brain parenting workshop last Sunday with a mention of Lise Eliot’s book “What’s Going On In There: How The Mind And Brain Develop In The First Five Years“. I haven’t yet read this book (although I do have her later one, “Pink Brain, Blue Brain”), but from what I understand, one of Eliot’s main discussion points is about the critical role that experience (and thus environment) plays in shaping the brain. This review on isi.edu gives a good synopsis:

“A baby is born with (almost) all of its neurons, but very few connections between them. The baby spends [the] first few years (especially the first two) growing these connections, called synapses – many millions A SECOND – and also busily pruning them. Only those synapses that are stimulated by experience or practice will be preserved – the rest will be eliminated. All of our experiences, knowledge and understanding are encoded in the brain by a pattern of synapse strengths….If repeated experience is not provided during the critical period of some portion of the brain’s maturation, it will forever loose its functionality”.

This explanation of the connections and pruning was made explicit by a projection Dr. Bryson showed of the neural connections in the brain at 3 different ages – newborn, age 6 and age 11. An infant has many millions less connections than a child does by age 6, which Dr. Bryson pointed out is obvious if you have ever tried to have a conversation with a 6-year old: everything is connected for them, everything leads to something else. By approximately age 11 for girls and age 12.5 for boys, their brains are in the “pruning stage” where whatever they are not using withers and dies, allowing their brain to become lean, mean and more focused.

Early brain development

What determines what gets cut and what becomes wired into our brains? Our brain is shaped by genes and experiences. Neurons that fire together are wired together. For example, if you have ever had the experience of eating (or drinking) too much of something and getting sick, you are likely no longer able to eat or drink that particular item because of the association your brain has. The same thing happens with experiences.

Parents and teachers are “brain architects”. The times we are imperfect help our children’s brains become structured for forgiveness and repair. In other words, when you have a “rupture” with your child like a fight or a loss of patience, it is so important to go immediately to repairing so that what is wired in your child’s brain is not something like “when I show my big feelings, it is dangerous for me”, but rather, “when I lose control, I am still loveable”.

Left Brain/Right Brain

For the first 3 -5 years of your child’s life, their right hemisphere is dominant. From 5 – 7.5, their left hemisphere takes over. And from 7.5 – 11 or so, the right is once again more dominant, but the shift is less dramatic. When I began studying child development one of the pieces of information that helped me the most was learning about a child’s stages of disequilibrium (most often occurring during the half years). Dr. Bryson pointed out that Dr. T. Berry Brazelton believes that these states of disequilibrium often coincide with micro growth spurts in the brain. Knowing that there is a good reason for your child’s difficult behavior can be very helpful in being more understanding of it.

The left hemisphere specializes in:

  • Logic
  • Linear
  • Language
  • Literal

The right hemisphere specializes in:

  • Autobiographical memory
  • Senses, Emotion
  • Random
  • Non-Verbal
  • Whole Picture Context

So What #1?

I loved that Dr. Bryson would periodically stop and say “So What?” as if to mean, “So, what does this mean to me? What am I supposed to do with this?”. After all of this information about early brain development she laid out the “So What”:

Connect, then redirect

When children are experiencing what Dr. Bryson referred to as an “emotional tsunami” we, as parents, tend to do a lot of talking. Too much talking disregulates the child further. Instead, connect from your right hemisphere to their right hemisphere: pull your child close, use non-verbal communication, use a soothing tone of voice, show empathy, use your facial expressions and empathetic talk to show you “get it”. This helps regulate your child so they can calm down. Once you’ve done this then begin to use your left brain to offer solutions, planning and give logical explanations.

Help them tell their story

When a child gets hurt, either physically or emotionally, they both need and want to know why, but they can’t access this information because they are in such an intense emotional state. They need you to tell the story of the trauma. This is when reflective parenting can be very helpful: “You were really having fun playing with that toy and when sister took it away you got so mad. You were so mad you were screaming and kicking and then you started to cry”. You are connecting to the left brain by putting things in order and assigning words. But you are also connecting to the right brain by giving autobiographical information, showing the whole context and detailing emotional information. This helps wire the brain to see that something happens, you talk about it and then you make sense of it. This method can be very helpful with tantrums.

Why Do Kids Misbehave?

right-brain-left-brainWhat are your biggest struggles with your kids? Do these sound familiar?

  • Impulsive
  • Unpredictable
  • Defiant
  • Selfish
  • Takes foolish risks
  • Never know what will set them off
  • Mood swings
  • Wants to do things his/her own way

I’ve written a lot about my own triggers. Dr. Bryson suggests giving some thought to your children’s triggers for misbehavior:

  • Low blood sugar causes stress hormones to be released
  • The need for stimulation. This can cause discomfort in the brain and a child can appear anxious and have the need to move vigorously. This movement actually releases serotonin which calms the brain.
  • They are communicating a need.
  • Your stress and frustration. Kids will pick up on this so quickly.
  • Growth spurts
  • Experimentation/testing boundaries
  • Releasing/expressing big feelings
  • Brain development

So What #2? Rethink Discipline.

Discipline is not about consequences. The point of discipline is to teach. Every time your child does something wrong it is an opportunity to teach them how to do it right. Every time your child misbehaves:

  • They are communicating: “I need to build skills in this area!”
  • Think about what skills are lagging
  • Think about what the triggers are for the problem that is occurring
  • Think about what needs to be developed
  • Remember that their brain is still developing
  • Use the phrase “you’re showing me you still need practice doing ___”

In working with our children this way, we are helping our children develop the skills we hope them to have: sound decision making, rational problem solving, being able to regulate their emotions, having personal insight and reflection, and being able to face their fears.

My Amygdala Made Me Do it!

Dr. Bryson discussed the “downstairs” or “primitive” brain which is made up of the brain stem and limbic system, and the “upstairs” brain which is made up of the frontal lobe and mid prefrontal cortex which is where more reasoned thinking takes place. This is the part of the brain that does not develop fully until age 23 in girls and age 25 in boys.

When fear and/or anger happens, the downstairs brain hijacks the upstairs brain. Because this area is still developing in our children, it is easily taken over by the more primitive and reactive part of the brain.

Upstairs Tantrums, Downstairs Tantrums

tantrum

There are different types of tantrums, which are controlled by the different parts of our brains. These two types call for different styles of response from us. Here, Dr. Bryson separates the two:

Upstairs:

  • Manipulative and controlling
  • Child can be reasoned with
  • Child can still make choices and is still in control
  • Parent should respond with an emphasis on authority (with warmth)
  • Set boundaries and limits with emotional responsiveness

Downstairs:

  • Loss of control, in distress/miserable
  • Reasoning doesn’t work
  • Stress hormones are raging
  • Can’t make choices
  • Parent should respond with comfort
  • Emphasize warmth with authority

So What #3?

Give your child practice using their “upstairs” brain. Here are some suggestions on how to develop it:

  • Offer choices or negotiate
  • Emphasize empathy (Ask: “how can you make it right” if they have hurt someone else or misbehaved – this gets them thinking from another’s perspective)
  • Emphasize personal insight and reflection
  • Give them practice doing it the right way
  • Allow them to struggle and face natural consequences
  • Allow them to make their argument, listen to them, sometimes make a concession
  • Be present and intentional. Reflecting the situation gives your child language for the future. For example: “It’s
  • OK if you want to be upset. I’m with you while you’re upset. Let me know when you want to be a problem solver”. Later, once they’ve calmed down, you can say “You were pretty mad. Do you really hate mommy? You just didn’t have the words to tell me how you felt, huh? What could you do next time?”

Do Time Outs Work?

There are 2 questions to ask yourself when your child is having a tough time:

  1. What is the lesson I want my child to learn right now?
  2. What is the most effective way to teach that lesson?

When you operate from this frame of mind you are being emotionally responsive, yet setting limits. Time outs don’t work because they are just a punishment. Your child is not getting any practice doing things the right way. Conversation, not time outs, is often the most effective way to teach your children.

The question to ask yourself is what do you want to be wired in your child? For me it is: “When you go through big emotions, I will be with you”. Dr. Bryson suggests that punishing a child with methods like time outs only lead them to see rejection, isolation and that when things are emotionally hard, mom or dad isn’t going to be here for me.

the whole-brain child

The workshop ended with a short session of questions and answers about developing empathy, how to handle breakdowns in public and getting out of power struggles. I left Dr. Bryson’s presentation with a much better sense of what was going on for my children when they’re being “difficult” and I believe this understanding has made me more attuned and more respectful.

I realize there is a ton of information in both this post and the previous one I wrote about Dr. Dan Siegel’s lecture, but I just didn’t want to leave anything out. Dr. Bryson is a witty, inspiring and insightful speaker, I would highly recommend hearing her lecture if you get the chance. And again, her book with Dr. Siegel, The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Survive Everyday Parenting Struggles, and Help Your Family Thrive, is due to be out October 4th. Based on early reviews, I think this is going to be a must read!

So, what do you think? Does this information about how the brain develops and works seem like it could be helpful to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts about how you might use it or what questions it brings up for you.

8 Books That Teach Your Kids Emotional Intelligence

The term “Emotional Intelligence” has always resonated with me. It just makes sense to me that teaching my children to recognize, assess and control their own emotions and those of others, would help them grow up to be confident, resilient, self-assured people. There are many methods that help children develop this skill, one way is to share books that teach about understanding your feelings.

I’ve been wanting to write a post for some time about this idea for a number of reasons. The main one being that nothing helps cement an idea better for my children than hearing it read aloud from a picture book. As I began to think about which titles to include, I realized that I had put together a bookshelf of books that taught not just about emotional intelligence, but also other life skills and values that we think are important in our family.

Updated: February 01, 2018

Our Top Eight

 

ahns angerAnh’s Anger

It is about a boy who gets furious when his grandfather interrupts his play time, comes face to face with his own anger and eventually learns how to express and control his feelings. I love this book because it gives kids concrete ideas of what to do when they “meet” their anger (mindful breathing, moving their bodies to dispel the energy etc.), allows you to have conversations with your children about what they think their anger might look like or what they would do when their anger shows up, and provides a great model for parents on how to be calm and compassionate when children are experiencing such strong emotions.


today i feel sillyToday I Feel Silly

And Other Moods That Make My Day. I think the best thing about this book is that it covers a wide range of emotions. Reading it gives you a chance to point out that moods change from day to day (or moment to moment) and gives your child an increased vocabulary because we all know that we feel more than just mad and sad. Sometimes we also feel discouraged, grumpy, lonely and more. Laura Cornell’s watercolor illustrations are also very evocative and a great accompaniment to Jamie Lee Curtis’ rhyming verse.


my mouth is a volcanoMy Mouth Is A Volcano

While not technically about understanding one’s emotions, this is a great book to help your kids pay attention to their thoughts. The boy with the volcanic mouth is Louis and when he thinks of something he wants to say, the words wiggle and jiggle their way out and he ends up interrupting everyone around him. His mother finally teaches a fun method that helps him respect others and wait his turn. I can’t say my kids have perfected this technique, but the book has given them the language to discuss being interrupted, what it means to be patient and how it feels when you are desperate to say what you want to say. Plus, now my daughter says “you’re erupting me!” at least once a day, which is just too cute to correct. I don’t like that time outs are used in this book as a way to correct Louis’ behavior at first, but when we read it together I use that as a way to talk with our children about how we don’t do that in our family and why!


no matter whatNo Matter What

This is a sweet book that explores a child’s anxiety about whether his parent would still love him “no matter what”. The little fox (“small”) is very grumpy at bedtime and questions the parent (“large”): “If I were a grumpy grizzly bear,/would you still love me?/Would you still care?” or “…if I turned into a squishy bug,/would you still love me and give me a hug?” While similar to books like “Mama Do You Love Me” and “Guess How Much I Love You”, this one is still a lovely bedtime addition, especially for little ones, and it gives parents a chance to soothe this common childhood anxiety.


have you filled a bucket todayHave You Filled A Bucket Today?

This is another of my favorites and it has really helped give my kids language to discuss how being kind to someone else makes them feel. The concept of the book is simple: everyone has an invisible bucket that is filled up or emptied depending on how they interact with others. Being kind to someone fills up not only their bucket, but yours as well. After reading this book my children now often ask if they have filled their buckets when I compliment them for being kind and we can then talk about the emotions it brings up to have an empty bucket or a full one.


angry octopusAngry Octopus: A Relaxation Story

This funny story about an octopus that doesn’t know how to control his anger until a “sea child” teaches him to calm his mind and body using progressive muscle relaxation has been a hit with my kids since I bought it a few weeks ago. They love to pretend that they are the octopus and practice tightening and releasing all the muscles in their bodies. I haven’t tried it yet when my kids are angry, but it has worked wonders at bed time when they are over-stimulated and need help relaxing. I include it in the emotional intelligence list because it does such a good job of helping kids tune in and quiet their minds and bodies. With that skill mastered, they would surely learn how to recognize and control their emotions. If you like this book, be sure to check out the author’s site Stress Free Kids she’s got some terrific ideas to help with all aspects of parenting.


the grouchiesThe Grouchies

I downloaded this as a free iPad app, but it is also available as a paperback book. A 5-year old boy wakes up with grey, grouchy clouds which follow him all day through a fight with his sister, being mean to friends at the playground and an emotional meltdown at the end of the day. His parents are calm and understanding throughout and eventually give him the advice: “the grouchies could be strong and make their way sound good. But rude and grumpy actions are never understood.” Mom and Dad give him a handful of suggestions about how to ward off the bad mood next time. In the morning, he wakes again with the grouchies tempting him, but manages to head off with happy smiles using a plan to be kind to everyone. My children both were very interested in everything the boy was experiencing as it was all very relatable. The drawings are crisp, colorful and pleasant to look at. Best of all, for parents, is a terrific couple of pages at the end of the book with tips and advice on how to help our kids through grouchy moods.


feelings showRuby’s Studio: The Feelings Show

Although not a book, I would be remiss to not mention The Mother Company’s terrific DVD, Ruby’s Studio: The Feelings Show. This is a very cool show that helps young children understand, appropriately express, and move through their feelings. The show’s host, Ruby, guides children to learn about their emotions through art projects, music, animations and a puppet show. My kids absolutely adore this video and even had a chance to meet Ruby recently and make a “feelings book” with her which was a highlight for my daughter, especially. There are segments in the show that focus on anger, frustration, sadness and more. This is the first episode of what will hopefully be many more to come.


This is just a short list of some of the books we really like that have helped our kids explore their emotions. I’m always on the lookout for more. Leave a comment below and let me know what you think about these or suggest some others your family likes!

Cultivating Connectedness And Empathy For Your Child

Last week I had the chance to attend a lecture at Larchmont Charter School West Hollywood, with the director of The Echo Center which is located in Echo Park, CA. I had heard of this center for a long time (formerly called Center for Nonviolent Education and Parenting – or CNVEP), but had not had the chance to look into it deeply.

To begin with, the director, Ruth Beaglehole, is a fascinating woman. Her efforts to heal the emotional pain of her own childhood led to her to develop a remarkable understanding of children and parenting which she has shared with the world for more than 50 years.

The most important intelligence is Emotional Intelligence

Ruth-BeagleholeRuth began with her sense that the language used by parents, for the most part, is one of dominance. That is, parents always want to know how to discipline children and how to get children to respect adults. When we are having difficulty with our children there is often the desire to have immediate compliance which tends to lead to a sense of “I have power over you” or fear based dominance. We all may be familiar with the “I am going to count to three and if you don’t do x, y or z, there is going to be a consequence!” which usually comes from a parental feeling of frustration and exasperation.

Ruth suggests not looking at behavior as either “good” or “bad”. Instead, tune in to your sense of empathy and put yourself in your child’s shoes. Ask yourself, what was your child’s goal and what was she trying to do to achieve it? If you want to get to the real story, your child must “feel felt”, which is one of the major building blocks for emotional literacy. Remember, connecting with your child is not just done when a child is behaving the way you want them to.

Every experience is wired into the brain

In the early 1990’s it was discovered that the brain has something called mirror neurons. A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an person (or animal) acts and when the person observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.

Children must see, feel and hear empathy in order for these empathy neurons to begin to work. When a child lives in an “empathy drought”, as Ruth termed it, these mirror neurons never come on line. She continued to talk about how the brain forms new pathways until we die. Thus, even if one did not experience empathy from day one, it is still possible to re-wire the brain and create new pathways of trust and healing. This made me think of the wonderful farm out here in California called The Gentle Barn where severely abused and mistreated animals are rehabilitated and taught to once again trust and love. In turn, these animals are used to help children who also have been abused to begin to heal. Surely there are mirror neurons at work! More to the point, mirror neurons would be a lead factor in why modeling behavior works so well.

What level of compassionate health do you bring to your parenting?

Without mindfulness, we will simply parent the way we were parented. “Our ability to be in relationship to our children is not based solely on whether we had a good childhood” said Ruth, “It is our ability to have a coherent narrative about our life”. Thus, if you are the child of alcoholics or had a parent who was abusive in some ways, it does not mean you cannot be a wonderful, empathetic, caring parent. If you felt no empathy as a child, it doesn’t mean you can’t raise your own children to be empathetic, connected adults.

The ability to reflect on our own life experiences is the most critical factor in breaking the cycle. Without that, we respond to triggers and can have moments of shockingly intense anger towards our children. I wrote about my own triggers in a previous post called Motherhood: Otherwise Known As Therapy. If you find yourself reacting to something with a disproportionate amount of anger, you are almost certainly being triggered by something from your past. So what do we do when we’ve been caught up in that triggered moment?

Stop and reflect.

Ask yourself: how old am I right now? Why am I not able to be calm or feel connected?

Take ownership of your behavior and apologize.

“Mommy really lost it. I wasn’t able to hear what you needed and I can imagine how hurtful that might have been”.

Stop blaming.

For example, instead of saying “my child lied to me!”, reframe it as “my child used a really poor strategy to get what he wanted. Through empathy I want to connect to what lead him to do that.” You are not accepting the lying; rather, you are trying to find out what is beneath it. Again, once your child feels felt, the negative behavior is diminished.

Create a reflective, mindful practice.

This allows you to repair your childhood. When we are flooded, we are in our mid-lower brain and can’t access the higher brain which is where thought process happens.

Find a parenting support group.

The Echo Center offers support groups and I have a number of additional ones listed on my Classes and Clubs page. You simply cannot parent well in isolation.

Read the book Parenting From The Inside Out.

Dan Siegal, the author, will be speaking at The Skirball Cultural Center in June. I will let you know when I have more details on that.

How to cultivate connectedness

There were numerous questions at the end of the evening. For me, the most pertinent ones had to do with connection. There is so much going on in each day and we are all so rushed and busy and overloaded. How do we make the time we do have with our children really count? I found Ruth’s answers to be more like pearls of wisdom, as opposed to sound bites. Here’s what spoke to me the most:

  • Help your child recognize and tune into their feelings. Remember that behavior modification is ALWAYS a matter of regulation, not discipline.
  • Start your day with 5 minutes of connection. Instead of starting the day arguing with your children about getting dressed or making beds in order to rush out the door to make it to school on time, consider taking 5 minutes out of that day to sit and read a book or chat with your kids. Just 5 minutes of connecting makes an enormous improvement in a child’s mood and behavior.
  • Talk about the plan. Helping your child think through the day helps predictability get wired into the brain. This sense of security, coupled with emotional connection, helps an otherwise anxious or frazzled child move through transitions more smoothly.
  • Bedtime. Fill your child up with attachment at this very special time of day. Try not to rush through it with frustration and anger. Start early enough that there is time to unwind and time to spend together, connecting. Use bedtime as a time to hear about their day, what they were grateful for, what things happened and so forth. When a child is filled with connection, they are less likely to be needy.
  • When you just don’t have time. There are definitely times when you are just too busy to give your child all of the attention he or she needs in that moment. If possible, have a special notebook (or even just a Post-it) in which you write down all of their requests when they can’t be honored in the moment. As I discussed in my post last week about early literacy, writing things down gives your child a sense of how important something is. They know their needs mean something to you, even though you can’t get to them just that minute.

“Attachment and Connection is your insurance for the future. Much more so than compliance will ever be” said Ruth at the end of the evening and I do believe that to be so essential. From The Echo Center’s website: “In 2010, CNVEP underwent a branding change, and the same transformational work that Ruth had practiced for half a century now goes by the name The Echo Center. ‘Echo’ because of the geographical roots in Echo Park, but also as a metaphor: when we are kind, that kindness echoes long after we are gone. In other words, when we raise children with care, we raise children to care“. I love that metaphor…it does make me feel that all of the hard parenting work we do is carried on generation after generation, and there is so much of an opportunity to raise this generation of children to feel deeply loved, respected and honored. It gives me hope.

Science That Will Rock Your (Parenting) World

When I first read the book NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, I was blown away by the realization of how much I had been doing in the name of helping my children that was actually not helping and, in all probability, might even be holding them back. I couldn’t put the book down; I folded page corners and took notes, I talked about concepts with friends and family, I was hooked. One of the things I loved about this book was that the authors weren’t interested in putting parents down; rather, they wanted to open our eyes to the amazing scientific research that is out there that can help us all be more connected, effective and understanding parents.

art10860narLast week I had the good fortune to be invited to hear one of the co-authors of NurtureShock, Ashley Merryman, speak at a small gathering here in Los Angeles. In addition to being a journalist and author, Ms. Merryman is an attorney and was a speech writer during the Clinton administration. She’s also surprisingly funny for someone who spends so much time writing about science! She began her talk last week by stating that according to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85% of parents think it’s important to praise children for being smart. From the book, NurtureShock:

“The presumption is that if a child believes he’s smart (having been told so, repeatedly), he won’t be intimidated by new academic challenges. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short.

But a growing body of research — and a new study from the trenches of the New York City public school system — strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.”

Praise for intelligence works…until a moment of failure.

Merryman brought up the groundbreaking research done by Carol Dweck which began with a group of 5th grade students who were either praised for their intelligence or praised for their effort. Those praised for their intelligence ended up choosing to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed when offered a choice of simple or more difficult tasks later on. Of those praised for their effort, 90% chose the harder set of tasks. These results continued in numerous follow up tests. Why? Dweck’s studies show that “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

How do we motivate children if our previous plan of building up their self-esteem by praising them was actually backfiring? She explained that there are two kinds of motivation:

Intrinsic motivation

The thing you love to do and which you would do regardless of whether you were paid or applauded for it. Hmmm. Any other writers out there know this feeling?

Extrinsic motivation

Motivation caused by everything else: money, recognition, approval etc. The real world is full of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivating factors. The issue with extrinsic motivation is that your motivation and desire is based on someone else. Thus it is inherently temporary; as long as the praise goes on or the money comes in, you are willing to do the job.

Extrinsic motivators have no correlation to academic success “except that,” Merryman wryly joked, “in 3rd grade that fact gets stronger”. In other words, giving your children money for doing chores, extra computer time for doing well on a test or saying “good job” whenever they put away their toys simply keeps them needing those “rewards” to be motivated. They have not learned to do things simply for the joy of just doing them.

Studies Show What Our Brains Needs To Learn

Merryman mentioned a UC Berkeley study that discovered that motivation acts like dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is released when we receive a reward, but what researchers found was that dopamine is also released when one is intrinsically motivated, thus showing that motivation is, in and of itself, a reward! And the additional benefit was that this focused, heightened awareness allows people to learn better.

Additionally, another study by Carol Dweck and Jennifer Mangels secretly separated Columbia University college students with a cleverly designed questionnaire into two groups: the “Grade-Hungry” and the “Knowledge-Hungry”. Then, given a rigged test they could not pass, the brain activity differences were measured. One of the fascinating things learned was that the brain activity of those who were “grade-hungry” plummeted when they got wrong answers and only the amygdala (or, “fear center”) was lit up. Thus, one of the major things this study showed was that people who are more focused on grades and status literally can’t learn because their brain can’t process in the normal way. To read Po Bronson’s terrific summary of this research, take a look at this Newsweek article entitled “This Is Your Brain On A Test”.

What Would The Tiger Mom Think?

Remember when we were all discussing Amy Chua’s parenting style? Perhaps some parents believe that motivating children comes down to a choice between being strict and demanding or being weak and permissive. But Ashley Merryman believes this is actually a false choice and she brought up yet another fascinating research study:

Both Chinese and American mothers were told (falsely) that their children had scored below average on an IQ test and that they would be re-taking the test. Then, hidden cameras watched as American mothers were warm, supportive and connected as they offered their children snacks, talked about what they were going to do later, and passed the time until the test was to be re-taken. The Chinese mothers on the other hand, immediately told their children they scored poorly and that they had work to do before taking the test again. Their warmth and support was directed toward the test. Both sets of children improved the second time, but the Chinese children improved twice as much. The study concluded that warmth and connectedness that is directive has a greater effect on achievement.

How Do I Get Better?

j with medalAs parents, we all want to encourage and support our children. We all want them to feel good about themselves and be motivated learners. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably already doing a pretty great job of helping your kids. The question is though, how can we do it better? Here are some ideas from Ashley Merryman:

“That’s the best picture ever!”

If you praise your child’s artwork in this way what you’re really saying is that she just can’t do any better than she’s already done. Why would she keep trying? Instead, describe what you see, praise effort, ask questions. Children hear so much empty praise that they stop believing it by age 7. By age 12, children actually believe that if they are praised it means they are doing poorly (“if I was doing well, I would instead be told I wasn’t working at my potential” is the common sentiment expressed).

Allow competition.

So many of us are now familiar with the sports classes in which every child wins a medal and no one keeps score. This feels right, doesn’t it? No one walks away feeling bad about themselves. But how do children learn to deal with disappointment? Competition spurs you to work harder and peer pressure can actually be motivating.

Modeling.

Yes, it always comes back to modeling. We are our children’s primary teachers! Let your kids see you making a mistake and more importantly, let them hear you say that it’s OK to make a mistake and that you don’t expect perfection.

Don’t impose your judgment.

Ask your child “Have you worked hard on this?” when he or she hands in a homework assignment. Let your child decide for himself. Kids need to develop a sense of when something is good or the best. In NurtureShock there is a section in which Merryman’s co-author, Po Bronson, describes a technique he uses with his young daughter: “Every night, she comes home from preschool with a page of penmanship, filled with whatever letter she learned that day. I ask her to circle the best example on each line — so she’ll recognize the difference between a good one and a better one.”

What if my child just says “It’s good enough”?

Try to get inside your child’s head and ask questions. Are you bored? Is the work too hard? Is it too easy? It’s easier for your child to say “I don’t care” than it is to say “I need help”.

What if my child always gets 100% on tests?

This doesn’t sound like such a bad thing, does it? But it does beg the question: “Are you bored? Do you need something more challenging?”

Praise what your child does, not who they are.

Kids who get constantly praised get hooked on dopamine. Intermittent reinforcement teaches persistence.

But doesn’t high self-esteem mean my kids will do better in school?

In 1984 a committee to build self-esteem was established in California. 15,000 studies later no correlation was shown that increased self-esteem leads to high achievement. In actuality, it’s high achievement that leads to increased self-esteem. Interesting, no?

NurtureShock is an astounding book which covers topics like why kids lie, why white parents don’t talk about race, why siblings really fight, teen rebellion, how to jump-start infant language skills and more. The book is full of so much terrific information that I believe every person who is around children should read it. I believe this so much that I am making the autographed paperback copy I received at this lecture my first ever giveaway at The Twin Coach. If you’d like a chance to win it, leave a comment below and tell me your thoughts about about this post. Don’t forget to leave a way for me to contact you! And to make it more interesting, those of you who are subscribers (or who subscribe once you read this post) will have an extra shot at winning. I’ll pick a winner at random and announce who’s won Wednesday, March 9th on my Facebook page. I really look forward to hearing what everyone has to say