empathy

Encouraging Children’s Empathy

Adorable girl comforting her little sister after she fell off her bike at summer park. Child getting hurt while riding a bicycle.

Empathy is the understanding of or sensitivity to others feelings and experiences. It is a developing trait across childhood and can greatly vary between children based on age, predisposition and experiences. There are several ways parents can coach the component pieces of emotion language and perspective taking.

Coach Emotion Language – Children being able to identify emotions in facial expressions, social context and in themselves is a strong foundation for empathy towards others. Here are several ways to coach emotions.

  • Use I messages – I messages are a productive way to label and share your emotions. They are also considered a foundation step of positive discipline. I messages label your emotions and explain why you feel that way while putting blame on the behavior or thing that happened rather than the child. Let’s say a child runs through the living room, and knocks over and breaks your lamp. An I message might be, “I am angry, my lamp is broken,” “I am upset, people are running in the house,” or, “I am frustrated, no one is listening.” The blame is passive (my lamp is broken) or global (no one is listening, people are running). This avoids blaming the child, “I am mad at you, you broke my lamp. You never listen.”
  • Give empathy – Empathy is validating your child’s emotions and why they feel that way. Often this can happen in the moment, and it’s also fine to provide this following an emotional exchange when all is calm. Empathy sounds like, “wow, you are angry. You didn’t like that game,” or, “I know you are upset, it’s so hard to be left out.”
  • Talk about others’ emotions – Discuss the sad baby you hear crying in the grocery store or the angry child who was having a fit at the playground. Label emotions, talk about things that make them feel that way or what others could do to help.
  • Be sure to include causes and consequences of emotions – At least occasionally in these conversations, discuss what came before the emotion or what happened as a result.
  • Read about emotions – There are so many good children’s books on emotions. There is a list on my blog at https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/childrensbooks/#emotions.
  • Tell your own stories with emotional content – If you are at all creative, tell your own stories with emotional content. When our girls were little, we told a lot of Amy and Catie stories. Amy was remarkably like our daughter Alicen, and Catie just like our daughter Claire. If Alicen and Claire had an upset at the swingset, that night Amy and Katie would have a similar upset at the sandbox. Your stories should all provide examples of positive ways to manage and express emotions and ways to calm.
  • Ask hypotheticals – As children are four and five years old, you can ask hypotheticals related to their own experiences. If your child gets angry over sharing toys, you might ask, “what would you do if you really wanted to play with a particular car, and your friend was using it and kept saying ‘no’ to giving a turn?” If needed, help brainstorm good choices and discuss possible outcomes.
  • Role play emotions – Go back and reenact emotional situations. If it was an upset with another child, take turns being each child involved and think of ways it could have gone better.
  • Give puppet shows – Most kids love a puppet show. Again, it’s good to make these about familiar exchanges.
  • Play emotion charades – Play charades, just be sure to include emotions as a category.
  • Make emotion faces in the mirror and to each other – Talk about how we know someone is angry, excited, sad or happy.
  • Make an emotions poster – Divide a poster board into 6 squares labeled happy, sad, excited, mad, surprised and scared. Provide assorted magazines, then help children cut out and paste emotion faces and things that make them feel each way. You might write in each box additional things that make them feel that way or any other thoughts they have about that emotion.
  • Listen to and discuss emotional music – Listen together to sad, exciting or happy music. Then, talk about what each song makes them think of and how it makes them feel.
  • Paint emotion pictures – You might paint emotion posters while you listen to the emotional music.
  • Sing emotion songs – We sing “When You’re Happy and You Know It” and include movements like clapping for happy, stomping feet for mad and crying for sad.
  • Learn more – For more ideas, you can read Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children by Lantieri or Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children by Blaine.

(Again) Provide Empathy for Their Emotions – The more they are hearing the labels for their own emotions, the more likely they are able to apply this language to others. Empathy is often a good place to start in a discipline exchange or when helping them learn to manage social conflicts. Just acknowledging emotions as they are, lets the child know that you hear and understand them. Remember, it’s often empathy before the discipline or empathy before the fix.

Coach Perspective Taking – Perspective taking is being able to see a situation from another child’s point of view. This is limited in the preschool years. Young children are often still so egocentric in their view, it is hard to step out and consider another’s experience. You might introduce this when you and the child are disagreeing or feel differently about the same topic. At bedtime, maybe talk about how you are happy and looking forward to sleep and they are annoyed and wanting to put off sleep. You might point out differing feelings or opinion as part of addressing when they are in conflict with another child.

Children’s Books – Reading and discussing books can be a great way to teach social skills.

Here are a few good children’s books about empathy:

  • How Full is Your Bucket for Kids by Rath
  • I am Human: A Book of Empathy by Verde and Reynolds
  • You, Me and Empathy by Sanders
  • Empathy: I Know How You Feel by George
  • Stand in My Shoes by Sornsen

Here are a few good children’s books that introduce perspective taking:

  • Voices in the Park by Browne
  • They All Saw a Cat by Wenzel
  • 7 Blind Mice by Young
  • You Are (Not) Small by Kang

Schedule Playdates with Younger Children – Occasionally playing with a younger child can bring out caring and empathy from an older child. You might label emotions when they happen. You might suggest the older child help the younger child with tasks or teach them how to do something. You might highlight how considerate or helpful your older child was after the playdate.

Provide Other Oriented Consequences – In discipline or when supporting social exchanges, it can be helpful to include other oriented consequences. This is pointing out a child’s impact on others. “Look at your friend. He is sad. Grabbing that toy made him sad.” or “She doesn’t like that. Hitting hurts her.” The idea is to let your child know their behavior had an impact on the others while avoiding direct blame language. This basically means to highlight their behavior and avoid using the word “you.”

Provide Do-Overs – When it seems appropriate, it may be helpful to allow the child a do-over, a chance to improve their behavior or make a better choice instead of always giving a consequence. The do-over allows the child to really consider alternatives ways to change outcomes.

Highlight Deeds as Personal Traits – I’ve written often about using descriptive praise. When you are praising a child’s behavior, academics or athletics it can be helpful to describe the behavior and label. This may be “You handed a block. That was helpful.” Or “You wrote five sentences. That’s a lot of work!” There is new research to suggest it is helpful to occasionally highlight their trait rather than give a straight label. This would be “You handed a block. You are being helpful,” or “You are a helpful person.” And “You wrote five sentences. You are a hard worker!” Highlighting the trait may give the child more personal ownership. It may be more likely they carry that self descriptor with them to influence future behaviors. They may be more likely to think of themselves as a helper or a hard worker. When it comes to encouraging empathy, it would be commenting often about how kind, considerate, thoughtful or friendly they are.

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How to Talk about School Shootings with Children by Age

 

back to schoolSchool shootings continue to be a rare occurrence. Experts report that, statistically, your child is safer from violence and death at school than they are at home or in their neighborhood. It can be difficult to keep that in mind when we hear the death tolls and now see student experiences through social media posts related to school shootings.

It is important to keep this in mind when you speak to your child about school shootings at any age. As a parent, you provide the emotional landscape. Your words, emotion and tone can provide reassurance or add a sense of panic to the conversation. It may be helpful to calm your own thinking and emotions before speaking to your child.

I tend to think that we can often still protect preschoolers and early grade schoolers from the topic entirely. You can strive to protect them from news media and other related conversations. Of course, I’d answer questions if they have them and address any news media they might see. If a preschooler asks, you might say, “yes, that did happen. It was sad. Do you have any questions about that?” and, “your school is a safe place. The teachers and director work to keep you safe while you are there.” If a young child is aware and has questions, all of the following ideas may be helpful.

As difficult as it sounds, this is a topic to bring up directly with older students. With a third grader, you might say, “a scary thing happened at a high school today. Did you hear about it?” By sixth grade, you might start with, “there was shooting at a school today.”

You might then ask what they already know, what they think about it and how they feel. Parents may be surprised by the amount of information children have. Even young students may have unlimited access to the internet or a friend with talkative older siblings who share the details. It is often helpful to ask open ended questions and really listen both to the information and the questions a child has.

It may be helpful to have a few basic sentences pulled together to share the details of what happened. For elementary school students, this might be, “a student brought a gun to his high school. A few classmates and a teacher were shot. The police arrested him.” In middle school and high school, children often already know the details. At any age, it is helpful to clear up any misunderstandings.

A goal of this is to answer all of your child’s questions in an honest, small and age appropriate way. ‘Honest’ means you can’t promise it won’t happen at their school or near their community. ‘Small’ means aim to answer just the question that was asked to avoid overwhelming them with additional information. ‘Age appropriate’ means striving to keep a sense of idealism and safety for younger students and a realistic sense of risk for older students.

It is often helpful to let your child’s questions be the guide for how much information they need. A child who needs more information about their own school’s security or about the criminal charges of a case will likely ask those questions.

At any age, while giving answers also often provide reassurance. For younger students, this would be saying, “your school is a safe place. There are a lot of people there working to keep you safe.” For an older student, this might be discussing what safety measures are in place at their school.

It can be helpful to expect and acknowledge big emotions from children. When a child is upset, angry or frustrated, empathy is often a good place to start; this might be starting with, “I know this is upsetting. I am upset too.” or, “I hear you. You are angry!” You might also validate why they feel that way, “none of this is fair.” or, “I get it, this is a huge and scary thing to think about.”

In addition to an emotional response, older students might have a strong sense of justice and solid ideas about what should be done. It is good here to listen, reflect and stay open to their thoughts and opinions. You might ask open ended questions to help them flesh out their thinking.

Being familiar with the school’s safety plans and drills helps parents in several ways. Knowing what is in place may help to calm a parent or may give the parent a place to put their effort towards bettering the policies. When parents know the drills and plans, it can support having a fuller conversation with their child. Informed parents can also better reinforce the steps of a safety drill or answer related questions.

At any age, it can be helpful to encourage a child to listen to their teacher or follow the instructions during safety drills. For older students, it may be helpful to review the run, hide and, as a last resort fight, approach which is often suggested by safety experts.

It is also helpful to let your child know that they can talk to you about this anytime. Remind them that you are always open to discussing any thoughts, concerns or questions they have. For any big event, it is normal for children to have questions over time. For this issue, it’s even more likely to be a repeated topic of conversation as there will likely be additional events moving forward.

Whether your child brings it up or not, it’s helpful to occasionally follow-up. You might ask how they are doing or if they have any new thoughts or concerns.

By middle school, it is important for parents to also talk to children about having a ‘See Something, Say Something’ approach to their own safety. In most previous school shootings, another child was aware of the thought, the plan or the related actions of the shooter before it happened. In these cases a sibling, friend or classmate had a prior conversation or knew something about the plan. Very rarely was an adult aware. All students should be encouraged to share any such information immediately with an adult.

Beyond Talk

Middle school and high school students may benefit from more active ways to participate. This includes sending cards of support, fundraising, starting and signing petitions, participating in letter writing campaigns and related marches.

At any age, you might place limits on news media. It’s suggested that children under 8-years-old be protected from news media. Children 8 to 12 years old should have guided exposure only; this means watching with an adult and having discussions about what they are viewing. Older children often have more open access to the internet and seemingly constant news. It may be helpful to speak with them often about what they are seeing and be open for conversations. If older children are stressed by the news, encourage them to take a break from it.

It may be beneficial to look for any signs of stress your child may be experiencing in the weeks and months following an event. These signs include changes in appetite, sleep patterns and socialization; this can be acting out behaviors, changes in mood and lower academic motivation. If a child seems to have significant difficulty, it may be helpful to speak with a guidance counselor, school psychologist, pediatrician or an outside therapist.

Here are two related blog posts:

Teachers: How to Answer Young Children’s Questions and Concerns About Stressful Community Events

Actions to Address School Shootings

 

 

 

Teaching Kids How to Take Another’s Perspective

Conflict on the playground. Two kids fighting over a toy shovel in the sandboxPerspective taking is very limited in young children. Like, how two-year-olds close their eyes to hide when playing hide and seek. The thought is, ‘if they can’t see themselves, you can’t see them.’ Three-year-olds stand in front of you and don’t realize you can’t see through them. Even four years olds get confused when you don’t already know things they think about or dream about.

Perspective taking and emotion understanding are foundation pieces of a developing sense of empathy. Being able to understand how another is feeling starts with understanding that the other exists separately, and then that they see and later think and feel differently.

By grade school, the hope is children have a basic understanding of others’ views, thoughts and emotions as separate from their own and important.

Ways to Teach

Other’s View – As a way to introduce differences in perspective taking, you might have each person stand on a different side of a statue or play structure and describe or draw what they see. You might also read and discuss Seven Blind Mice by Young. In this story, seven blind mice meet an elephant, and each mouse assumes it is something different based on the part of the elephant they can feel.

View of Artwork – You could visit an art museum and discuss how a painting makes each of you feel, or what a sculpture makes each of you think about. You might discuss how your perceptions might differ based on individual experiences.

Responses to Music – You could listen together and discuss the way it makes you each feel and why. You might talk about similarities and differences in what the lyrics mean to each of you.

Recognize Emotions – It can be helpful to label and discuss emotions often. This includes your’s, their’s and other’s emotions. When appropriate, you might discuss differences in emotional responses, both what the emotions are and different ways people express emotions.

Encourage Role Play – When children pretend to be a doctor, teacher, police officer, grandma or puppy they are stepping into another’s role. Encourage them to tell their story, to think about how they would feel in a situation or what they would do and why.

Ask Questions to Find Out More – This might be encouraging your child to ask a tour guide a question at a museum or to ask a friend a question about his new puppy. Let your child know that asking others questions is a good way to find out more about all kinds of things. In our social skills groups, we take turns having one child sit in a chair to answer questions about a favorite toy, activity or pet. Others sitting on the floor take turns asking questions to learn more.

Play Can You Imagine – After a birthday party you might ask, “can you imagine if you were the only girl at that party? How would it be different?” About school, “can you imagine being the youngest kid in all your classes?” or, “can you imagine being a new kid in the middle of the school year? It might be tough to make new friends when everyone else already knows each other.” or, “can you imagine how hard it might be if you still had difficulty with reading?” The point is to put your child in a place to think about the challenges others face. There are countless options here.

Story Books – There are several children’s storybooks that may be helpful in the discussions about perspective taking, other’s emotions and impact on others.

  • How Full Is Your Bucket for Kids by Rath – A nice way to introduce impact on others and how behaviors shape feelings.
  • Stand in My Shoes by Sornson – A good introduction to viewing other’s emotions.
  • What if Everybody Did That by Javernick – A light way to look at the impact of negative behaviors.
  • Everyone by Neal – How we all share similar emotions.
  • They All Saw a Cat by Wenzel – How “perspective shapes what we see.”
  • Seven Blind Mice by Young – An introduction to perspective taking.

Conflicts in Story Books – Many children’s storybooks contain some type of conflict. When characters are in conflict you might discuss how the various characters view the conflict, why they view it the way they do, and how they might be feeling about it.

Freezing, Comparing and Coaching through Conflicts – After a bit of practice in storybooks, you might freeze your children in or follow conflict moments to discuss how each viewed the conflict, why they had their view, and how each was feeling during. This works best when emotions aren’t too high or later, once everyone is calm.

Discuss Other’s Efforts, Progress and Struggles – This includes pointing out a soccer teammate’s hard work, a classmate’s study habits or a friend’s working through their own conflict. This isn’t meant as pressure on your child, just a comment that they aren’t alone in the process.

Acknowledge Their Reasons in Conflict with You – This may be the most difficult on the list; it can be helpful to occasionally acknowledge their point of view during disagreements. This reflective listening tends to validate their side, let them know you are listening. This might be, “I hear you really want that. All of your friends have one and  it seems like you feel left out.” or, “you really don’t like what I just said. I get that it is upsetting. You want it the other way.” You might use this to check in by asking, “am I understanding this correctly?” You might also ask them to identify or rephrase your point.

Talk through Your Own Conflicts and Point Out the Various Sides – When your children see you in conflict, it can be helpful to step back and explain the various sides. Model looking at the problem from various perspectives and including that information in how you solve the problem.

 

 

Positive Discipline Language: It’s Easier Than You Think

Kids playing with toy trains

Many parents assume that learning the language of positive discipline is a difficult task. When really, it’s not that hard. Good preschool and elementary school teachers are in and out of this language all day long. It’s like learning any new set of language rules; take a new job and you are likely learning new language. It just takes your attention and practice.

For this introduction to the language we’ll use the example, “Your child wants a toy that another child is playing with. Your child grabs the toy and runs away screaming.”

Proactive techniques – These are ways to encourage the wanted behaviors to happen more often.

  • Descriptive praise – When it goes well, this is describing the behavior and giving it a label. “You waited for a turn. That was so patient.”
  • Positive directions – This is avoiding directions that start with “no,” “don’t” and “stop.” It means telling children what to do rather than what not to do. For this example, it’s avoiding “no grabbing,” and “don’t grab.” It would be saying “ask for a turn,” or, “wait for a turn.”

Foundation steps – These are techniques to use on the way into a discipline exchange. They are not meant to change behavior, rather to allow emotions, keep communication open and lessen the defensiveness of the listener.

  • I messages – I messages give parents a productive way to share their emotion and lay blame. This would be, I’m frustrated, people are grabbing, or, “he’s upset, he wants that back.” I messages are your emotion or the victim child’s emotion and then either global, “people are grabbing” or passive, “he wants that back” blame.
  • Empathy – This is acknowledging your child’s emotion. Even when it is big for the situation or seems unreasonable. This might be, “I know you are frustrated, it can be hard to wait.”
  • Positive intent – This is the good or just valid reason behind the behavior. For grabbing a toy, it’s as simple as, “I know you really wanted that.” This is not to excuse the behavior away, it’s more a starting point for dealing with the behavior. It’s a way better starting point than the negative intent, “you are such a rude, mean kid.”

Active steps – These are techniques to change or start behavior. They are often a distraction from the behavior.

  • Choices – In general, you give a child two choices about how, when or where they can do the behavior you want them to do. In this case, it might be, “do you want to give that back, or would you like me to give that back?” or, “would you like to play with this or this while you wait?” If they didn’t take it yet, “do you want to ask for a turn, or do you want my help?”
  • Challenges – This is making it a race or a game in some way, “can you give it back before I count to 3?” For this example, it’s not so attractive, but for others this is often helpful.
  • Contribution – A contribution means giving them a related job title or a responsibility. It might be offering the child to be the time keeper or list maker (if there are others waiting for a turn).

End Steps – These techniques are meant to curb behavior. There are a lot of variables to consider between each of these including the age of the child, the level and history of the behavior and fit of each consequence.

  • Natural consequences – This is what just might happen in life. In this case, “if you are grabbing toys, he might not want to play with you.”
  • Logical positive consequences – This is the good related outcome for the wanted behavior. It is best if this is matched in time, intensity and topic. “If you can give the toy back, I will help you to get the next turn.”
  • Logical negative consequences – This is the bad related outcome for the unwanted behavior. It is best if this is matched in time, intensity and topic. “If you grab the toy again, you may not play with it today.”

The foundation, active and end steps combine to make what are called the Steps of Positive Discipline. This gives parents a framework for moving through any discipline exchange. It starts with techniques to calm emotions and open communication, moves to ways to guide behaviors and ends with ways to curb. The steps are a flexible process meant to address everything from running in the house to hitting a friend.

This language came out of the work of Alfred Adler in the early 1900s, Rudolf Dreikurs in the 1930s and Haim Ginott in the 1960s. STEP classes (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting) became popular in the 1970s and 1980s and continue to be attended today. Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline books have been popular and revised since the 1980s.

Join me for workshops in Northern Virginia. I also have online workshops, and I answer questions on facebook (Tuesdays at 10:00pm). I also post related videos on youtube.

Transitions Can be Easier

scold

There are so many transitions built into a family’s day. For children, this may include the shift to getting dressed, leaving the house, stopping play, finishing projects, cleaning up, coming to the table for meals, going upstairs for bath and settling in bed for sleep. All of these steps can have small transitions within which can be a lot.

Real and consistent warning – Most children transition better when given warnings. It is helpful to use the same language and mean the same amount of time for each warning. When my girls were younger I said, “we are done in five minutes, finish up,” and, “one more minute, do your last thing.” When I said this, I was also sure to say five minutes and mean five minutes. If sometimes it meant two minutes because I was in a hurry, or it meant twenty minutes because I got distracted, the warnings weren’t as helpful. Even before children can tell time, the consistency is helpful.

Additional cues – It can be helpful to build in additional cues. This might be a visual cue like flipping the lights, a physical cue like a transition high-five or an auditory cue like ringing a bell. This is just another consistent signal that it’s time for a transition.

Proximity – If your child tends to ignore or run away at the start of transitions, it can be helpful to stand beside them or even hold their hand just before the transition starts.

Empathy (limit as needed) – This would be saying, “I’m sorry you are frustrated, but it’s time to go upstairs.” When you acknowledge emotions, emotions tend to calm. It’s often helpful to state the limit in a calm way.

Positive directions – This is a reminder to state your directions in the positive. This is saying, “come back and clean up the toys,” rather than, “stop running around.” Here is a full post about positive directions.

Ask their plan or their first step – Asking how they are going to get started can help a child focus on the task and move forward.

Build in choices, challenges and contribution – For going upstairs choices would be, “do you want to walk or crawl upstairs,” or, “do you want to brush teeth first or change into pajamas when you get upstairs?” Challenges would be, “let’s race up stairs. Ready, go!” Contribution would be, “I need a toothpaste squeezer.”

Focus on the good in the next thing – Want your child to stop playing, go upstairs and take a bath? You might focus on how many bubbles they can make with the bubble bath or which toys they’d like to play with in the tub.

Give descriptive praise when it goes well – This would be, “you listened the first time. That is helpful!” or, “you went upstairs so fast. You were super speedy!” You want to reinforce this behavior, so describe the behavior and give it a label. Here is a full post about descriptive praise.

A post on better clean-up times

A post on better morning routines

A post on better bedtime routines

 

 

Helping a Child Learn to Calm Down

Little girl closed her eyes and breathes the fresh air. Black an

Does your child get anxious, angry or frustrated easily? In the moment, it’s often best to err on the side of support; rather than, challenging or giving logic and reason as an answer to their emotion. It’s often helpful to acknowledge the emotion, provide empathy and give time and space to let a child calm down. It can also be beneficial to spend some other time teaching them ways to settle. Many of these techniques offer the child a distraction from the upset or anger which can be enough to help them start to calm.

Best to teach these things out of the moment – Don’t wait until your child is freaking out to try teaching them how to take deep breaths. When people are angry or upset, they aren’t in a good place to learn something new. It’s far more effective to teach new skills or introduce new ideas when they are calm, or when all is well.

Make a calm down spot, an alone zone, a content apartment – In our house, this was a corner of the living room stacked with a few bean bags, pillows and favorite stuffed animals. A mom said her son liked a cardboard box with a door cutout and flashlights inside. The idea is to make a space that is inviting for your child, and is known to be a good place to go to calm down. This space shouldn’t also be tied to discipline or used for time-outs.

Make a few calm down boxes – Fill a few empty shoe boxes with small, quiet toys. This might include lacing boards, invisible ink books, or matchbox cars. We had a few boxes filled with felt board story pieces. You might hand your child a box when they need to calm down or keep a stack of boxes by your calm down spot.

Art, drawing even scribbling – In addition to calm down boxes, you might provide art supplies. Many people find painting, drawing or even making things to be calming things to do. If your child finds this helpful, it’s good to openly provide supplies and encourage their use.

Build a calm down library – It can be helpful to read and discuss children books related to any expected skill. Good books for children on calming down include:

  • Calm Down Time by Verdick
  • Cool Down and Work Through Anger by Meiners
  • A Boy and A Bear by Lite
  • Sea Otter Cove by Lite
  • Cool Cats, Calm Kids by Williams
  • Peaceful Piggy Meditation by MacLean
  • Mermaids and Fairy Dust by Kerr
  • Enchanted Meditations for Kids by Kerr
  • Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook for Kids by Shapiro

Deep breathing – This is the simple one, and it can be so helpful if your child buys in. In our house this was counting five slow, deep breaths and then focus on breathing in a regular way for a few minutes, then another five slow, deep breaths and regular again then repeating until you feel calm. For a younger child, you might provide breathing shapes. This would be cutting out construction paper stars and putting a dot in one corner. Teach your child to start with the dot and take one deep breath for each corner. Others suggest it may help to describe deep breathes with a flower and candle. This is taking a deep breath in through your nose like you are smelling a flower, and then out through your mouth like you are blowing out a candle.

Counting – Counting can be enough of a distraction task to give your child a chance to calm down. This might be counting slowly to 10, or counting backwards from 20, or counting as high as they can by threes or sixes. The idea is to either slow them down or give them a slight challenge to get them thinking. As an alternative, it can be helpful to inventory something. This might be counting ceiling tiles or number of people in a crowded area.

Visual counting -This one can take several practices before it’s useful in the moment. First, help your child pick a favorite activity or sport. Let’s say it’s soccer. Then, instruct your child to close their eyes and imagine themselves kicking the soccer ball down the field and into the goal. Have them keep their eyes closed and picture it once for as many years as they are old. For a six year old, they’d picture making six goals. After a few practice rounds, let your child know that when they are getting angry or frustrated it can be helpful to close their eyes and count their soccer goals.

Think of a favorite time or place – An easier visualization task may be to have them close their eyes and think about a favorite vacation or time at their favorite playground. Again, practice a few times and then recall this in the moment.

Mantras – My own mantra is, “breathe, breathe, breathe…”Whenever I am stressed, just reminding myself to breathe and focusing on each breath is helpful. A parenting mantra might be, “no one goes to college NOT potty trained,” for that difficult stretch of time. A child’s mantra might be as simple as, “I’m okay, I’m okay…,” or, “I can do this, I can do this…,” A mantra might follow one of the other suggestions like, “let’s just count, let’s just count…,” until they can get themselves started.

Get physical, run, swing or dance – Movement is calming for lots of people. This may be repetitive movement like swinging, or more physical exercise like running or climbing. It’s great to give kids movement opportunities often and movement outlets for their negative emotions when needed.

Muscle relaxation – There are a few mucle relaxation clips for children on youtube including relaxation: clip 1 and clip 2. Once you get the hang of it, this is something you can walk your child through, or they can do it by themselves. In our social skills groups we play a few related games including Melting Snowman and Tin Soldier. We start off as ice-cold, frozen snowmen. Then, the sun comes out and ever so slowly the snowmen melt until they are just puddles on the floor. For tin soldiers, we sit as upright as we can with our arms and legs and back held straight out. Then, we turn into ragdolls and flop on the floor. The idea in both is to end up relaxing your whole body.

Yoga (gymnastics, karate, ice skating) – If a child enjoys these activities, it’s good to encourage them to continue. While the movement itself can be relaxing, there’s also the long term benefit of children learning to control their bodies and be disciplined to practice.

Fully describe something – Describing something is another way to distract from an upset. This means looking around the room and finding something to fully describe to yourself for a minute. This might be a painting or a toy.

Focus on solutions – Focusing on solutions can be calming to anyone. If I am frustrated by how messy my house is, and I continue to focus on the mess and who made it or how they don’t help, I am just upsetting myself. It can be calming to make a plan for cleaning, and make decisions about how it should look in the end. For a child who is angry about how a game is going, this is getting them to focus on the solution, how to best resolve it. Even better if they can brainstorm and come up with a few options for solving.

Music – Listening to a favorite song or happy music can be a way to help children calm. It may be useful to have them build a playlist and keep it handy.

Mindfulness – This is teaching children to stay present and to let go of worries about the past or anxieties about the future. It’s slowing down and being aware of your feelings. Here are a few fun ways to get started: midfulness clip 1 and clip2. This may include meditation. Here are a few links to meditation ideas for children: meditation clip 1 and clip 2.

 

 

It’s Okay for Your Child to be Frustrated

Little girl looking angry in the kitchen with mother in background

It’s okay for your child to be frustrated. It’s okay when your child is disappointed. This is not something for you to avoid or fix for them. It is something for you to connect with, and to help them move through.

A dad of a four-year-old questioned, “we have a routine when we run to the grocery store of stopping for an ice cream next door, and then the toy store to sit on a rocking horse, and then to get groceries. Some days time is tight and I want to just get groceries, but he gets upset so I feel I can’t. Do I have to get ice cream and visit the toy store?”

While it is a nice outing, it is life to have changes in routine. It’s better to help your child learn to cope, than to tip-toe around it and avoid the upset.

You might help by preparing them for the change. On the way, you might say, “I know you like stopping for ice cream and the toy store. Today we only have time for the grocery store.” You might then offer a choice, “would you like to pick the ice cream or the cereal?” or a challenge, “can you count all the items we put in the cart?” or a job, “I need a cart pusher,” to get them thinking about the grocery store rather than the ice cream or toy store.

For the upset that still may follow, it’s good to provide empathy; “I know it’s frustrating when we have to change our plan,” or, “I know you really like the other stops.” Often it’s good to connect with hugs or hand holding.

Out of the moment, it’s good to coach them on emotions and ways to manage when their triggers happen. Here is a link to a blog post which includes way to coach emotions and the importance of triggers: https://parentingbydrrene.com/…/preventing-tantrums-emotion…/

The idea is – prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child.

Ways to Teach Apologies and Avoid Forcing Them

Girl with Sorry sign

When children are young

  • Model apologies – Young children learn best through modeling. When you are in the wrong about things, apologize to them and others easily. If they see and hear you being comfortable with apologies, they are more likely to follow suit.
  • Suggest and encourage apologies – I have read that others suggest we not encourage young children to apologize, because they don’t know what they are saying, they don’t understand the meaning of, “I’m sorry.” While I agree, young children don’t often understand the full meaning, I chalk up encouraging them to say, “I’m sorry,” to a general social grace. We do encourage young children to say, “please,” and, “thank you,” and, “excuse me,” which they also don’t understand. I think it’s fine to encourage them to build good social habits.

As children are older

  • Give choices about how to apologize – Once your child is five years old, I think it’s fine to offer choices such as writing a note or drawing a picture to apologize. You might offer choices of apologizing now or in a few minutes, saying it out loud or whispering it in someone’s ear (provided that the receiver is agreeable).
  • Give time to apologize – It can actually be helpful to the situation to give kids a few minutes to calm down and collect themselves. They might take a minute to think about what happened and decide what to say before apologizing.

Discuss the three parts of apologies

  • Say it – Saying, “I’m sorry,” is the first part of an apology. It’s great if it’s heartfelt and honest. It can be dismissive if it’s just thrown out there, or worse, yelled at another child.
  • Feel it – Feeling sorry for what you’ve done is the next step. You might ask your child to think about how they would feel in the other child’s position. You might discuss how they feel now about what happened and about having to apologize. You might touch base after and talk about how it feels after an apology.
  • Do something to make it better – Making amends is another important step. This might be helping a friend hold their ice pack on a related injury or helping rebuild the block tower that was knocked down.

Avoid forced apologies

Forced apologies happen in one of two ways. Either the child is angry and resists having to apologize, or the child is embarrassed and hesitant to apologize. In both cases, the child’s own negative emotions often get in the way of developing a sense of empathy.

If your child is angry and not feeling sorry about what happened, and you force the apology, the result is predictable. Your angry child likely will storm over to the other, bark, “SORRY!” at them and leave abruptly. Rather than teaching your child to feel empathy, this situation seems to provoke feelings in the opposite direction. Your child may actually resent the other child more for his role in this interaction. The resentment overrides any developing empathy. Your child also learns that saying sorry, even if he doesn’t mean it, is enough to fix a wrong-doing.

If your child is embarrassed by the idea of having to apologize, but is forced to do so, the result differs but is just as predictable. With a push, your child may slowly approach the other child and then quietly say, “sorry,” while fighting back tears. Empathy requires the child to focus on the thoughts and feeling of another. When a child is embarrassed, he is thinking mostly of himself which inhibits the development of empathy.

Rather than force an apology from an angry or embarrassed child, you will have more success building a sense of empathy and teaching the language of sincere apologies through modeling. In the case of anger, take your child with you and say something like, “I am so sorry he did that. I would like to make it better.” Here, the parent is speaking for himself. The parent is sorry, the child is not. In the case of embarrassment, take your child with you and say something like, “he is so sorry. He would like to make it better.” The child actually is sorry, just reluctant to address it. Your child will have the benefit of hearing a sincere apology and optimally will be better able to focus on the feelings of the other child rather than his own.

Tips to Encourage Sibling Relationships

Sweet Little Boy Kisses His Baby Sister in a Rustic Ranch Setting at the Pumpkin Patch.

So often when I write about siblings, it’s about how to best manage the bickering and the fighting or how to get them to stop grabbing toys from each other. Happily, this post is about ways to encourage their relationships!

  • Teach social skills in general – If your children have difficulty taking turns or grabbing toys from each other, avoid putting pressure on their individual relationship by saying things like, “you need to take turns with your brother.” Rather teach them about turn taking in general and let the skill trickle down to their relationship. Keep your language on the behavior, “when you want a turn, you need to ask first.” For creative ways to teach social skill, read https://parentingbydrrene.com/2014/08/15/12-ways-to-coach-good-behaviors/.
  • Encourage listening to others – If your children have difficulty listening to each other, it can be helpful to reinforce their words to each other. This would be saying “did you hear her?  She said, ‘stop that!’ What does that mean to you.” or, “I heard him say that he doesn’t like being poked. That means you should stop.” For creative ways to teach listening, read https://parentingbydrrene.com/2012/02/18/teach-them-to-listen/.
  • Coach positive ways to handle conflicts – When there is a conflict, help children to brainstorm solutions and weigh their options.  Teach them to empathize with the other.
  • Find low pressure activities they can share – If they enjoy working on puzzles together, doings arts and crafts or kicking a ball back and forth, encourage it often.
  • Plan for time together and time apart – It’s fine to give them breaks from each other as well.  It can be helpful for kids to have time during the day that they can play alone in their rooms, or have an activity that doesn’t have to be shared.
  • Allow sleepovers – We allow sleepovers as often as they’d like.  When the girls moved from toddler beds to big kids beds, we got them each a trundle so they could easily have sleepovers with each other.
  • Encourage them to help each other and highlight when they do – In my family, we talk often about helping each other. It became a given that when someone asks for help, you help as much as you can. We highlight and appreciate when family members are helpful.
  • Avoid pitting them in competition – I am a firm believer in teaching kids to manage competition, and am fine with siblings playing board games and backyard sports.  Bigger sports competition should be with peers. Also avoid daily doses of competition such as, “let’s see who can get dressed first. Ready, go!” Rather, pit them in a cooperative effort, “let’s see if you can help each other get dressed before me.”
  • Offer cooperative efforts – This can be cooking together or building pillow forts. There are cooperative effort board games like Snails Pace Race or Colorama. There are a few good idea books titled Everybody Wins by MacGregor and Cooperative Games and Sports by Orlick.
  • Have at least one joint chore – Cooperative efforts carry over to chores as well. Across ages, it can be helpful to for children to share responsibilities. For young children, this can be helping with pet care. For older children, this can be cleaning a shared bathroom weekly.
  • Avoid comparisions – Avoid direct comparisons, “why can’t you be more like your sister?” and indirect, “your sister is always on time!” Comparisons are a seed of sibling rivalry. For other hints about rivalry, read https://parentingbydrrene.com/2014/05/15/a-few-hints-to-avoid-sibling-rivalry/. There’s also a great parenting book titled Siblings Without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish.
  • Discipline individually – As best you can, avoid discipline for one child spilling over onto siblings. If one child is throwing sand at the playground say, “if you throw sand, you will have to come out of the sandbox,” rather than, “if you throw sand, we are all going home.”
  • Praise individually – Avoid praising one child to curb their sibling’s behavior. Don’t say, “look how neatly your brother keeps his room!” rather say, “your room is a mess. Go clean it please.”
  • Make a sibling photo album – It’s nice for kids to have their own photo albums as well as a shared sibling album. This one is tough as it’s hard enough to keep family photos organized, but it’s worth the effort.
  • Tell stories about their good times – It can be helpful to remind them of their good times often. We tell a lot of stories about how Alicen welcomed Claire home from the hospital, and funny stories from when they were in preschool and early grade school.
  • Model and speak positively about your own sibling relationships – When you speak about your own siblings, either growing up together or getting along now, you are modeling how to speak and feel about siblings. Yes, some conflict is normal in life, and it’s fine to share but avoid being negative, name calling and complaining.
  • Use positive discipline – Positive discipline models giving empathy and positive intent to others. It gives children examples of how to best work through conflicts. To read more about positive discipline, read https://parentingbydrrene.com/?s=steps. You can also listen to our online audio workshops at http://parentingplaygroups.com/MemberResources/index.php/welcome/.
Join me for an in-depth discussion of Birth Order and Sibling Rivalry on Sept. 9 from 7:00-9:00pm. For more information and to register, please visit http://www.eventbrite.com/o/parenting-by-dr-rene-parenting-playgroups-283710166?s=1328924.

Stop the Teasing: Tips

school bully

Light-hearted teasing between friends can be fun. It’s often a normal part of what friends do. However, there’s teasing that hurts other’s feelings. It is important to teach your child to avoid hurting other’s feelings, to stop teasing when asked and to speak up if they don’t like being teased. I cover Social Aggression in my online workshops at http://parentingplaygroups.com/MemberResources/index.php/welcome/.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Make “no,” “don’t,” and “stop” magic words between children – Part of curbing teasing is encouraging kids to listen to others. We talk about “no,” “don’t” and “stop” as magic words. That when you hear a friend say these things, you should really be a listener and consider what they are asking you to do.
  • Teach your child how to speak up for themselves – Here is a link to my blog post on teaching kids to have an assertive voice: https://parentingbydrrene.com/2012/10/15/helping-kids-speak-up-for-themselves/.
  • Teach emotion language and ways to recognize emotions in others – Here is a link to my blog post on teaching children emotion language: https://parentingbydrrene.com/2013/03/11/ways-to-teach-children-emotion-language/. Focus this often on reading other’s expressions and emotion language.  Point out what friends are feeling often.
  • Teach empathy – Empathy is a developing trait across the preschool and elementary school years. Part of teaching empathy is emotion language (above), and part is perspective taking. Here is a link to my blog post which includes a bit about teaching perspective taking:  https://parentingbydrrene.com/2013/12/31/teaching-empathy/.
  • Discipline for teasing that is hurtful – Rather than a ‘that’s what kids do’ approach, parents should address hurtful teasing as they would if their children were being aggressive. Stop the behavior, talk about feelings, give choices for behaviors and give consequences for teasing. Actively coach children to move forward in a better way.

Good parenting books include:

  • Mom, They’re Teasing Me: Helping Your Child Solve Social Problems by Thompson
  • Easing the Teasing: Helping Your Child Cope by Freedman

Good children’s books include:

  • The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Teasing by Berenstain
  • No More Teasing by Clark
  • Cool, Calm and Confident: A Workbook to Help Kids Learn Assertive Skills by Schab (older kids)
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