Helping Children Learn to Make Decisions

Hi Dr. Rene,
I have a third grader who, at times, seems to be paralyzed by indecision. Here is a typical situation: each week his teacher sends home a homework packet that requires two reading and writing activities. He is given ten activities to choose two from (e.g., write a letter to the librarian telling her why she should get this book). Although he reads for at least 30 minutes a night, he has difficulty choosing what book to base an activity on and then choosing an activity. He asks us for help, and we will suggest a book he has just read  and a potential activity or two, but that never seems to help. He will spend a half hour to an hour fretting about what to do and sometimes ends up in tears. What is the best way for us to support him in this situation? He is a good reader and grasps what he is reading, but this particular activity is very draining for him.
Thank you for your advice,
Cindy

Hi Cindy,
I would focus first on teaching him decision making separate from homework time. Start small, each day give him choices like apples or oranges for snack, or playing monopoly or clue with you. Continually offer very small choices. When you are in the car, a book on tape or music, tucking in this story or that. When he is able to make small choices, occasionally comment, “you decided that by yourself,” “I saw you think about it and decide on this story,” or ask, “how did you make that decision so easily? What helped you decide?” Talk with him through his decision making process.

When a choice is too difficult, focus on helping him weigh his options. Remind him of the high and low points of each choice, remind him how or what he chose last time or how it worked out. If he really can’t decide whether you choose for him or not, I would ask him to let you know one thing he liked about each of the options and why he might have chosen each one later. This is still teaching him to look at the details.

Gradually work your way up to bigger decisions such as who to invite over to play or which after school activity to sign-up for. Afterwards talk about how either decision would have it’s benefits. With homework specifically, maybe talk about what types of projects he’s enjoyed doing before or what types of projects tend to get the best grades. You might take a list of ten projects and whittle it down to the top three. If they truly are equal choices to him, or he wrestles with the decision among the top three for more than a few minutes, teach him how to make the arbitrary decisions like flipping a coin or assigning numbers and rolling a die, at this age even eeny-meeny-miney-mo works.

I would also try to find fun ways to practice like the Choose Your Own Adventures storybooks that were popular in the 80s and 90s. These are read aloud chapter books where every few pages children get to choose the direction of the plot. Encourage him to pick the ice cream flavor at the grocery store or the next family outing to take. Think of fun ways to practice choices often.

If it really is more narrowly related to academics and homework, it may be that he is perfectionistic or stressed about academic performance. If this seems to be the issue, I would learn more about perfectionistic tendencies and talk to his teacher about the academic worries. Ask if he struggles this way in the classroom as well.
Sincerely, Dr. Rene

Helping a Child Be Resilient

Hi Dr. Rene,

My two-and-a-half-year-old is going through a lot of the typical two year old stuff. He has a growing imagination, talks lots, tests boundaries and is experiencing new fears. I am taking this all in stride, but I do find myself thinking that he doesn’t seem very resilient. He seems so sensitive to small pains, slights and annoyances. He is also pretty tuned in to loud noises, new tastes and textures. I don’t expect him to manage on his own or become resilient overnight, but I’d love tips on how to help him better weather the little upsets.

Sincerely,

Diane

Dear Diane,

Thanks for the question. It’s a big one. There are many ways to help build resiliency across childhood. I apologize for this list, most of the bullet points represent what should be a whole book of content. For now, give lots of empathy and teach problem solving at every turn. When you can, focus on problem solving in the moment. If he is too upset, remember to go back later and discuss or brainstorm what could have happened for a better outcome.

  • Model and Encourage Optomism – If you are an optomistic person, this is an easy one. Unfortunately, if you are a pessimist, this can be near impossible. The idea is to model looking on the bright side, focusing on solutions and having faith things can be resolved.
  • Use Descriptive and Avoid Evaluative Praise – Evaluative praise to avoid sounds like, “good job,” “you are such a good boy,” “that was great,” “thank you so much,” “I really like that,” “I like the way you…,” and, “I am so proud of you.” Descriptive praise to use sounds like, “you handed a block, that was helpful,” and, “you waited while mommy was speaking, that was patient.” This means to describe the behavior, and then give it a related label.
  • Focus Your Discipline on the Behavior NOT the Child – This means using ‘I messages’ and avoiding ‘you messages’ as you enter into a discipline exchange. When a child runs through the living room and knocks over your lamp, it’s saying “I’m angry, my lamp is broken,” or, “I’m frustrated, people are running in the house.” It’s avoiding, “I am mad at you, you broke my lamp,” or, “I’m frustrated, you always run in the house.” I messages label emotions and blame the behavior or the situation not the child.
  • Learn Scaffolding – Scaffolding is the language of problem solving. When you help a four-year-old with a new puzzle, or a fourth grader working on hard math, your language and approach is your scaffolding. There is a review of effective scaffolding guidelines in this previous post: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/?s=scaffolding.
  • Avoid Rescuing – This is a difficult one to practice when your child is a toddler, but it’s important to keep in mind as they grow. If they steal a trinket from a store, have them return it rather than doing it for them. If they purposefully break a toy, avoid replacing it.
  • Teach Decision Making and Offer Choices – Allowing greater decision making is a gradual process. At two years old they might decide what snack to have, at four years old what toy to buy, at six years old what clothes to wear, at eight years old what sports to play and at ten years old what instrument to learn. Of course, you are providing guidance as needed, but focus on teaching them how to make decisions rather than making decisions for them.
  • Positive Attitude Towards Learning and School – The idea is to build a “home-school connection,” so the child grows up feeling my parents value my school, and my school welcomes my parents. Read to them everyday, know what they are learning about in school and participate as a room mom and in extracurricular activities. Check their homework, teach them to study and meet their teachers.
  • Check and Build Social Skills – A child’s sense of social connectedness and acceptance from others is a big part of their developing self esteem which overlaps strongly with resiliency. In childhood, social competence is defined loosely as the ability to play while keeping friends. If play isn’t going well on a regular basis for your child, step back and check their social skills. Work together to improve as needed. This includes their conflict resolution skills. Friends also provide a social network to cushion the blows of life.
  • Focus On and Develop Talents – A second foundation of self esteem is a child’s growing sense of skills and abilities. Look for their strengths and provide opportunities to build their talents.
  • Provide Downtime – The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests children have a minimum of an hour of downtime everyday. Downtime is truely unstructured, go play time. This can be with other children as long as it’s by choice and child led.
  • Sense of Faith or Spirituality – Not one better than another, but children raised with a sense of faith or spirituality tend to be more resilient in the face of life stressors.

As a side note, your descriptions, “he seems so sensitive to small pains, slights and annoyances. He is also pretty tuned in to loud noises, new tastes and textures,” lend themselves to possible sensory concerns. This could easily be well within normal limits and not an issue. If this continues to be the pattern or seems worse overtime, you might read The Out of Sync Child by Kranowitz, or take a consultation with a pediatric occupational therapist. Either will also give you additional ideas about resiliency more related to sensory processing. Please let me know if you have additional questions about this.

Please enjoy this link to an article about building resiliency written by the American Academy of Pediatrics: www.healthychildren.org.  –  http://www.healthychildren.org/english/healthy-living/emotional-wellness/pages/Building-Resilience-in-Children.aspx?nfstatus=401&nftoken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000&nfstatusdescription=ERROR%3a+No+local+token

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

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