Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Year's Resolution: Spend quality time with your child

If your at-risk child has become more of a challenge lately and you are considering ways to improve things for the New Year, make a New Year’s resolution to spend more quality time with your child. Fortunately, there is a great deal of scientific information about just what constitutes quality time. Daily playtime will increase your child's Ability to Love.

Quality time means just spending time playing with your child. During play you should just play, don’t try to instruct or direct. If your child is a challenge, playing with him for 20 minutes a day may really make a difference. It will likely reduce his domineering behavior.

If you are able to commit to 20 minutes a day. Tell your child that you are setting aside 20 minutes just to play with him. Tell him when your playtime will begin and end so he knows what to expect. Playtime should give your child the message that he is very dear to you so don't answer the phone or attend to anything other than your child during his special time.

Playtime should be in addition to other activities you may do together like reading or watching TV. Playtime can be anything the two of you can enjoy together but should not be a competitive game, TV or videogame. Playtime can be indoors or out. Several days a week playtime can be taking a walk together.

During playtime focus on your child. Comment on what you see him doing. For example if he is building a tower with blocks say, “Now I see you are building a tower with blocks.” This commenting lets your child know you are paying attention to what he is doing. Also repeat back some of the things your child says. For example, if he is pretending something echo back his statements.

Use playtime as a chance to build your child up. Tell him you are proud of what he does. If your child becomes aggressive or disruptive during playtime, give him a warning then end the session early if he keeps up. Tell him you want to play with him but can’t if he hits, throws things or otherwise misbehaves.

For more on how to have quality time with your child, see the Child Well-being Workbook. All of us at Parenting the At Risk Child wish you and your family a Happy and Healthy New Year, full of love and togetherness!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Why does a four year old still cry for Mommy?

In 1958 John Bowlby published a paper entitled The Nature of a Child's Tie to His Mother (Bowlby, J. (1958). The Nature of the Child's Tie to his Mother1. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 39:350-373). With this paper, an understanding of humans called Attachment Theory was born. In the decades that followed this paper, research has demonstrated that the quality of attachment between mother and child predicts later functioning in many areas of life. The only time this attachment does not predict functioning is when kids take up with callous peers or when there is significant psychological trauma. In other words, a secure attachment is important but is not sufficient for well-being.

How can a parent tell if a child is securely attached?

Unfortunately secure attachment is a laboratory, not a life concept. The test for secure attachment can only be done by especially trained researchers/clinicians. Nonetheless, parents are often concerned that a number of childhood behaviors may indicate problems with attachment. I recently came across an example of this problem. A friend of mine has a four year old daughter who is very bright and generally happy. The child enjoys playing with her sisters and other children. She is not particularly anxious or fearful. However, this child does not like to be without her mother. At times, she cries at preschool because she wants Momma. The question is, "Does a four year old who cries for Momma have a disordered attachment or any other psychological problem?"

In our times, most women with 4 year old children are working full-time. We have little tolerance for four year olds who "act like babies" and cry for their parents. Therefore, it is convenient for us to label this behavior disordered and blame the child and not our lifestyles. Other than the desire to be with mom, my friend's child displays no sign of any psychological disorder. Thankfully, my friend is not working full-time and can be there for her daughter. However, my friend wonders if she should "give in" when her four year old yearns for her. In my view attachment specialists have failed because the field does not answer this question for the public. In fact, I would bet that if my friend took her daughter to 5 different specialists in the area, she would get five different answers. I will therefore provide my own opinion on this question.

Why does a four year old still cry for Mommy?

Attachment means one thing, that is a compulsion for proximity seeking. People who are attached seek to be near one another. Yes, attachment is a compulsion, a behavior we feel compelled to do. The attached person feels compelled to be near that special other. In normal young children, this compulsion is very strong and is the driving force behind much of what they do. This compulsion is also very important for psychological well-being. In fact, when it is absent, children are very disordered. Imagine the child who doesn't care whether his parents are around. That child is disordered! No one knows how much time in minutes/hours a child needs to be physically with his parents in order to have well-being. The answer is likely different for different children even of the same age.

During the preschool years, children also begin to develop what researchers call Self Regulation, an ability I have called impulse control. This ability enables a child to cope with all his many drives, compulsions and emotions. In the case of my friend, her daughter has not yet developed the impulse control necessary to cope with this very strong compulsion. We know that physical affection between parents and children strengthens the development of impulse control. We also know that helping a child understand and cope with his drives and emotions strengthens impulse control. Therefore, depriving a child of the contact he seeks will weaken NOT strengthen his impulse control. Rejecting a preschooler who wants us will likely impair his development and will weaken his sense of independence and competency. When parents require premature independence, children grow up with less impulse control and may be more vulnerable to developing ADHD.

But what if life circumstances make it impossible for mom to be there? In the case of the compulsion to be with mom, it is important not to require a child to exercise control over this impulse before he is ready. We don't want our children to develop the idea that wanting mom is a sign of weakness or something to be ashamed of. My advice is to have the child keep a picture of his mother with him at daycare or preschool. Staff should be instructed to have the child look at the picture when he misses mom. Staff can also say encouraging words like, "I know you miss your mom, she'll be here in just a little while, then you will be together." Staff can also help the child learn to use distraction to cope, "Let's draw a picture for your mom." "I know your mom wants you to try to have fun playing while you are here."

To sum it all up, many young children can adapt successfully to the demands of modern life. However, there are some vulnerable children for whom too much separation from parents may be harmful. Families have to be able provide for the special needs of these vulnerable children. This is the real meaning of putting the well-being of a child first in our lives.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Study links mother's poor impulse control with obesity in children

Our motto at Parenting the At Risk Child is, "Model, Teach, Influence." If parents want their children to learn impulse control, they have to model it. There are seven things that give us pleasure that we have to learn to regulate our drives for during childhood and adolescence. These things are food, comfort, entertainment, affection, possessions, social dominance and sex. Parents have to model restraint and management of impulses in each of these areas.

In a recent paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition entitled, Like mother, like daughter: familial patterns of overweight are mediated by mothers' dietary dis inhibition.TM Cutting and coauthors discuss the role of maternal impulse control in daughter's obesity. These authors found that the correlation between a mother's obesity and a preschool daughter's obesity is mediated by mothers modeling poor control over eating impulses. Mothers who model restraint when it comes to food choices, have thinner, healthier children.

We live in a culture of hypocrisy. Personal qualities like being thin, not being sexually promiscuous, and doing well in school are all valued. These qualities all require impulse control. However the influences that surround us favor unrestrained gratification of all the drives. This hypocrisy gives rise to anorexia nervosa as well as obesity.

To help our children achieve the balance in pleasure that is essential for a healthy, productive life, we must help them learn pleasure in loving affection and restraint of the other basic drives. Restraint doesn't always mean deprivation. Restraint means not allowing any drive to control our behavior.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Coloring within the lines

Many believe that forcing children to color “inside the lines” of a coloring book will stunt their creativity. I have found the opposite: Children who lack strength in their writing hand cannot draw and so cannot be creative! Strength in the hand muscles is needed for drawing and writing. The development of this strength is often delayed in at risk children, especially boys.

Fine motor skills are linked to other abilities

I noticed some time ago that my son’s drawings lacked the detail expected from a child of his age and overall intelligence. I was puzzled by this until I realized that he couldn’t draw because he lacked strength in his writing hand. He uses the muscles of his upper arm to both draw and paint. The result is that his drawings and paintings are all large strokes. When children have the ability to reproduce the shapes in their minds on paper they develop important visual-spatial skills. These skills are necessary to comprehend math. Children with fine motor weakness are often delayed in math. Furthermore, the part of the brain that controls the writing hand is very close to the part of the brain responsible for impulse control. Poor impulse control, hand weakness and the use of both hands for writing are related!

How to tell if your child needs help with fine motor skills

Being ambidextrous, using both hands for writing, drawing or coloring is not necessarily good. It may indicate weakness in both hands. If your four year old is unable to color in a coloring book beyond making large scribbles over the entire page, this may indicate he has hand weakness. To test this, gently hold his wrist while he draws. Can he use his hand only to draw or is he mainly using his upper arm?

If your child has weakness in his hands, he needs to exercise them

There are many exercises that will strengthen your child’s hand. The most important thing is to have him do these exercises for short periods of time every day. Trying to color within the lines of a coloring book with large sized crayons is the best exercise. For other ideas click HERE!

Friday, November 03, 2006

Sticks of gum and bandages

Like many children between 3 and 6 my son LOVES sticks of gum and bandages. How long do these items last in your house? We visited a friend recently and were in the child's play area when the boy opened his drawer and showed us bags and bags of gum and band aids. I said to his mother, "I think my son would chew all those pieces of gum in one day and cover his entire body with band aids if he had a drawer like this!" His mother then said she was able to teach her son to conserve. What a valuable lesson!

Scientists do not understand much about how children learn to control their impulses (see However, we know that impulse control is like a muscle, it improves with exercise. Good impulse control also predicts success in many spheres including academic and emotional development.

My friend is not a child development expert or professional. She instinctively knows that good parenting means teaching impulse control. Some children are naturally born with a good deal of ability to learn impulse control while others have more difficulty learning. Children of both high and low ability need to practice.

I suspect that consistent daily practice of impulse control really adds up for kids. I found that my 3 year old was also able to learn to save his gum and band aids. It took time, and he sometimes still swallows his gum, but he is more capable than I thought.

Helping a child with daily exercise of impulse control takes time and can be very draining. For example, my son is capable of dressing himself (with minimal help), but he would rather talk and play while I dress him. If we are rushed it is tempting to just go ahead and dress him. But then he misses out on the experience of putting fun aside to concentrate on a boring task. Daily exercise of impulse control also happens when we refuse to grant a child his wishes when he is nagging and/or crying. Again it takes time to say, I'm not going to get _____ for you now because you are nagging/crying. It also takes a parent's willingness to tolerate a child's discomfort.

Friday, October 27, 2006

A Link Between Poor Sleep and ADHD?

A Link Between Poor Sleep and ADHD? If your child has poor impulse control, consider whether sleep deprivation may be part of the problem. In his book, What Causes ADHD?, Dr. Joel Nigg compares the symptoms of ADHD to those of inadequate sleep. There is a striking similarity between the effects of sleep deprivation and the symptoms of ADHD. Kids who are over tired are hyperactive, irritable and impulsive. They can also suffer problems with learning and memory. All this being said, getting an at risk child to sleep is easier said than done.

It seems that the more over tired a child is, the more he resists going to sleep. Children require 9-10 hours of sleep each night. This means that children require more sleep than their parents and so have to go to bed earlier! The bad news is that many young children do require a parent’s help with going to sleep. If this is your situation, take comfort in knowing that many other parents (including me) share your nightly struggles.

As Dr. Sears points out in his article (see children that are raised to have a strong bond with their parents often have trouble going to sleep on their own. I agree with his statement that children who are trained to be alone may have an easier time going to sleep. However, we do not want to train our at risk kids to be alone. We want them to enjoy being with us so much that at times they do dislike separating to go to bed. The only solution is the one Dr. Sears also suggests. Keep your son or daughter company for a while as he/she falls asleep. Read to your child at bedtime and try to develop a good nightly routine so your child knows what to expect. Teach him with your words about the importance of a good nights sleep. Tell him what time he is expected to go to sleep and enforce his bedtime consistently.

Take comfort in knowing that there are very few 16 year olds who still require a parent’s help to fall asleep. Try to enjoy the precious few years you have to nurture your child and teach him to love.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Importance of Physical and Verbal Affection

The expression, "Have you hugged your child today?" became a cliche. It is also a rather shallow question, as if one hug sums up what parents are supposed to do with their kids.

Just how important is affection? There are seven things that are primary sources of pleasure for people. Affection is one of those primary sources of pleasure. For a person, child or adult, to have well-being, affection has to be the most important source of pleasure. Training a child to enjoy affection, definitely requires more than one hug a day!

Studies show that when infants and toddlers receive more physical affection, they develop better impulse control. Want to immunize your child against the terrible two's and ADHD? Make sure you hold him often. Physical affection also reduces stress in children. Stress is one of the causes of childhood mental disorders such as depression, ODD and ADHD.

Verbal and physical affection enable a child to learn morality. When loving parents teach morality and impulse control children listen. Physical affection turns children into sponges ready to absorb the lessons parents teach.Teens also need hugs and praise.

How do you know if you are giving your child enough physical and verbal affection. Babies should be carried in a front carrier as much as possible. Don't just keep your baby in an infant seat! Children who can walk, should be held on the lap for at least half an hour a day. This can be broken up into smaller chunks of time. Hold your child while you read to him, or while you are resting together. Hug and kiss your child when you first see him after a separation. Older children also need to play wrestle with their parents. Chase him around and tickle him. I use physical affection to distract my four year old away from mischief and domineering behavior. I say in jest, "I guess I'll have to hold you upside down and tickle you then!" He quickly forgets what he was up to.

You can reduce domineering strong-willed behavior in children by using affection. See The dominance drive is reduced by affection. Start by complementing your child on something good you see in him. Let this verbal reward be a starting point for 15-30 minutes of quality time with him each day. After several weeks of this daily habit, you will notice a decline in his domineering behavior.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Life With an At Risk Child

There is a common belief that if we are “good” parents our children will be magically transformed into obedient, compliant, quiet young people. If we work hard at parenting and this doesn’t happen, we may be left questioning our methods. While good parenting does help moderate a child’s temperament, the result may depend on the starting temperament of the child. A hyperactive, domineering child will be calmer and easier relative to what he/she would have been without thoughtful parenting. He/she is not likely to turn into a submissive, quiet soul.

Daily life with an at-risk child demands that a parent tolerate that child’s temperament and set firm but loving limits. My son is going through a new stage. At the age of nearly four, he has suddenly decided that he does not want to sit at the table to eat his meals. He repeatedly gets up and tries to wander around the room carrying his food. I don’t know why he has suddenly become more restless, but I do know he has to train himself to tolerate sitting with the family. I discovered long ago that saying “come and sit down” repeatedly has no effect. So each time he gets up I get up, pick him up and carry him back to his seat. He protests loudly, “I don’t want to eat.” Then the procedure is repeated over and over. It can take four or five trials for him to get the message that he has to sit and I’m not backing down, then he stays in his seat. I can see what would happen if I was not sure of myself. I might be inclined to give up after the second or third trial to leave him aimlessly wandering while everyone else eats. Then, he would not be forced to practice controlling himself. Instead, he would get a lesson in how to control me.