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So Moody!

August 30, 2009

We all have our moods, our good days and our bad days. However, some people run more or less on an even keel, while others swerve radically from high to low. Kids, too, are more or less moody, depending on their genes, their health and their stress levels. A well-rested, well-fed, happy-go-lucky child living in a relaxed home and attending a child-friendly school geared to his or her academic skill level will probably be in a pretty good mood most of the time. On the other hand, a tired child subsisting on sugar cereal, living in a stressed-out family and dealing with a high-pressured school environment will probably be moody a lot of the time. While parents can't do much about their children's genes, they can do something about the other factors that affect mood and they can also help their kids learn how to manage their low and irritable moods.

For instance, parents can be aware that their own mood impacts tremendously on their children's moods. Calm, happy parents bring out the best mood in their kids. Nervous, agitated or angry parents disturb their children's mood. One way that parents can help their kids' moods is by helping their own mood first. Adult mood improves along with adequate sleep, healthy diet, leisure time, social and emotional support, exercise, deep relaxation and other stress-busters. One of the most important stress-busters is the nourishment of spiritual faith.

Medical and psychological research has shown that a personal, direct relationship with G‑d is excellent for one's physical and emotional well-being. Talking to G‑d informally and formally through prayer is one way to develop such a relationship. Parents who are still stressed after employing all of these strategies will usually find that good mental health support provides an extra measure of stress-reduction. Although they will definitely benefit from giving themselves the best care, their children may benefit even more. Parents who abuse themselves through self-denial not only provide a bad model of mood management for their kids but may also directly harm their children by being too stressed-out to respond appropriately throughout the parenting day.

Teaching children mood management skills is accomplished through the parental model and through direct teaching techniques. Kids can be taught how to take study breaks, downtime, fun time, exercise and even how to do deep relaxation. They can be taught to pursue their passions and develop their spirituality – both of which lead to improved mood. They can be taught to talk to G‑d about all of their problems. Parents can help see to it that younger kids eat a balanced diet and get enough sleep and that older teens learn the importance of healthy physical and emotional habits as well.

When a child's mood suddenly changes, parents need to be concerned and take action. A departure from a normally balanced mood can indicate extreme stress in a child. Such stress can be caused by problems with peers (i.e. being bullied), teachers, schoolwork or family stresses (i.e. divorce, illness, moving, fighting, etc.). Medical conditions and substance abuse can also account for mood changes.

The chronically moody child is born that way. His "mood-o-meter" is set on "low" causing a chronic low grade sad or irritable mood or sometimes an angry, negative mood. Positive life events and even positive parents can do little to shift the mood. As long as the symptoms don't cause undue distress or dysfunction, little needs to be done apart from providing emotional support and lifestyle guidance. Some professional psychological intervention may be helpful as well. If mood disturbances are intense enough to make a child seriously unhappy or unable to socialize or handle his schoolwork, intervention is necessary. These kids may benefit from physical therapies such as alternative treatments (i.e. acupuncture, homeopathy or other physically based interventions), professional psychological treatment and/or psychiatric treatment (i.e. psychotropic medication). Early intervention can help prevent a lifetime of suffering.

No one is happy all the time. Challenges help us to grow even if they cause us distress. However, low mood can also interfere with our development causing us intrapersonal or interpersonal difficulties and impeding our relationship with G‑d.

We have to help ourselves and our kids monitor and manage moods in order to become our best possible selves.

Changing "Child Spin" into "Mom Spin"

August 23, 2009

Dear Bracha,

My two-year-old is constantly throwing his food on the floor when he is finished eating. I have tried giving him his meals in smaller portions, encouraging and asking him not to throw food, and praising him on the occasions when nothing is thrown. I also always make him pick up what he throws, but he continues to do it. Any suggestions?

Mom with food all over

Dear Mom,

Ahh, it's the old throwing things on the floor trick! See mom pick up, see mom pick up again, and again…again….again….This is a game and it remains a game no matter what you do. You are now locked into an expected behavior with a child spin on it. It is that "child spin" which is the hardest to beat.

What do I mean by "child spin"? What you are up against is how your son sees and interprets these events. If he doesn't see the downside of what's happening, then he has no incentive to stop playing the game—therein lies your problem. What is the downside when everything is seen as a game? And that is how most two-year-olds are relating to their world. A fun game puts the child at the center of attention; this is the positive reinforcement, the incentive for continuing the game. Therefore it is quite possible that the attention your son receives as you focus solely on him, while instructing him to pick up whatever food he has dropped, does not act to discourage him from dropping the food. It is only another part of the game. As long as he perceives things as positive then there is no down side and no incentive to change his behavior.

What to do? Now that we have seen that we are dealing with "child spin", it's time to put a little "mom spin" into this picture! We have previously discussed what comprises attention: talking, touch and eye contact. Therefore all these things should be minimized when your son displays poor behavior, behavior you wish to discourage. For example, when you instruct your son to stop dropping his food on the floor, you're talking to him—a form of attention. When you make him clean up his mess, you must give him instruction and keep a running commentary until the task is done—a great deal of attention. That is why these efforts have not resulted in any positive change of behavior. Using "child spin": they give attention and your son can not see any negative side to what he is doing.

Enter "Mom spin." Your son wants attention, give it to him! Perhaps you have been leaving him in his high chair while you clean up around the kitchen and he has found this great way to get you back – what ever you have been doing, make sure that from now on you are with him: talking to him and smiling at him while he is eating, keeping things positive. The moment he throws something on the floor, you make a short instructional statement such as: "No throwing things on the floor." Don't pick up anything at this time. Make sure you voice is stern and your face "angry". (Don't yell or raise your voice or make judgment statements, e.g., "You're bad!" The object is to give your son as many non-verbal clues as possible that he has done something wrong.) Then turn your back on him; just turn your chair around and let him see only your back for at least thirty seconds. Do not talk to or interact with him in any way. When you turn around and continue the meal, act as if nothing has happened. If he throws more food on the floor, and he will, repeate the above scenario.

I fully expect your son to throw all his food on the floor, expecting you to react as you usually do. It will take time for him to establish a cause and effect relationship, but he will. The only thing that you have to watch out for is consistency. You must be consistent! Going back to your old response even once will confuse your son and lead him to continue his poor behavior as he hopes for your predictable response to his game.

Your child's wish for more attention and interaction with you is perfectly understandable and normal. The only choice you have as a parent is how he will receive it. Will he receive attention when he displays poor behavior or when he displays good behavior? By increasing interaction during the meal time and instantly removing it as soon as he drops any food, you are able to take over his game in a way that he will understand. You now have created a "downside" to his behavior that he can see even in "child spin". As to the food on the floor, just sweep it up yourself when the meal is over and don't say a word to him about it so as to not have any increased interactions associated with this poor behavior.

A few small points:

If you feel your son is hungry because he did not eat enough, do not give him any extra food or treats as this may create associations of reward that you do not want. If you feel that your son will be hungry, move up the nest snack or meal time while staying as close to your regular routine as possible.

If you feel that you are not teaching your son to be responsible for his actions because he does not clean up his mess – you are right, but this is not the time. The more important lesson for you to focus on is getting this food dropping under control. Responsibility for messes can be taught in cleaning up his toys and other opportunities and will eventually be used at meal times as well.

If you feel that your son will not understand what is expected of him with just a short instructional phrase, rest assured that by this time you have told him to stop dropping his food, and why it's not nice to do so, about a hundred times. He's a smart boy; he already knows it's wrong. It is not knowledge but incentive that he needs.

I am sure that you will find that children make up a great many games, some of which are not appreciated by us adults. You now have the template to discourage any of these poor behaviors. Our sages often state: "Teach a child in his way." This means: find the best way for your child, the way that most suits his abilities and temperament.

May you find this journey with your son to be both positive and enjoyable.

Make Time for Boredom

August 16, 2009

My children are growing up in a world filled with children. There is always a friend on hand. Every afternoon, crowds of children swarm the sidewalks, playing hopscotch and tag, and swapping rides on their bikes and scooters. In contrast, my childhood home was bordered by elderly neighbors. Friends were only available by play-date.

I lived in the city, and had much less freedom to roam the neighborhood than my kids do. Instead, I roamed the rooms of my mind. Exotic worlds were accessed by a hidden path through the hedges. I wrote stories, and even attempted a novel at nine years old. I dressed up the dog.

There were many times I was lonely. Yet my loneliness trained me to use time in a way my children know nothing about.

My mother didn't believe in camp. So rather than summers filled with structure, I had summers filled with possibility. While she slept in, I sleuthed the house, gleaning my parent's secrets from the titles of their books and black-and-white pictures of their youth.

I studied the diagrams of the body in Encyclopedia Britannica, fascinated by the way muscles layered bone, and skin layered flesh. I turned those cellophane pages over and over again, reveling in their concealed mysteries.

One summer, I conducted science experiments with cleaning supplies although I termed the resulting concoction "witches brew." I hid it away in a cabinet where it festered for years, until my mother found it in a highly evolved and unrecognizable state. That was my first lesson in evolution.

I traversed the boundary between adventure and mischief and adeptly feigned innocence when I sensed myself to be under observation.

Unlike my own mother, I do believe in camp. Perhaps because I still remember all the things I got up to. Yet I recognize that even the best camp has its limitations.

In camp, children have no need to probe the depths of their minds as I did. They have no need to push at the boundaries between the known and the unknown. Instead, they dwell in a communal world of shared play. They compete in contests which test desirable childhood skills and assign ranks – highest jumper, fastest runner, best hider.

As a parent, I am happy that my children are entertained and have found so many friends to play with. It certainly makes my job easier and spares me from having to listen to the kvetching that loneliness inevitably brings.

Yet I relish the thought that at least for a few weeks this summer, we will be leaving their established and familiar world behind during our yearly pilgrimage to visit their grandparent's.

There is not as much for our children to do at their grandparent's house as there is at home. It is a neighborhood where adults clearly outnumber children. There are no readymade entertainment forums waiting to provide immediate gratification.

Yet I hope that once their initial boredom subsides, they will look beneath the surface and find the hidden world that lurks just beneath their awareness. I hope they will recognize that there are opportunities concealed from one's initial view, and a certain freedom that comes with discovering them.

These opportunities include recognizing that not all games require another player, and not all competitions require an opponent. Sometimes the best games are the ones we play against ourselves.

It is sometimes challenging for a parent to know when to help a child find a suitable activity and when to wait it out, until the child is able to break through their boredom and emerge into the new world on the other side.

To parents brave enough to attempt allowing their children a taste of boredom this summer, I offer these guidelines:

1. There is a difference between a boring environment and a dangerous one. Make sure that your child grows bored in a safe and secure location, rather than a dangerous one.

2. Recognize that downtime is a good thing. It is often the stage that precedes inspiration. Frequently, a bored child will relax and look out the window or watch others in the house before finding their own occupation.

3. Alternate structured days with unstructured ones.

4. If your child seems to be growing overly frustrated, break the mood with a brief activity such as reading stories or a game of cards.

5. Suggest that your child spend time with you doing their own thing alongside. I frequently invite my daughter to work quietly next to me in my office. She brings some art supplies and we both work side by side, sharing the space.

6. Remember that learning to manage your own time and inner world is a skill like any other. Expect setbacks and tantrums along the way.

Many of the greatest Jewish rabbis emphasized the concept of hitbodedut, the practice of using solitude and self-reflection as a method of spiritual growth. Spiritual growth is only possible when one is able to tune out the noise of the external world and focus on the internal one. That ability begins in childhood, and it starts with a taste of boredom.

How to Have a Conversation with Your Children

August 9, 2009

Question: How can I initiate and maintain a conversation with my child?

Answer: Conversations are the glue that holds people together. It's the connection. One story that touched my heart is about Rabbi Yisrael Meir (haCohen) Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim. One Yom Kippur, after Kol Nidrei, a certain bachelor came to visit the great sage, sat down next to him and began to chat about this and that, the weather, some politics—for hours. Family members and close acquaintances were taken aback at the way the Chofetz Chaim sat and conversed with the man about the most mundane matters on the holiest night of the year.

When at last the guest left, they asked the Chofetz Chaim to explain his actions. "The night of Yom Kippur must be the loneliest day of the year for this individual," said the Chofetz Chaim. "Every other Shabbat or Jewish holiday, he gets invited to the homes of kind people for the Shabbat or holiday meal where he has the opportunity to sit and converse with his hosts and other guests. But on Yom Kippur, since there's no meal, there's no conversation and he must feel very lonely."

In today's frenetic-paced society, when having a leisurely conversation with our children can seem almost like a luxury we can ill afford, the time the great sage took to converse with this lonely man serves as a poignant reminder of its importance.

As parents it's up to us to create a safe, nonjudgmental environment for our children so they feel comfortable to tell us everything and to question us about anything. Be supportive and encouraging, and really listen. Ahavat chinam (unconditional positive regard) is the complete acceptance of another person without evaluating or censoring, and without disapproving of particular feelings, actions, or characteristics. It is a respect for the fact that every human being is created in the image of G‑d, a real appreciation of each individual's intrinsic value rather than behaviors and appearances.

On the other hand, parents often find that children are not responsive to their well meaning intentions. Thus they find themselves hard at work "pulling teeth."

"How was your day?"

Fine.

"What did you do today?"

Nothing.

"Nothing?"

No.

"How was recess time?"

Good.

How do we add some spice to these bland conversations that aren't going anywhere?

One thought to ask yourself is, "Are you always in the mood for conversation?" You could be tired or hungry; you may feel a need for some peace and quiet. You don't always feel ready to schmooze. Our children don't either.

Some kids never have anything to say until you've finally tucked them into bed at night and then they pipe up as though their little talking machines just got plugged in. For some children it's in the quiet of the night, when the lights are out and they're feeling cozy and warm, that they're ready to talk. For others, it's the early mornings when they're bright and perky and they're bubbling with stories to tell.

Catch their talkative moments.

As I was writing this piece my son came home from an overnight trip and I literally bombarded him with questions. "How was it? Did you have a good time? What did you do there?"

My son looked at me with red, bleary eyes and said, "Mommy, I'll tell you everything soon. But first I want to rest a bit."

And while there are some children who need you to be there for them and their stories the minute they walk through the door, there are other children, quieter souls, who can only open up when there's no eye contact, when you're out taking a walk with them or playing basketball, or while they're absorbed in a relaxing activity such us doing a puzzle.

But what's a parent to do with children who just never have what to say?

Talk about yourself. Tell them about your day, share your ups and downs; model good conversation, so that they will learn to do it, too.

Be patient. Sometimes it can feel like forever before a child gets his story out and we can feel oh so tempted to fill in words or to finish the child's sentence to get him to talk faster. Try to resist that impulse. By listening good-naturedly, and letting the child talk at her own pace, we're conveying to the child that he or she is worthy of our time.

And enjoy. There's no greater gift than a warm, loving relationship – the upshot of warm, loving conversations – with the people who mean the most to us.

How to Deal with a Bitter Child

August 2, 2009

In a paper greeted enthusiastically at the May conference of the American Psychiatric Association, in San Francisco, a new name was given to a common problem: Post Traumatic Embitterment Disorder. This disorder describes people who can't stop complaining, criticizing and grumbling about the "raw deal" they got or how "Everyone has more – more love, success, attention and possessions." They are constantly feeling deprived and disadvantaged, raging at those who fail to satisfy their demands and blaming others for their misery. While some embittered people experienced abandonment, neglect and abuse in childhood, others were loved and even pampered. And while many of them have suffered tragic losses, such as serious illnesses, abuse or the death of loved ones, others enjoy good health and have loving spouses and successful children. In other words, this "cancer of the spirit" hits both the rich and the poor, the sick and the healthy, those who seem to have everything and those who seem to have nothing.

Thankfully, there is a great deal we can do to help ourselves and our children overcome what is called an "ayin ra'ah," or a begrudging eye. This is an illness which must be curbed early; otherwise it devours everyone, including the victim. You might see it early in life, in situations such as:

* Six-year-old Shira grumbles constantly about how rejected she feels. Each time she goes out to play her mother knows that, at some point, she will run into the house screaming angrily about how mean the other girls are toward her. She also complains that her teacher is mean and doesn't choose her when she raises her hand.

* Five-year-old Miri is insanely jealous over the fact that she has frizzy hair, while her older sister has long straight hair. She thinks that she is ugly and that everyone is looking at her and comparing her to her perfect sister.

* Eight-year-old Moshe ruins every family vacation by grumbling about everything - the food is awful, the ride is boring, his siblings irritate him and other kids have a lot more fun on their vacations. He grumbles about the fact that other children get loads of sugary sweets, while "mean mommy" gives him healthy fruit rolls and raisins and won't buy fancy name-brand clothing.

* Fourteen-year old Yitzy hasn't stopped sniping at his parents for not being able to afford a fancy Bar Mitzva party like many of his friends had and anyway, he adds, his family is defective because there are no grandparents who live near by.

These children respond to disappointments, frustrations or irritations with more than the normal rage and blame. They are inconsolable when upset and sometimes take out their murderous rage on younger siblings or by attacking the parents physically.

If you see such signs of bitterness in your children you must invest time in developing their Emotional Intelligence, which means helping them understand their own and others' feelings, and teaching them to cope with deprivation in a mature way. Do the following to develop an ayin tova (a forgiving/accepting eye) and fight the begrudging eye:

1. Validate their feelings: You don't have to spend hours feeling sorry for them, but you can briefly say, "I see how disappointed you are. It's hard not to get what you want." If helpful, let him "measure" his pain level on a ruler.

2. Show gratitude: Throughout the day, look up frequently and say, "Thank you, G‑d, for _______." This can be anything from having electricity and running water to hearing good news about a recovery from an illness or other joyful event.

3. Have a gratitude raffle: Buy a roll of raffle tickets. Tell the kids, "Every time someone mentions something for which they are grateful, I'll put a ticket in the box on the table. When we get to 300 (or 1000!), I'll order pizza."

4. Show faith: Show your children that you are using losses and irritations to develop faith. The next time the child returns from the swimming pool minus a towel or bathing suit, or something breaks or you are stuck in traffic, say out loud, "G‑d is giving me another opportunity to accept His will." And if you are facing a more serious loss, like an illness, the loss of a job or the death of a loved one, say, "I'm really struggling to make G‑d's will my will. My acceptance level may be only 2%, but every percent counts."

5. Have an acceptance raffle: Tell the children that you'll put a raffle ticket in the bowl each time they experience a disappointment and say the words, "I accept G‑d's will with love." This can be about any disappointment, including the fact that they don't like their height or nose, are disappointed about not getting the food or the trip they wanted, or experience any loss or irritation. Order pizza or reward them in some other way when they reach 500 tickets!

6. Tell them: "Our Creator gives me everything I need. It might not be what I want, but it is what I need." Let your children know that you, too, have many desires that you have not fulfilled, such as a bigger apartment or better paying job.

7. Refuse to compare: In a modest way, talk about your own limitations to remind your children that no one is perfect and that, nevertheless, everyone deserves respect. Some people are good at cooking, cleaning or doing math while others are not good at these subjects, but might be great at art work or organizing social events. Make sure that children know that everyone is given the precise character traits and life events for their particular task in this world.

8. Find a talent and nurture it: Find what your child is good at and nurture it, whether it is music, dance, singing, learning or business. Each child needs to feel special and important in his own way. And everyone can do chesed, which is the best spirit lifter of all!

I made up a Kids' Kit which contains "Coping Cards" for adults and children, and also has a ruler on which a child can measure the level of his pain and disappointment. I kept a set of cards on a poster board on the wall of every room in my home when my children were little and told them to choose a card when they were in pain. I kept another set in a fancy jewelry box. Whenever a child had a serious problem, I'd say, "Here are the jewels which G‑d gave us to help us cope with our pain." Then we would go through them one by one. Over the years, these cards will teach you and your children to use life's losses to become better, not bitter.

Just about every career requires prior course training, and often some work-related experience.

Becoming a parent can be one of the most responsible positions we undertake, yet most of us do so unprepared and without any prior knowledge.

What makes your child tick? How can you learn to communicate better so your child will listen? Dealing with bedtime fights? Teaching gentleness? Arranging allowances and chores?

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