Category Archives: Talking With Children

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Raising Cultural Aware Kids

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St. Louis and Ferguson, Missouri have been thrust into the national limelight. Social dialogue regarding racial differences and cultural stereotypes is being discussed on TV and in the classroom. Is it, however, being discussed in your home? Dr. Hyken discusses this and, also, how to raise culturally aware kids in the Fox News Interview.

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Conversations about College

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I started talking to my kids about their college education about a week after they were born. OK, that is a bit of exaggeration, but it is not too far from the truth. Education is important to any new parent, and I spent my 30s having children and pursuing graduate studies. During that decade of my life, my own education and my children’s future consumed my thoughts.


Parents have a huge influence on their kids, and children will adopt family ideals if Mom and Dad share their beliefs. Therefore, I recommend that college conversations begin when the little one enters pre-school. The purpose of these higher education dialogues, however, should not be about where to attend; rather, parents should share their college experiences, talk about the importance of education, and explain how some careers—such as being a doctor or a teacher—require many years of school. Setting the stage for lifelong learning begins in the early years.

Serious conversations about attending college should start during seventh and eighth grade. In fact, it is best to prepare for life after high school before the first high-school bell rings. Talk with your eager adolescent about choosing college preparatory classes, participating in community service and developing personal talents. With the right encouragement, a child could easily develop a passion that guides him to future educational and life goals.

In ninth grade, the college indoctrination process truly begins. Students take standardized tests, complete interest inventories, and participate in initial meetings with their guidance counselor. These exploratory steps pave the way to junior year when students and families should become motivated about researching their options.

There are more than 9,000 colleges and universities, and even the most organized student will benefit from parental assistance. Don’t, however, be the over-involved ‘helicopter’ mom who hovers over every move or the ‘talent-scout’ dad who tries to brand their teenager and broker the best deal. It’s more important to ask your maturing child the right questions, listen, and be supportive.

Size truly matters. More relationally-oriented individuals tend to prefer the intimate classroom environment of a smaller campus. These schools are more person-centered and offer better opportunities to interact with professors. On the other hand, seniors looking to break out of the high-school fish bowl or wanting to stay under the radar should consider big school opportunities. Larger institutions also offer a wider range of classes, a variety of housing options, and big-time sports.

Location is the next topic to tackle. A school’s setting can have a significant impact on the college experience. Some may want to be close to home, but others may prefer to be on a mountain, near a beach, or in a major metropolis. College is both an education and a journey; it is a great time to push beyond one’s comfort zone and live in your dream location. And no matter where the school is, a student can always pack their books and transfer credits to a new university if things don’t work out.

Some may allow their course of study to drive their college search. This is an important consideration, but the majority of college students switch degree programs multiple times prior to graduation. Also, most college-bound high school seniors don’t have enough experience or information to be absolutely positive about what they want to study. It is important a university has the proposed area of interest, but attending the most prestigious program will not ensure success or happiness.

Watching your child mature and make major decisions can be challenging for any parent. College is a huge step toward adult independence, and it can be difficult for mom or dad to recognize the line between interference and support. Trust you have a raised an intelligent individual who makes good decisions and celebrate this exciting life transition.

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No Mixed Messages

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A father makes a comment about a celebrity looking too plump in her evening gown. A mom remarks that she feels fat after eating a big meal. An older sister makes a funny observation about somebody in her class who is a ‘giant.’ While these are meant to be harmless comments, children personalize these statements and can develop a negative body image because they hear loved ones innocently criticize themselves and others.

As early as first grade, many girls become concerned with weight and appearance. Some start to restrict food intake and others begin to read food labels. By third grade, 30 percent of these young students have actively dieted. Further, body image not only is a female preoccupation. Preteen boys also experience stress as they compare their bodies to athletes and actors. Children are inundated with messages from the media, their family and their friends that lead many to think that their appearance is unacceptable.

A positive body image is one that is based in reality. The child accepts who he or she is, and generally is happy with how they look and feel. A negative image is an unrealistic perspective and the child believes they do not live up to the expectation of others, including parents and peers. Anyone—no matter their age—who continually maintains negative thoughts about their appearance is at risk for an eating disorder and/or other mental-health issues.

It is, however, part of human nature to have a personal opinion about one’s looks. It also is normal to like some parts of your body and dislike others. But how one feels often is influenced by the company they keep. Family and friends continuously convey comments about appearance from the day one is born. And parents have a bigger influence on their children’s personal perceptions than any other source.

While it may not seem like it, most kids pay attention to mom and dad. If you frequently talk about your weight, your thighs, as well as your demanding workout, your kids also will worry about their weight, their thighs and their exercise habits. If you constantly eat fat-free foods and skip meals to reduce calories, your children will develop these same unhealthy habits. Kids subconsciously mimic adult behaviors.

Fortunately, parents also can play a pivotal role in boosting self-perceptions. Emphasize to your children that there are many different body shapes and not one ideal size. Explain that weight gain, especially during the onset of adolescence, is a normal part of development.

Further, encourage health over weight worries by urging your children to actively play. The gym is great, but spending time outside with the neighborhood kids is better and more fun. Hip-hop dance class, team sports, or walking the dog gets the body moving. It does not matter what kids do, as long as they do something.

Kids receive mixed messages about what is attractive versus what is healthy. Unfortunately, no matter how much you discuss health and fitness, kids are still susceptible to outside influences, especially media messages. Teach your children to become media-savvy by discussing the images they see on the TV, in magazines, and on the Internet. It can be difficult for a maturing child to understand that their favorite Disney starlets and their thin model friends often achieve their glamorous appearance through unhealthy means or Photoshop touch-ups.

Despite a parent’s best efforts, many children, unfortunately, do worry about their body image. If your child is constantly focused on their physical appearance, excessively diets, or continually compares themselves to others, they may need professional support to understand how to live a healthy lifestyle. Sadly, a mother’s words of wisdom may not be enough to sooth a struggling child.

Research shows that active families who enjoy physical exercise raise children who have a better self-esteem than families who do not adopt this philosophy. Helping children develop healthy habits will send them down an emotionally prosperous path. Being fit does not mean being thin—and being thin does not mean being happy.

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A Guide to "Bad" Playdates

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With the kids back in school and meeting new friends, play dates are right around the corner. To keep the play dates running smoothly, be sure to lay out your expectations with the other parent, clean up your child’s “special” toys and teach good etiquette beforehand.


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When Your Child Should See a Therapist

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My oldest child is 11 years old. And I believe that if you do something every day for 11 years, experience alone should make one proficient. However, parenting is more of an art than a science. What works one day may not work the next, and there are many factors that contribute to the ebb and flow of family functioning.

I have daily conversations with my wife about our kids. We continually strive to be appropriately involved without being overbearing. Our two boys seem truly happy, enjoy school and have engaging outside interests. Would it ever make sense to seek counseling when there are no apparent problems? And would seeing a therapist create an issue when one doesn’t exist?

The field of counseling is slowly changing. In past decades, only troubled individuals sought out mental health services. I have, however, noticed modern, well-functioning families are frequently reaching out for assistance to work through life’s regular challenges—study strategies, curfew conflicts, technology troubles and minor parent/child disagreements. These clients come with an agenda, set goals and collaboratively solve problems with their counselor.

For those families, therapy is a normal process like going to the doctor for an annual physical. They find no stigma with seeing a counselor and appreciate the professional perspective. Unfortunately, many parents feel conflicted about their child seeing a therapist and question the decision to do so. It truly can be worrisome to determine when additional assistance is needed.

Of course, there are obvious situations when a child needs therapeutic support. In some unfortunate instances, circumstances beyond a family’s control such as the death of a loved one, major illness or an unsettling life event causes undue stress. Other times, there are noticeable behavioral changes such as excessive crying, emotional withdrawal or inappropriate weight loss. And in some cases, a child’s teacher or family doctor highlights a concern that needs attention. Unfortunately, knowing when a child is struggling also can be very challenging.

Kids are constantly moving, growing and changing, making it difficult to determine the difference between normal developmental changes and truly turbulent times. Judging a child’s behavior in relation to their physical age is a great place to start. It is normal for a 5-year-old to constantly poke another child when they are supposed to be quiet, and it is normal for a teenager to have a major parental disagreement over a seemingly minor thing. When the frequency, intensity and/or the duration of the behavior seems disproportionate to the causing catalyst, it is time to seek professional help.

Regrettably, some parents avoid seeking a therapist because they worry that they may be the problem. In fact, the opposite is true: Seeking a counselor means you are an engaged and active individual trying to improve a life circumstance. Furthermore, a good therapist will view you as an ally toward healthier family functioning. If your ‘gut’ says help is needed, don’t let your own anxieties get in the way.

OK, you finally made the decision to take your child to a counselor. The nerves are setting in and you are worried that your daughter might refuse to attend. Start with an honest, age-appropriate conversation discussing why you want your child to participate. Emphasize it is important to you and simply request she attend a couple of sessions. When approached in this manner, most will go—not necessarily without complaining—but they will honor your feelings.

Therapy is about improving the self and one can’t argue with the desired outcome. While counseling can be long-term, it also can be only a few, as-needed sessions. Imagine having a trusted professional on your speed dial whose only agenda is to help you and your child. Develop a relationship with an understanding therapist. It is a great place to process not only major issues, but also life’s unusual challenges.

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College Drinking

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There is a difference between knowing that your teen is drinking alcohol at college and allowing your child to drink at home. Parents should never endorse alcohol use when their children are under the legal drinking age. In essence, when you say it is okay to use, you are also encouraging your son to break the law. Furthermore, if you allow drinking in your house, you are breaking the law and can be arrested for social hosting.

It is, however, reasonable to assume that your student is going to continue to engage in his social life, and parents should have a discussion about alcohol use. Choose a mutually agreeable time to engage in a conversation about summer expectations. Don’t ambush your teen, rather set a time and let him know you want to speak about drinking and your parental thoughts.

The most important rule is to make sure your college student knows it is never acceptable to drink and drive. Your child should understand that he can always call for a ride without parental judgment. Next, discuss summer work expectations. The best way to minimize alcohol use is to make sure your student has a busy summer schedule. This could include working, volunteering, or going to summer school. Lastly, discuss daily expectations including what time your teen should be home at night and what time he must rise in the morning.

Your son is maturing, and he should be open to discussing expectations. Listen to his perspective but also remember that you are the parent. Keep in mind that as the summer ends, the effects of excessive alcohol use can endure for many years. Lastly, if you feel your college student is drinking excessively, seek professional assistance.

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Public Violence

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With the recent amount of tragic events, children are being exposed to public violence. Dr. Hyken was on Fox2Now discussing how to talk to your children about these events.

Ladue News gathered a group of professional counselors who shared their advice for families undergoing trauma and tragedy in their lives.

Dr. Russell Hyken, psychotherapist/education diagnostician, Educational & Psychotherapy Services

  • First, ask your son or daughter what they have heard about the event. If the children do have those gory details, then change the direction of conversation and focus on the good people supporting the teachers and parents.
  • Reassure children that their school is safe and tell them of the school’s protocols. “That’s what children want to hear—that they will be safe.”
  • When young children do voice their concerns and worries, acknowledge their feelings. Then, re-direct their energy and do something fun.
  • It is important to build time into your week to spend time with your children. “It doesn’t have to be serious conversations; but by having that time, children will feel comfortable talking with you in the future when serious or troubling issues occur in their lives.”

Rekha Ramanuja, child and adolescent psychologist, Clayton Behavioral and Epworth’s Residential Treatment Program

  • Talk to friends, family, or a specialist. If you are a grieving parent, then you need an outlet quickly.
  • If the child is actually a witness or survivor to a traumatic event, then there is no simple way to deal with everything your child is experiencing. “But start by letting your children know that you love them and are going to support them.”
  • If the child is afraid, “Be patient and let the child know this feeling will not be the same forever. Just let them know you’re available to talk.”
  • It is OK to say, “I don’t know the answer, but we’ll find it together.”
  • Children and teenagers display signs of stress differently. Some talk a lot, ask numerous questions, have stomachaches or headaches, or become preoccupied with the issue.
  • Older children may display changes in personality or in their habits. Parents can start begin a conversation by saying, “I noticed that you’re not yourself. Is it the shooting (or other traumatic event)? It’s OK, because it has affected me, too.”
  • If you are asking too many questions, then back off; let your child sort out their thoughts and come to you.

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Teens Who Argue are Less Likely to Give into Peer Pressure

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Teens who are able to hold their own during family discussions/arguments, are better able to resist negative peer influences. In a recent segment on KTVI-TV in St. Louis, Dr. Russell Hyken discusses how to argue productively.

According to a recent study from the University of Virginia, parents who encourage their children to have their own opinions and who make a point of discussing/debating tough issues have children who are less likely to succumb to peer pressure.

When we discuss arguing/debating in this context, I am not referring to emotionally dis-regulated outbursts. And it is never acceptable to participate in over-the-top name-calling, or knock-down, drag-out arguments. Heated discussions of appropriate intensity and length are, however, growth-promoting opportunities.

Children benefit from having the opportunity to articulate and defend their own opinion on home turf and hear what their parents think. In fact, it is a safe way for kids to practice standing up for oneself. If teens don’t have a place to discuss tough issues related to sexual relationships, drug/alcohol use, curfews, and other teen concerns, then they may resort to experimenting or acting out without the benefit of parental guidance.

Furthermore, if teens are going to embrace the values and opinions of their family more than those of their peers, they need to feel that mom and dad understand them and will listen to them. Additionally, kids that are secure in their ability to turn to their parents when they are under stress are less likely to feel overly dependent on their friends and are thus, less likely, to be influenced by peer behaviors.

To encourage these conversations, let’s start with how you shouldn’t argue. Going through the motions of listening is not enough, drive by empathy doesn’t work. So, don’t cut your kids off, minimize, or be sarcastic. If you do then they are going to ignore or cut you off because they do not feel safe expressing themselves.

Parents need to learn to understand how their kids are thinking and to see things from their point of view. If you can do this, your kids will be more open.

Here are a few tips that will set the tone for productive discussions.

  • Model appropriate communication strategies and resolution skills. Keep voices low as yelling escalates the situation.
  • Demonstrate listening by engaging in appropriate turn taking exchanges and respond with clarifying statements that convey understanding.
  • End your arguments properly. Keep discussions short and resolve the conflict. Sometimes this will mean agreeing to disagree.
  • Lastly, remember you are the parent. In matters of health and safety, it is okay to lay down the law.

The ultimate goal of listening/arguing is to foster your teen’s autonomy while maintaining a positive relationship with them. Listen, respond, and respect what they have to say even if you disagree. If you can do this, your kids will ultimately make good decisions. And if they don’t they will at least be open to discussing the situation with you.

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How to discuss environmental disasters with children

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The occurrence and aftermath of major natural disasters can be particularly difficult to explain to children.  Effectively dealing with the complex range of emotions and questions children may have in reaction to this kind of news is key for parents who want to provide information while protecting kids’ sense of well-being and safety.  Dr. Hyken recently offered tips for parents and caregivers on KTVI-TV in St. Louis.