Category Archives: Parenting Strategies

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Why Losing Can Be Good for Kids

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Participation trophies are almost a given in today’s youth sports as children are constantly being assured that they are winners. Interestingly, trophies were once a rare thing. In the 1960s, however, awards began being mass-produced and marketed to teachers, coaches, and sporting-goods stores. Trophy and award sales are now an estimated $3 billion-a-year industry and many organized sport leagues spend more than 12 percent of their budget on these trinkets.

Awards are a good thing and a powerful motivator. Kids respond positively to praise, and they enjoy hearing that they’re talented, smart, and so on. Being the best and getting the recognition from parents and peers creates a huge since of pride. Winning is good and striving to be the best is even better.

Nonstop recognition, however, does not inspire children to succeed, and it can even cause some to underachieve. If all a child must to do is show up to get a trophy, some will do just that. They will not try to improve or learn problem-solving skills to become better.

Then, once a child does experience that first major failure, it can be crushing to their self-esteem. After all, they have been told they have special talents—given a trophy. That first difficulty or loss can cause a child to feel demoralized.  Some will choose to work harder, but others may give up.

Furthermore, by the age 4 or 5, children aren’t fooled by trophies. Those who outperform know it and so do their team mates. Kids are surprisingly accurate in identifying who excels and who struggles.

Additionally, young kids know when they, themselves, are talented. If they are given an award for something they don’t do well, it clashes with their sense of ability and can be confusing. As kids get older, most start to view those “special” awards as something that just goes on the shelf.

Being competitive is part of our culture; it’s in our blood.  Kids are always going to compete for something–win the game, get the best grade, who lost the most teeth. A parent’s, coach’s, and teacher’s job is to help kids see that progress over time is more important than a particular win or loss. Kids need to understand that setbacks are temporary and losing is a brief interruption between victories.


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Set a Positive Tone for the School Year

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Just a few short weeks ago, students were filled with anticipation about the start of school. Some were excited to see their friends and share summer stories, and others were dreading their loss of freedom and prematurely missing those lazy August mornings. Now, however, vacation memories have faded and school structure is everyone’s reality. Summer is firmly in the rearview mirror, and it is time to look forward.

Many consider New Year’s Day as the opportune time to create resolutions, but I would propose that the new school year is an even better time to make positive changes. And it all starts with setting proper goals. Ask your children what they might want to improve. Goals should be about personal fulfillment rather than a parental obligation because internal desire builds intrinsic motivation, a key quality for any successful student.

Creating a proper goal, however, can be difficult, as many tend to overreach or construct vague objectives. Parents should assist their student by discussing how realistic and measureable their plan is. For example, if your child says he is going to make all As, that might be unreasonable if he doesn’t typically earn As. Instead, redirect your student to focus on an attainable strategy, such as conferencing compositions with his English teacher to become a better writer.

Another way to ensure that your child experiences success is to assist him with balancing academics, extra-curriculars and free time. Many kids want to do it all, which creates stress as one struggles with meeting classroom demands and after-school requirements. Others prefer to be disengaged, often resulting in an unmotivated and lethargic student. Parents should establish realistic grade expectations and encourage their child to participate in at least one activity. Upfront conversations about how to manage homework, school activities and free time will set the tone for a realistic schedule and a positive school year.

Students also often struggle to understand the school day starts when the alarm clock rings, and ends when their head hits the pillow. Efficient mornings that allow time for a healthy breakfast and on-time school arrival creates a ready-to-learn brain, and conscious thoughts about after-school studying allow students to maximize their potential. Some prefer to complete homework before relaxing, while others want an after-school break. Commit to the process that works best and build evenings around that schedule. Consistency will ensure life responsibilities are successfully met.

To further support students during their return to routine, parents should also renew their school commitment. If you don’t already, volunteer for a couple of events and attend all teacher conferences. These connections will provide valuable insight into how your child’s classroom operates and facilitate a trusting home/school relationship. Teachers are quick to call involved parents not only about minor issues but also about personal triumphs.

Lastly, use this transitional time to revisit family routines. Start the year off with a commitment to have couple of family dinners every week. Also pledge to spend quality alone time with each child on a weekly basis. A short stop at Starbucks on the way to school can be a powerful relationship-building time that your kids will value (even if they don’t tell you).

When life gets hectic, individuals tend to get caught up in their own worlds. It is a parent’s job to provide structure so a child can experience both academic and personal success. Families that set a positive tone in September also are building a strong foundation for responsible decision-making. Good grades always are a goal but developing quality character and a positive attitude will bring even greater rewards. Make this fall a new beginning and create long-lasting resolutions.

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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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Family Arguments: Too Hot for Kids to Handle?

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Many children don’t listen to their parents, especially when asked to engage in some tedious task like emptying the trash or cleaning their rooms. When Mom and Dad argue; however, most kids will stop what they are doing and—for better or worse—seriously listen to their parents’ impassioned conversation. While family conflict is inevitable, many wonder if it is ever acceptable to argue in front of the kids.

In the past, family experts often directed parents away from having outward disagreements in favor of private, behind-closed-door debates. Unfortunately, these well-intentioned individuals perpetuated the parenting myth that children should never see Mom and Dad passionately disagree. However, recent research indicates that these professionals may have been wrong, and that overhearing ‘heated negotiations’ actually is a healthy situation for children to experience.

Now, I am not actively advocating that parents engage in battle, but many modern psychological theories do consider that dismissing or delaying disagreements can be potentially detrimental to a child’s emotional development. In fact, as long as parents fight fairly, it is good for kids to see their mother and father having the occasional dispute.

Of course, it is never proper to participate in over-the-top, name-calling, knock-down, drag-out fights. But kids should understand that two people who spend a significant amount of time together will experience conflict, and it is how one handles a disagreement that differentiates acceptable arguing from harmful hollering.

The first rule of the ‘healthy’ family fight is that parents should be aware of what they are arguing about and where they arguing. While many children are mature beyond their years, certain topics should be avoided. Conflicts regarding intimacy, money, addiction or how to raise the kids should only occur in private. Moreover, these disputes should focus on a particular situation rather than a negative character trait. What parents fight about is as important as how they fight.

When arguments do emerge, it is essential that parents model appropriate communication strategies. Keep voices low as yelling escalates the situation, demonstrate listening by engaging in proper turn-taking exchanges, and respond with clarifying statements that convey understanding. If the discussion escalates into an angry, rambling rant, it is time to retreat to neutral corners and resolve the conflict at another time.

It also can be tempting to ask your child to provide an opinion regarding the debate. Don’t! This creates internal turmoil, as your child is forced to choose a side. All kids want to see is a proper resolution, and children should never have to divide loyalties.

Most important, end arguments properly. Keep discussions short and resolve the situation. Sometimes, this will mean agreeing to disagree. Later, talk to your children. Younger kids, in particular, often need reassurance that Mom and Dad are truly happy parents and that the conflict is over.

Children who see their parents engage in appropriate communication, which includes arguing, learn how to form healthy relationships, relieve stress and solve problems. In fact, children react to peers in the same manner that their parents react to each other. Through modeling proper behavior, parents are able to teach their kids how to ‘let off steam’ and successfully work out disagreements.

If, however, your household is terribly turbulent, don’t settle for an angry relationship and an uncomfortable atmosphere. Children of parents who engage in high-frequency fighting often experience depression, anxiety and long-lasting emotional scars. It is better to seek assistance from an outside professional than to expose your kids to an unhealthy marriage.

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Time to Unplug

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I own a lot of things with screens—maybe too many. In addition to my work computer and laptop, I also have a TV at my office, in the bedroom, and in the bathroom as I need to watch the news while brushing my teeth. And, I own an iPhone, as well as multiple iPads. In fact, as I look around the house, it is safe to say that my old iPads never really die, they just get recycled into expensive room clocks and personal gaming devices.
Owning multiple devices is the new norm. My kids, like their friends, have several hand-held accessories, a variety of gaming consoles, a DVR to watch their favorite TV shows and a couple of old laptops. My wife, the most streamlined of us, still owns a smart phone, iPad and laptop. Despite these easily available distractions, the family does a good job managing tech use. We have many outside interests, including sports, performing arts and reading (on a Kindle, of course), but it would be difficult to survive without easy access to our devices.
The influence technology has on our brains, relationships, sleeping patterns and moods is a prevalent topic in mental health research. While there is no definitive answer that tells us exactly how technology impacts our children, professionals know that overuse negatively affects attention, sleep and development. Furthermore, doctors are seeing electronically addicted teens who are suffering from screen withdrawal and are forgoing other fun activities in favor of staying connected.
These same problems also impact adults who have the additional stress of business connectivity issues. With fierce competition in the workplace, many fear their success opportunities will be compromised if they don’t respond during all hours of the day and night. This work theory, however, may actually make one less useful as the brain needs time to recharge in order to operate at maximum efficiency. Additionally, multitasking tech demands with face-to-face interactions leads one to become more impulsive and more likely to take risks. In some ways, technology hurts as much as it helps.
Most adults and children would benefit from learning how to better manage their tech use, and summertime is the perfect time to start a digital diet. Consider planning a vacation with firm tech boundaries that limit electronic use. Don’t, however, make the detox decision without consulting the family and realize that going cold turkey is probably unrealistic. Accept that you will need to make some compromises, especially if teenagers are part of your crew. With a little advance planning, however, it should be easy to get everyone to agree to unplug, especially if you plan something fun or adventurous.
Once home or if you are not traveling, summer is still an excellent time to rethink your digital attitude. How you approach your children about computer use depends on their age. Younger kids are easy to distract, so influence their tech time by offering something different to do. Most kids younger than 8 are happy to engage in a creative endeavor if a parent or sibling will participate. Creating other interests and free time expectations is the best way to manage future overuse.
If your kids are older, parents still can influence without arguing, but some ground rules need to be established. No technology or TV during mealtimes, specific unplugged hours, and power off curfews are responsible requests. Additionally, I encourage families to reinforce that media use is a privilege and not a right–kids should earn their access. Once chores are completed, homework is finished and the piano is practiced, screen time is a great way to decompress. If family expectations are reasonable, kids not only will accept new rules, but may actually appreciate parentally imposed household structure.
OK, we all know that when we plug in, we also tune out. Your new media plan, however, does not require you to sledgehammer the computer; rather, it means embracing organization and time management. Your kids may accuse you of being out of touch with technological times, but they will do so while looking you in the eye and not while they texting their friends.

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Summer Boredom

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The start of summer is a time of unlimited possibilities for most kids. But as the excitement of being free from academic structure morphs into the dull days of summer, kids often become bored and many parents become frustrated. Arguments escalate as parents tell their children to just ‘do something!’ The problem is that today’s youth don’t really understand how to enjoy their free time.


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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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When Play Dates Go Bad

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The headline for this column sounds like a dreadful (or possibly entertaining) reality television show. Unfortunately, it is something that every parent has experienced. In fact, many may say that you have not earned your parenting stripes until you have suffered the pain of a problematic play date.

In the days of my youth, I remember a classmate would phone, our parents quickly worked out the details, and I was dropped-off shortly thereafter. Today, however, many parents frequently find that they must navigate a complex social situation that consists of courting not only an unknown child, but also his mom or dad. In fact, just securing a social activity for your young offspring can cause significant parental stress.

Most outings truly do go well, but your initial interaction with the prospective pal’s parent may be an indication of what to expect. Some moms may view you as a babysitter, while others believe an invitation for their child also is an invite for them. And there are those who will disregard drop-off/pick-up times, or call at the last minute to see if junior can come over to play. Be politely firm with your expectations and ponder if future playdates with these families are worth the trouble.

A parent should avoid choosing friends; rather, mom should consult with her maturing child, asking whom he would like to have to the house. Request multiple names and mix up the initial invites, promoting a variety of playmates versus a particular pairing. Exposing your child to multiple personalities will require that your son uses different social skills as well as provide the opportunity to develop multiple friendships.

Finally, plans are set and the big day is here, and parents need to set the stage for a fun afternoon. Start by ‘cleaning’ the house and packing away special toys that your son or daughter—no matter what their age—may not want a friend to use. It is much easier to hide the new Lego Star Wars set, than it is to tell a guest that a particular toy is off-limits. Also, remove any valuables and/or breakables that may worry you. The best way to avoid an incident is to take proactive steps of prevention.

A child needs guidance on how to be a good host. Discuss sharing and etiquette so that conflict over turn-taking can be avoided. Parents also should teach that planning is an essential part of successful socializing. A combination of specific activities, along with some unstructured time, will help kids balance their desire to play video games with your hope that they engage in some old-school, outside fun.

It can be difficult to avoid hovering during those initial gatherings, but a parental presence can create a situation where the kids are interacting with you instead of each other. If you do overhear a disagreement, mediate by guiding to resolution rather than fixing the problem. In the rare instance that either child truly oversteps the boundaries of acceptable behavior, it is OK to end the playdate, explaining to the other parent what has occurred.

Lastly, process the playdate with your child. Did he enjoy it, was his friend easy to engage, or did his guest do something that made him feel uncomfortable? The goal of the conversation is to listen to your child’s concerns, provide strategies for social problem-solving, and discuss how to be good a friend. Plus, there is the added benefit of promoting an open dialogue for any future concerns.

For better or worse, being a modern-day parent means you must initiate activities if you want your child to have any type of social life. The days of neighborhood kids freely roaming the streets have been replaced by supervised gatherings. Yes, bad play dates do happen even to good kids. Fortunately, once a child understands the art of entertaining, not only do kids have fun; but, more important, parents get a break.

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Sibling Conflict

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A new University of Missouri research study shows that sibling conflict can lead to depression and anxiety. Now, this research is not saying the occasional argument or disagreement is a problem; rather, this study is highlighting that on-going, persistent fighting can have long lasting effects on an individual’s mental health.

It is also worth noting that conflict is different from sibling rivalry. Rivalry is about “one upping” the other sibling, which in some cases can actually be a positive motivating factor. Healthy competition can push kids to be better.

There are two main types of conflict that can have long lasting emotional impact. The effects can last into adolescence and adulthood.

  1. Violations of personal space and property can cause one to be overly anxious if these intrusions are consistent. This is the worry associated with somebody entering your room or using your personal things.
  2. Continual conflicts over issues of equality and fairness can also lead to depression. A child that feels like they are continually treated unfairly will often suffer low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness.

Common sense tells us that continual conflict is detrimental; this study reports findings that most of us already know. The real implication or benefit of the research is studying how we should respond to these types of sibling disputes. It is a parent’s natural instinct to want to be the arbitrator of the argument. This is the wrong way to solve these dilemmas.

Tips to assist with avoiding conflict

  1. Set specific household rules—knock before entering a room, create chore calendars, have predetermined times for video games, etc. Parents should discuss among themselves the continual conflict triggers they see among their kids and create specific rules to avoid those problems.
  2. Don’t be a referee. Things will happen that are not covered by the household rules. When conflicts arise, tell your children they need to walk away from the situation and provide an immediate consequence such as no video games tonight, both go to your room. etc. Don’t buy into the conflict because it could force you to take sides.
  3. Defuse the jealousy. A child who feels like he is treated unfairly may often be jealous of the other sibling. Redirect your child’s jealousy concerns by acknowledging it is normal to occasionally be jealous but also highlight something they do well. This will make the child feel valued and can ultimately increase self-esteem.
  4. Model appropriate behavior. Parents are role models. Be supportive of your spouse, solve appropriate disagreements in front of your children so they learn how to resolve conflict.

The bottom line here is to pay attention to your kids. Rivalry, conflict, jealousy, etc. are part of normal family life. Your parental job is to help your children to manage their feelings and learn how to function. Send the message that we are family and we help each other. If the problem becomes too much to handle and the conflicts become overly intense, seek professional help to avoid long term consequences. Home should always be a safe place to work things out.