Staying Focused During the Holidays

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Staying Focused During the Holidays

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It is beginning to look a lot like the holidays: Streets are filled with decorations, Christmas specials are on TV, and kids fantasize about snowy days and new video games. This ‘most wonderful’ time of the year, however, also is a most distracting and stressful time of the year, especially if you are a kid.

School does not slow down during the holidays; rather, it speeds up. Final exams are taken, long-term projects are due, and essential last-minute tasks are assigned as the semester comes to an end. There also are big games and special events to attend. Combine an increased work load along with many distracting festivities, and it can be difficult for anyone to stay focused.

Parents should take advantage of the hectic holiday season to perpetuate a good habit or start a new family tradition: talking to your kids about school. It can be complicated coordinating multiple schedules for a serious discussion, but that is the point. When times get too busy, families need to focus on life, relationships and academics.

Learning to study is an evolutionary process that continually needs adjustment. Have a conversation with your student discussing what homework habits work best, as well as potential problem areas. Kids should be encouraged to learn from their mistakes, make changes as necessary and celebrate successes. Being a supportive parent is one of the greatest gifts you can give a child, but it may take many years before your offspring truly appreciates your parenting style.

In general, most students struggle to balance school and outside extracurriculars. The holidays, however, provide additional opportunities for students to go astray. A key to staying on task is to avoid being overwhelmed. With parental assistance, kids should set a schedule at the start of each week, designating times to study and times to enjoy the festivities.

Additionally, unforeseen activities often pop up during busy times, and kids may waste energy because they are not in the correct state of mind to attack their academics. Regular weekday check-ins can assist students with making appropriate adjustments and, at the same time, provide additional support. A gentle parental push to work efficiently encourages students to prioritize work and strike a better balance between school and holiday fun.

The proper ambiance also is particularly important during this season of distraction. The study area should be stocked with pens, pencils, paper and other essential aids such as healthy snacks and beverages. Sitting at a desk in a well-lit room also is more conducive to learning than lounging on a comfortable couch. Light background music can assist with focus, but upbeat holiday songs should be avoided until homework is complete.

Parents, too, can bolster academic productivity by joining the study-time fun. Sit at the desk alongside your student and bring your work to the table. This not only models good habits but also provides a unique bond as families unite to do work before engaging in play. Additionally, your student will also be less likely to text, Facebook or Skype with a parent in the room.

Finals are finished, school is over, and it is time to take a breather. An essential way to recharge and re-motivate is to enjoy the holidays and focus on the family. Shift away from the daily stresses of school and work to create a new family tradition. Get everyone together to bake holiday cookies, prepare a special breakfast, or take a trip to the ice rink. Special times create lifelong memories that outlast the temporary enjoyment provided by expensive or trendy gifts. Yes, kids want presents, but they also want to be part of a family.

Life is always hectic. The holidays can, however, allow families to temporarily leave behind the daily grind and spend time focusing on each other. The food is great, the atmosphere is special, and relaxation is encouraged—it truly is the most wonderful time of the year. Happy holidays!

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The number of children diagnosed with ADHD has increased by 66% over the last ten years. While this number may be shocking, it’s not all bad news. Dr. Hyken was on Fox2Now discussing the symptoms to look for, how to be tested and the available treatments.

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Bullying Knows No Age

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Today’s bullies are much more sophisticated than the troublemakers of my youth. Victims, these days, don’t typically have a black eye or bloody nose; rather, they arrive home with internal scars that are unnoticeable to their parents and more emotionally damaging than a punch to the stomach.

One thing that has not changed over the years is the definition: Bullying is unwanted or aggressive acts among individuals of all ages that involve a real or perceived power imbalance. These acts are continually repeated over time and may range from physical harassment to complicated emotional abuse such as exclusionary tactics and rumor-spreading.

Unfortunately, thousands of children wake up every morning afraid to go to school because they fear their peers, and it is a problem that affects kids from kindergarten through senior year and beyond. Interestingly, some children–especially younger ones–often are unaware that they are hurting others, but older adolescents will employ intentional tactics aimed at devastating their targets.

As kids enter into kindergarten, they begin to understand social norms and rules but have difficulty grasping expectations. Playground cliques emerge as some kids enjoy sports, others play house, and many climb on the jungle gym. When an unwanted peer tries to join the fun, a popular member may belittle the unknowing child to the amusement of his friends. Enjoying this new-found attention, the group leader becomes a playground bully.

While it is true that the elementary years are a time of innocence for most, it also is the period where many begin to notice that others are different. Children begin to tease their classmates because of height, weight, interests, learning issues, clothes, hair color and other unimaginably unique qualities. Sadly, frequent teasing often leads to more than just tears as even first-graders can become anxious and depressed.

When kids enter middle school, bullying becomes more common and more vicious. Peer pressure, pack mentality and an undeveloped moral compass can foster unrelenting meanness toward others. Some even become overly aggressive to establish their social status. Furthermore, it can be developmentally difficult for a tween to understand that he has ‘crossed the line,’ resulting in some viciously persistent harassment. Victims become isolated, and it also is common for the abused to physically fight back.

The middle-school mentality still exists in high school, but teen bullies often engage in a much wider spectrum of abuse. Furthermore, different sexes use different strategies: Boys typically are more direct (physically and verbally), while girls are more indirect, often engaging in relational abuse such as crowding an unwanted individual out of a lunch spot. Technology also enters the picture and cyber-bullying provides the opportunity for 24/7 attacks. Unfortunately, older adolescents are less likely to report acts of aggression and more likely to suffer serious mental health concerns.

No matter the age, persistently bullied children suffer long-lasting biological effects as structural changes occur in the brain as a result of the emotional damage. Bullied children produce more stress hormones, which creates a constant awareness and sensitivity to potentially stressful situations. For this reason, students spend more time scanning the environment for threats, making it difficult to concentrate, learn and relax. Furthermore, many victims don’t properly develop the needed emotional and cognitive abilities to lead successful lives because they are continually worrying and protecting themselves from others.

If you feel your child is the victim of continual harassment, take appropriate action. Call or email your child’s homeroom teacher or principal, and objectively report your concerns. Find a therapist who has school experience. And, most important, involve your child in a new activity that introduces him to other kids with similar interests.

At some point during the educational years, most students will be victimized. A recent American Justice Department study indicated that 77 percent of all students have been bullied, and 15 percent of those kids reported that they were treated severely and suffered long-lasting effects. To ensure that your children stay safe, stay involved in their lives. Continually connect with your kids so they feel comfortable speaking to you about any topic.

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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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Is TV Making Our Kids “Mean Girls”?

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A new study finds that social aggression is depicted on a vast majority of children’s TV programs, and could be playing into increases in psychological bullying. The Healthline Editorial Team recently featured Dr. Hyken in an article about how this trend is affecting our children.

Study Roundup: Is TV Making Our Kids “Mean Girls”?

By Megan McCrea

We’ve all heard the adage: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But is it true?

Over the years, considerable attention has been paid to combating the “sticks and stones”—namely, nose-bloodying schoolyard bullies. We’ve given less thought to hurtful words. However, mounting evidence suggests that our kids can’t ignore this psychological bullying.

In recent years, studies have shown that “social aggression”—mean-spirited behaviors like excluding peers, giving dirty looks, manipulating friends, and spreading rumors—can cause real damage. Victims of social aggression experience adjustment problems, suffer low self-esteem, and, in severe cases, commit suicide. The problem has become so severe that, in 2006, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services labeled “psychological bullying” a serious public health issue.

But where do children learn to behave this way? New research published today in the Journal of Communication provides keen insight on one possible cause: TV. In the study, researchers analyzed the content of the 50 most popular children’s television shows, from American Dad toZoey 101. They charted how often incidents of social aggression occurred, what kind of aggression occurred, and how that aggression was portrayed.

The Expert Take

The head of the study, Dr. Nicole Martins, said the study highlighted the antisocial messages prevalent on TV. The study found that 92 percent of the shows studied depicted instances of social aggression.

In an interview with Healthline, Dr. Martins explained the idea behind the study. “[We looked for] any behavior intended to damage the self-esteem or social standing of a target. This could include something as simple as calling someone a mean name…[or engaging in] more nuanced behaviors like cruel gossip.”

Dr. Martins and her research partner Dr. Barbara J. Wilson found that, on average, incidents of social aggression occurred 14 times per hour. That’s one rolled eye, cutting comment, or sarcastic laugh every four minutes.

They also considered context—whether the show depicted social aggression in an appealing way. The result? “Socially aggressive acts were significantly more likely to be committed by an attractive perpetrator,” writes Dr. Martins. In addition, the characters that perpetrated these actions were rarely punished.

Dr. Russell Hyken, a psychotherapist and bullying expert, says that this trend is troubling. “If kids see [socially aggressive behavior] on TV…it becomes commonplace and ultimately accepted,” Dr. Hyken says. “It can also spawn copycat behavior.”

Dr. Hyken notes that, based on his own personal observation as a psychotherapist and former school administrator, this sort of social bullying is on the rise. “The bully behavior used to be physical—bloody noses, bruises. You could spot it a lot easier.”

Today, he says, “the bullying has become more sophisticated”—i.e., socially aggressive—and harder to see. However, it still leaves profound emotional scars.

What’s more, the lessons kids learn today stay with them for life. “It’s important to keep in mind that young bullies grow into adult bullies,” says Dr. Hyken.

So what does this mean to parents? Should you throw away your TV?

“These findings should help parents and educators recognize that there are socially aggressive behaviors on programs children watch,” writes Dr. Martins. “Parents should not assume that a program is okay for their child to watch simply because it does not contain any physical violence.”

She suggests that parents “use these shows as a teaching tool. When parents see a socially aggressive portrayal in a program that their child is watching, [they should] remind the child that these behaviors are not okay and can cause real harm.”

Source and Method

Researchers from Indiana University Bloomington and University of Illinois analyzed 150 programs—three episodes each of the 50 most popular American children’s TV programs according to Nielsen Media Research. In order to measure social aggression, they noted each instance in which a perpetrator committed a socially aggressive act directed toward a target.

The study found that a vast majority of the children’s TV programs sampled featured instances of social aggression. These acts occurred frequently, and they were often perpetrated by attractive characters. These characters’ actions almost always went unpunished.

Other Research

While social scientists have done a great deal of research about the link between television-watching and physical aggression, the link between TV-watching and social aggression has not been widely studied. Only two previous studies examined social aggression on television.

A 2004 study published in Aggressive Behavior found that 92 percent of the programs sampled—a group of shows popular with British adolescents—showed instances of social aggression.

Another study, published in 2005, focused on TV programs popular with teens and young adults. That study found that 93 percent of female characters in comedies engaged in indirect aggression, a close cousin of social aggression.

Dr. Martins and Dr. Wilson performed another study, published in Human Communication Research, which examined the psychological effects of watching social aggression on TV. They found that children who spent more time watching shows depicting social aggression were more likely to perpetrate these behaviors at school.

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Kids and Stress

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One thing that parents and kids have in common is stress. While the sources may differ and reactions may vary, everyone, at some point, experiences undue anxiety. Stress is an inevitable part of life created by a physiological reaction to an uncomfortable situation. In fact, if one never experiences any anxiety, that is actually a bigger problem than having anxiety.

Interestingly, stress also can be a positive emotion. Good stress motivates and energizes kids, often pushing them to do better, and a little ‘fear’ can cause kids to work harder and study more. To understand how stress is impacting your child, it is important to recognize the different types of reactions that one may have.

Acute stress is a short-lived response to a particular event such as a big test. It is a very common feeling and, in some cases, can be interpreted as bodily excitement such as the nerves associated with starring in the school play. Chronic stress, on the other hand, is ongoing anxiety that continually taxes one’s body and mind. It is not exciting or motivating; rather, it wears on the body and can cause a mental meltdown. If a child is experiencing a high number of acute episodes or is in a persistent, chronic state, it is a problem that needs professional assistance.

It can, however, be difficult to decipher between problematic behaviors and developmentally appropriate responses because children of different ages react differently to stressful situations. A preschooler may excessively cry, tremble with fright, or run aimlessly. During the elementary years, an overly anxious child may demonstrate regressive behaviors, develop irrational fears, or have persistent physical illness such as head and stomach aches. An overly angst-ridden teen may become socially withdrawn, act out, or appear frequently confused.

Ignoring stress will most likely cause increased anxiety for your son or daughter. However, knowing when to approach your child and what to say might strain your parental nerves. Observe and learn when your kids might be most willing to talk. Is it before bedtime, after diner, or during car rides? Initiate a conversation but avoid flinging questions. Also consider creating a ‘covert’ activity such as a weekly donut date where conversation is actively encouraged. Availability provides opportunity for your child to speak with you about any topic.

When your child does finally decide it’s time to dialogue—listen. Stop what you are doing and provide your full attention. It can be difficult to avoid strong reactions, but parents should respond with empathy and focus on the emotional content of the conversation. Parents who minimize their offspring’s feelings shut the door to future problem-solving sessions.

Unfortunately, anxious adolescents turn into anxious adults. And while encouraging conversations is an important component of stress reduction, kids need to learn ongoing ways to reduce life’s tension. Distraction is an excellent way to provide regular relief. A physical activity or an engaging hobby will take individuals of any age away from the daily grind. Having fun is a powerful mood enhancer.

For ‘in the moment relief,’ kids, especially younger ones, need to learn how to ‘just’ breathe. An anxious person takes small, shallow breaths using their upper chest. To reduce stress, air needs to flow smoothly from the abdomen. Model this for your children and they will quickly learn this easy to implement strategy.

Kids have a lot to worry about, despite the carefree lifestyles we adults think they may lead. Interestingly, the one thing kids do not worry about is their parental relationship. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association noted that only 8 percent of surveyed children and teens cited mom and dad as a source of their stressful woes. Doing well in school and family finances topped the list of major worries.

Whenever there is change, it is important for parents to understand that situational stress is an appropriate and reasonable reaction. If you feel, however, that your child’s anxiety is too intense, lasts longer than it should, or occurs more frequently than is typical, trust your parental instincts and seek further assistance. Your school’s counselor or family pediatrician is a great place to find guidance and professional recommendations.

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What Parents Need to Know About Instagram

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Do you know what your kids are sharing online? And what sites they are using to do their sharing? It’s a good time to ask. Have you heard about Instagram. If you have not, you will. FaceBook recently paid over 700 Million dollars to purchase this social network (deal approved September 6, 2012) that has over 80 million subscribers.

What exactly is Instagram?

It is like Facebook and Twitter got together and had a baby, Instagram is a free photo-sharing program and social network  service that was launched in October 2010. The service allows users to take a photo and then share it with others Instagram users (followers) in real time. Remember the “Instamatic” cameras of your youth. Instagram makes that concept digital, shoot a picture, and “instantly” share it with a friend.

Why kids like it?

Kids can set up a private network that only their followers can see. So kids feel safer with their “exclusive” network of followers and parents seem to be more accepting of Instagram as a safe online medium. Kids also like to share pictures. Posting photos of the family dog, things around the house or activities with friends are fun to share. Sometimes kids and even adults can’t explain why something is funny or cool, but a picture is worth a 1000 words. A quick snap and short sentence can create instant attention.

And it is this attention that kids enjoy. They wait for others to comment on their photo or post and give their “like” sign of approval. Kids can chat for hours over an Instagram post with others joining the conversation. Fun, fast, and funny-what kid would not want to participate?

What Parents Need to Know

According to Instagram, it is not for children under the age of 13. Instagram has strict   Terms of Use   and Community Guidelines   that make their age requirement clear. That said, many younger kids are using it. I am personally aware that the majority of my son’s fifth grade class is on this photo sharing service. The age of participants is not verified by Instagram, and kids can download Instagram without their parent’s permission.

I am not advocating for kids to be on Instagram, In fact, debating the age appropriateness with children or adults can be difficult, time consuming, and answers will vary. There is, however, an argument to be made for teaching kids how to use social media — to share their experiences and take on the world online — and Instagram has a way of encouraging people to be creative about it. I could see this app sparking an interest in photography, visual art, and graphic design. Also, banning your tech savvy child from Instagram could be a true challenge. There comes an age where it is better to know what your kids are doing than to have your kids hide it.

During your conversation about Instagram with your child, here are some key points to cover.

  • Friends should be people you know—classmates, family members, camp friends. Friends should not be friends of friends of friends.
  • You, as the parent, will set and check the privacy setting on Instagram so only their followers can see their photos. By default,   anyone  can view the photos  uploaded to Instagram. Parents, it is your job to ensure you child does not accidently turn off privacy settings.
  • Parents should follow and monitor their children’s use of all social media on an almost daily basis, but especially Instagram as it is very popular right now.
  • Educate and speak with your kids about what they are posting.
    • Make them aware that others may feel left out if they post an excessive amount of photos with a particular friends.
    • Discuss appropriateness of the jokes and photos they share.
    • Emphasize that kids are to avoid posting and responding to rude comments.
    • They should make you aware whenever they feel upset by a post.
  • Designate time when your kids are allowed to be on Instagram. After homework, before bed, weekend only, etc.
  • Network with the other parents. Check in with them at school functions or social gatherings to make sure they are aware their kids are online and enforcing consistent rules.

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Helping Kids Reduce the Pain of Comparisons

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When kids return to school this fall, they will do what kids have always done—start making comparisons. Unfortunately, some may feel they don’t measure up as they compare vacations, clothes, or their relative popularity. In a recent segment on KTVI-TV in St. Louis, Dr. Russell Hyken discusses what parents can do to better understand why their child may feel inadequate and how to help them cope with that “everyone else is better than me” feeling.

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Separation Anxiety and the First Day of School

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Most back to school articles tend to talk about preparing kids for the first days of school, and this is an important, attention worthy topic. I, however, want to focus on us, the parents, and how we deal with the freedom that September brings. While many are excited to reclaim their homes and their free time, some actually dread the start of school and experience significant stress about their child’s academic success, social circles, and self esteem.

Parents, just like their children, can experience anxiety as summer vacation ends. Furthermore, an anxious adult can negatively impact their child’s mood as kids have an intuitive sense about their parents’ emotional state. If we don’t keep our feelings under control, our kids may mirror our behavior.

The pangs of separation often impact parents as they overly worry about how their children are adjusting to the start of school. In fact, some mothers drop by the classroom and send teacher emails to alleviate their concerns. Others overcome their anxiety by delving into household projects or other “productive” tasks. These short-term fixes, however, may not relieve those anxious feelings, so try to engage in some endorphin boosting activities such as running or scheduling extra time at the gym.

Many parents also rightfully fear that the initial separation associated with the first day of school will be overly emotional for themselves and their children. Visions of a crying child often loop through a concerned mother’s mind especially because this could actually happen. Emotional or not, parents need to exit school quickly after the initial drop off. In fact, a parental presence typically prolongs the stressful situation. While it is painful to see a panicked child, parents need to keep a stiff upper lip and move on. Teachers are well equipped to handle these opening day meltdowns.

Another big stressor is being unprepared for the start of the new school year. Many women focus on getting kids ready with back to school shopping, visiting the appropriate doctors, and attending to last minute details. It is just as important, however, to review school paperwork which contains valuable information about your child’s teachers, room number, and needed school supplies. Also, pay attention to adjusted hours that often accompany the first few days of school. This will ensure the first week goes smoothly reducing not only your anxiety but also creating a positive experience for your kids.

The start of school has also been known to create moody, cranky children causing many parents to be overly apprehensive about the first few weeks. These elevated emotions are the result of newly imposed structure. Students spend all summer waking when they want and lounging about the house. Overnight, they must get up early and eat at scheduled times. A week before the opening bell, structure the day like school is in session. Adjusting the internal body clock prior to the big day puts everyone in a better mood.

Also, don’t forget to talk to your kids about opening day jitters. Parents should not only reassure but also problem solve. Show empathy, work on real solutions to their valid concerns, and avoid dwelling too much on the situation. Parents can create bigger issues if they over focus on a child’s problems. Once you realize that your student is well prepared, your parental anxieties will be significantly reduced.

Lastly, to further alleviate any anxious parental feelings, email your child’s teacher. Professionals are happy to provide feedback about school progress. In fact, be specific about your concerns to receive relevant information about your situation. Teachers appreciate the inquires, and this will further insure that both you and your child have a stress free start.

The beginning of the school year is a period of adjustment for all family members. A good start, however, will benefit a student’s attitude, confidence, and performance long after the opening bell has rung. Even if things get a bit shaky, parents need to maintain a positive attitude. Time will resolve most issues, and kids are actually more resilient than their parents realize.

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Five Phrases Parents Should Avoid

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Most parents know that good communication is the key to a healthy relationship with their children. What’s equally important to know is what constitutes poor communication — the words and phrases that can undermine self-esteem and trigger power struggles in the family. In a recent segment on KTVI-TV in St. Louis, Dr. Hyken discusses five phrases parents should avoid when speaking to their children.