Category: Helping Them Through Hard Things

best friends

Screen shot 2014-03-04 at 2.16.53 PMI got shut out of my medical benefits login the other day because 1) I couldn’t remember my password, and 2) when I tried to reset it, I was unable to answer the three security questions correctly: my mother’s maiden name. My favorite vacation spot. My best friend’s last name. Hmmm… I’m pretty sure I got the first one right, but I simply don’t know where I went wrong with the others. It could have easily been the one that asked something about “my best friend.”

A lot in our culture suggests that we all should have a best friend, that we should find our soulmate, that we should settle for nothing less. For children and adults alike, this can be a difficult and damaging message, particularly for kids who may not feel like they have a best friend, or who cling desperately to a friend for fear of losing that relationship to be be cast adrift.

When kids struggle with the “best friend” question, one thing to do is help them think about the contextual nature of friendship. Start with your own—I, myself, have friends who I enjoy talking about my family with. I have other friends who I will call to go running, share art, or who love to have a drink and listen to live music. I have friends who make me laugh all the time and some who will always have good advice. There are some great people who I really like spending time with, but with whom I probably would never share a deep secret. These are not one person. Sure, there is a lot of overlap, and a very special few who are many kinds of “friends” to me. But they each have their place, and my life is richer because of every single one of them. Does your child have someone special they like to play with on the playground, and another who they like to do crafts with? Is someone particularly fun at imaginative play, and another good at building?  Is there one friend who is fun to meet for lunch and another who is a great homework buddy?

Feeling like we have to find everything in one person is unrealistic. It puts pressure on relationships and makes us look too critically at what someone isn’t giving us. Better to focus on and value what each person brings to a friendship and what parts of ourselves we enjoy when we are with them. –t

questions vs. answers

bears fishingIn our book we talk about the value of asking good questions of kids in order to get better information and to help them think about different perspectives. Many times over the last week – as my kids have encountered bumps in homework and relationships with friends, teachers, or coaches – I’ve offered them answers and advice. Offering solutions and sharing my thinking is one of my roles as a mother, and I do so gladly and I hope, for the most part, with balance and insight.

But I’ve also been working on balancing suggesting solutions with asking questions.  And here is why: questions help kids explore options and become better problem solvers. Even when the solution might be clear to you, there is great value in your child being able to consider a problem and possible solutions with you as a guide.

“What else have you tried?” “What might happen if you make that choice?” “What other information would be useful here?” Compare these types of questions with what a child learns when you offer “Just go play with someone else” right out of the gate.

With questions, you also communicate your confidence in your kid’s ability to problem solve, and give him responsibility in finding a solution. You help him anticipate outcomes and evaluate choices. Your role isn’t one of rescuer, but facilitator.

Yes, facilitating is harder work. Every parent wants to stop the hurt, frustration, or complaining as quickly as possible, and engaging a child in wading through it all, in the short term, prolongs it. “Just ignore him when he’s being that way” can feel a lot more expedient than “How would you like him to treat you?” and following the conversation where it might lead. “That’s not the kind of friendship you need” takes much less time than the discussion that might ensue from “That’s a complicated relationship. What are the good things that you’re getting out of it? What is challenging?”

Of course there are many times that I so clearly and passionately want to take my kids’ side, and my instinct is to get right up there with them when they are indignant or hurt and be the Mama Bear, growling and gnashing at whatever offends. While that retaliatory roar is really gratifying (and maybe sometimes the right response), grinding through the occasional messy problem solving doesn’t mean that you’re not taking their side. In the long run, it fortifies and deepens their own problem solving skills, enhances self-knowledge, and promotes self-advocacy. You’re standing next to them in the stream and teaching them how to fish.  -t

here comes summer

busDear Parents,

This is a reminder to us all about what is coming down the pike in these next few weeks. The longer days and warm afternoons are a promise of the summer to come, and for those of us with school-aged kids, the end of a school year. In this time that can often be frenetic and packed with class gatherings and field trips and special events, keep in mind how complicated and deep the feelings can be for kids as they get ready to wrap up the year. As they clean out cubbies and take down classroom artwork, share plans for summer or gather their courage for a new camp, kids are in an incredibly vulnerable and fragile place. There’s something in the bright colors and sunny images everywhere that scream “Yay! Summer!” and the age-old posturing of kids who delight in “no more school!” that can drown out and eclipse these tender and important emotions. Give them time and create space where children can talk about things they might be experiencing, and find extra patience for the short temper, the rough bedtime, the grumpy morning…

We’ll be right there with you, –n&t


when bad things happen

IMG_4072Our kids are back at school after a vacation week that began with the Boston Marathon bombing and ended with a day spent in lockdown. We live in Watertown about 4 blocks away from where the 2nd suspect was apprehended, close enough to see and hear a lot of the police action that day, but far enough that I didn’t truly fear for our physical safety. Nonetheless, the incessant helicopter noise, the flashing lights of the blockades, and the police in full military body armor checking the houses up and down our street created mounting tension throughout the day.

There’s a lot of wisdom about how we as parents make our kids feel safe during such times: focusing on the helpers, maintaining routines, staying close, cuddling more. I feel like most people I know are doing a pretty good job in those respects. But what happens when children ask “why?” Why would someone do that?

The truth is that we don’t really know. “They were bad guys” doesn’t cut it for me. I don’t feel like that truly helps kids understand the complexity of human behavior and choices, nor does it make them feel safer. Can a bad guy be captain of the wrestling team? Can a bad guy go to prom with his friends? Can a good guy do bad things?

On the first morning back at our Watertown school, psychologist Larry Cohen was on-site talking with parents. In addition to giving people a forum for sharing stories and connecting in community with one another, he punctuated the discussion with great advice about helping kids work through confusing and traumatic experiences. One idea he talked about that I love is how a parent can respond when a child asks “why?” and we don’t have a good answer. What can we do when we don’t know?

We can empathize.

When kids ask “why?” they’re trying to make sense of something that is unsettling and confusing, something that makes them feel frightened or unsure. If it’s impossible to offer a real reason why, we are ALWAYS able to validate their feelings, to say “it’s really confusing to think someone would want to hurt people.” Validating a child’s feelings will help them to be less confused or frightened. It gives them the message that they are not alone, that their feelings are understood, and that their confusion is not unreasonable.

This approach has never failed to work in a positive way for me. While some might wonder if a child will feel less secure when an adult admits not knowing something, I’ve found the truth in an honest and genuine response – one that allows a different kind of connection – to be a very powerful thing. –t

tell a story

parent and child talking, telling a story to work through an issueFor some reason at this time of year things tend to come unglued. If you have a child in kindergarten, you may well know what we’re talking about. Fall starts tentatively, builds nicely, the holidays hit, and then what the heck?! Troubles with a friend. Some part of school is too hard. Or not fun. Something is just off. At any rate, if you find yourself in this “what the heck?” camp, you are in good company. And if your children are particularly tender or volatile because of something happening with friends, in school, or developmentally, here’s a strategy to help loosen the knots, connect with your child, and help them both talk about and navigate the tricky pitfalls of childhood, in this season or any other.

Tell a story.
Connect an experience your child has with a real or fictitious story. Populate the narrative with characters she can relate to. Create any outcome you like. You can tell a story from “the other child’s perspective,” and the hurt feelings in your story can be those of a giraffe or monkey—amazingly—on the very same playground that you just returned home from. A little spider can be a character that worked so diligently and created something beautiful without anyone looking only to have the web torn apart by the wind. The once-scary monster can be called home and tucked into bed lovingly by his own Mama. Stories allow your child distance and perspective. They can provide vocabulary and a safe context in which to discuss something troubling or complex, exciting or amazing. If it is a lesson you want your child to learn, you can help them see the effect of their actions without directly blaming or shaming them. Sharing real stories from your own childhood can also show your understanding of their experience and allows your child to connect to you in a very meaningful way.

This tactic has served me so many times! One that will always stick with me is the night we realized, at bedtime, that my daughter’s favorite stuffie, Bessie the Horse, was left at preschool. Overnight. In a dark building. With no one there. A federal case, widespread panic, wailing grief. A quickly spun story, populated with characters from the fantasy world of her preschool, came to the rescue!

             Mother Squirrel, who lived in the schoolyard tree, had snuck inside with her babies to see if Room Mouse had found any good snacking fodder left by the children or a lazy broom. They came across Bessie in Olivia’s cubby, and immediately called all of the critters to a party in her honor … (with great commotion and mess, the toys came to life and prepared a feast and made mischief all through the classrooms—particularly with glitter and googly eyes—and had the time of their lives). Olivia fell asleep to this story, and the next morning couldn’t wait to get to school to see if the teachers had done a good job cleaning up the mess. —t

stacking the deck

helping your children build empathyWhen I was in high school, a group of us were trying to get 2 of our friends together. A great guy and a great girl we all thought would make a great couple. So what did we do? Each of us at various times reported, very casually, things we had noticed about or heard from, one to the other: “Elizabeth was talking about the piece you submitted for the art show and how much she liked it.” “Adam came down to watch track practice — did you notice him over there?” “He totally lit up when you said that in class.” “She asked me if I’d come to your game with her.” All of it true, the meaning of each comment and gesture enhanced by having been noticed and reported to the other, and all of it in the spirit of helping encourage the relationship between these friends.

As a parent, I’ve used this same tactic to enhance the relationships in our family. In the family context, these casual, side-held “stacking the deck” comments help kids practice noticing each other’s efforts to care and support one another, and appreciate their intent. “Your sister got up early because she knew you were excited and wanted to be early for your field trip.” “I heard your brother telling his friend how much you helped him the other day.”

Stack further by suggesting a follow up: “Your brother was really careful with your markers you let him use and put them back right where he knows you keep them. I know he’d be happy if you mentioned it to him.” If someone took the time to return a borrowed item to the right place, helped by getting ready on their own, put someone else’s lunchbox or jacket near the door, asked for an extra piece of candy at the bank for their sib, or took care of someone else’s dirty dish, you can “stack the deck” and enhance the value of the gesture by helping the recipient of that kindness both see it and acknowledge it.

…And yes, Elizabeth and Adam did get together, thanks, in part, to their friends. -t

give them words

I have three kids. When my youngest was born, my middle child, who was 2, was often very grumpy. I had a strong suspicion that the arrival of a new baby was the source, but each time I raised it, he walked away or said, “that’s not it!” Finally, I approached him and said, “I know your sister needs a lot of my time right now. When you feel like you need some Mommy time, you just come over and say, ‘I need some Mommy time,’ and I’ll give it to you”. His expression didn’t change, he was still grumpy. Two days later, I was at the sink and I felt a tug on my pants. My son pulled me down and whispered in my ear, “I need some Mommy time.”

By giving them words, very specific words that they can use (not only generalizations of how they might feel), we can help our kids identify and articulate their needs. –n

empathy at work

Our family dinner plates are white. One of them has two small round chips on the edge, not much bigger than a nickel, at what could be the 5:30 and 6:30 positions. I always found it odd that of the 2 times the plates got chipped, it happened to be the same one.
One day, years ago, when we were setting the table for dinner, Olivia offhandedly mentioned, “oh, Bump’s got the hippo plate!” It turned out that the children always noticed who at the table had this particular plate, the chipped one, the one with nostrils. It became a favored item, but not as in “I want that plate!” but rather “let’s give Per the hippo. His LEGO thing fell apart.” Or “Daddy had that big presentation today. Let’s give him the hippo.” And, occasionally, someone will set the hippo at their own place at the table, and the rest of us know we might just want to check in. At the back end of a hard day when I’ve felt overwhelmed and unappreciated, finding the hippo at my place has, I kid you not, turned the whole dang thing around.
There’s really not some huge hippo drama every night at our table. Caring and love comes in all shapes and sizes, and the hippo can accommodate them all. What we’ve found in a simple chipped dish is a quiet shorthand of our connection to one another, a way to recognize one among us – for whatever it is – as we come together for a meal. -t