Building Strong Children Begins at Birth

Published on May 18, 2016 by

The depth and breadth of human suffering occasioned by the recent earthquake in Turkey is, in a word, staggering.  Media reports have blamed much of the resulting devastation and loss of life on buildings and homes that weren’t properly constructed.  The shortsightedness and ignorance of a few builders produced an exponential loss of nightmarish proportions.

When I heard of the shoddy workmanship, I was reminded of someone who once compared a child’s development to a skyscraper: if the foundation isn’t properly aligned, no one really notices at first.  The untrained eye can neither appreciate the slight imperfection nor fully anticipate the consequences of an ever so slightly tipped foundation.  Yet without correction, the once minuscule flaw will produce a structure that leans precariously in one direction.

Far too many of the structures in Turkey did not have firm foundations.  Far too many children are victims of early childhood neglect or abuse.  While early signs of neglect are only apparent to a few, it’s not long before the resulting symptoms become apparent to most.

While there are clearly genetic, biological, and physiological antecedents that affect development, much of an infant’s firm foundation is provided by his caregivers, usually his parents.

Physical development is undoubtedly the first area we take note of.  Indeed, from the womb doctors are able to determine healthy versus unhealthy development, and what parent doesn’t do a quick count of fingers and toes once Junior exits his bedwomb?  From then on, motor skills are a primary focus, evidenced by many a proud parent throwing a neighborhood party when the little fella can hold his own bottle.

Cognitive abilities are evident early on as well.  Healthy development in the cognitive domain involves both attending to one’s environment as well as establishing relationships between two or more objects/actions (e.g., when I look at Mommy, she smiles; I learn about a shoe by putting it in my mouth; etc.).  Receptive and expressive language abilities virtually explode during toddlerhood, and written language and metacognition (i.e., realizing that you can think) aren’t far behind.

We need look no further than the “Terrible Two’s” to see early vestiges of emotional development.  In actuality, the foundation for emotional development is laid much earlier, when a child learns about emotional regulation from his parents.  Emotional regulation is essentially the ability to manage one’s emotions – to express or subdue one’s feelings, to please or soothe oneself, etc.  Children, it should be noted, are far from perfect when it comes to emotional regulation, and they profit from consistent limits and loads of patience as they learn self-control.

Moral development grows out of a child’s need to identify with the values and beliefs of his parents.  Most children adopt views similar to those of their parents, and their conscience is in part a reflection of those of their parents.  A solid parent-child relationship contributes to a child’s ability to take perspectives other than their own, leading to the mature human quality of empathy.  One of the most serious sequelae of childhood neglect is retarded moral development, which is often manifest in out-of-control lying, stealing, and worst of all, sadistic behavior.

One of the last domains to blossom, social development gains preeminence for school-age children and reaches a crescendo in adolescence.  The seed for healthy social skills, such as taking turns, sharing, learning the right time for humor, balancing talking with listening, and respecting others’ property are sown early on.  The child’s ability to “fit in” is both a cause and a result of their developing self-esteem.  Due to deficits in, for one, self-regulation (i.e., the ability to regulate one’s emotions, behavior, and attention), children with Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) often struggle in the area of social development.

The area of child development is both wide and deep, and I have but touched on a few of the most salient aspects.  A multitude of other factors relate to child development, including attachment, temperament, personality, and the plethora of genetic, biological, and physiological effects previously alluded to.

Suffice it to say that, like an edifice that is meant to withstand an earthquake, the building blocks of a healthy child begin with a firm foundation.  The difference between the two, of course, is that we can rebuild a building.

Don’t cut corners . . . “build” your child strong and straight, beginning today.


Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and

the Executive Director of  Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

The Store is a Great Place to Raise a Child

Published on August 6, 2015 by

Several weeks ago my wife overheard two women at a local department store talking. “What’s that awful sound…is that a child or a toy?” the one asked the other. “Whatever it is, it’s coming our way,” replied the other. “It is a child, and it sounds like someone’s killing him!” exclaimed the first. “I’ve never heard anything like that before; that child sure is mad!” the second said.
My wife and I had become separated in our shopping, and the sound the women heard was my two-year old son, Spencer, exercising his vocal cords. He had had it with me, and was letting me know it in no uncertain terms.
Spencer had determined it was time to get out of the shopping cart. When I prevented him from getting out, he upped the ante by pushing my hand away and whining. A paternal ‘no-no’ only frustrated him further, and, like a peacock displaying its colorful plumage, my son began showing his true colors.
A few seconds of trying to calm him by distracting him proved fruitless, so I lifted him out of the cart and made a beeline for the front door, passing my wife and the two women (who did not seem the least bit amused – well, I wasn’t exactly amused myself) on the way to the car.
Once in the car, Spencer only screamed louder. He was still pouting when my wife came out, and we made our way to the grocery story. Not surprisingly, Spencer and I repeated our interaction after no more than a minute in the produce section. As before, I carried him back out to the car, and we spent another twenty minutes in the car, him providing the entertainment and me doing my best to ignore him.
Our next stop for the evening was at a restaurant. I had just poured Spencer some Root Beer out of my cup when he began to whimper…he wanted MY cup. When I said ‘No,” he raised his voice and uttered his final whine of the night, for as I moved to pick him up, he must have sensed what was next…the car. He stopped whining, began drinking from HIS cup, and the rest of the evening went smoothly.
I wish I could claim that I am always this patient, always this consistent, always this successful. The truth is, I’m not, and I’m sure Spencer will continue to whine and tantrum both in public and private (like your child, he’s not too picky). However, I relay the story to illustrate the power of EXTINCTION.

Extinction occurs with misbehavior just as it did with the dinosaurs (though extinguishing dinosaurs must’ve been much easier than this parenting stuff). Extinction is a term describing the disappearance of a behavior when the behavior no longer pays off. It is a technique commonly employed in the area of Behavior Modification, which is an outgrowth of a popular psychological theory called Behaviorism. According to this theory, kids misbehave for many reasons, but perhaps the simplest explanation is this: BECAUSE IT WORKS TO GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT OR NEED. Furthermore, the misbehavior costs them less and benefits them more than appropriate behavior might.
Misbehavior is largely the result of learning, and kids are certainly quick learners. Spencer has learned that whining and tantrumming have paid off in the past. In other words, his tantrumming has been rewarded because his parents have given in. Our efforts are now focused on removing any type of reward for his tantrumming, and instead rewarding his compliant behavior.
By removing any positive benefit Spencer might gain from the misbehavior, we are reducing its pay off. If we do this right, it shouldn’t be long before he can sit quietly in the cart at the store.
When working to extinguish misbehaviors in your child, keep these points in mind:
1. You will definitely be inconvenienced in your efforts. You will only be successful to the degree you are willing to make this a top priority (e.g., you must be willing to leave your cart-full of groceries behind).
2. Realize that things will likely get worse before they get better (since your child is used to getting his/her way, (s)he will likely keep at you…because it’s worked in the past. Hang in there…ride out the storm…have confidence in the process).
3. Respond immediately and consistently to your child’s misbehavior (remove your child from any setting that might be reinforcing, then use a generous dose of ignoring).
4. Do not talk to nor soothe your child while (s)he is misbehaving (these will only aggravate or reinforce the problem…soothing and talking are for later).
5. Lavish your child with praise for appropriate behavior (make appropriate behavior pay off).
6. Don’t hit or scream at your child (EXTINCTION should always take a back seat to SAFETY; if you’re feeling out of control, take time to cool down…your parenting work can wait.).
Teaching children appropriate behavior, as does all good parenting, requires concerted effort. Taking the time to work with your child may not be convenient, but like a wise investment, it will pay rich dividends in the (child’s) future.
So next time you see a parent firmly but gently “escorting” a misbehaving child out of the store, cast a knowing smile their way, for some serious parenting is going on. After all, department and grocery stores are popular places where parents raise their children…and where children raise their parents.

Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

Are Children Really Resilient?

Published on April 23, 2015 by

Kids posing over white“They’ll be fine.  They’re young. They’ll get over it. They won’t even remember. They just need to toughen up.” I have heard people refer to children like this many times when working with clients, but it is not completely accurate. Many people assume that children are highly resilient and adaptable. Are children really resilient? Of course they are. People in general are resilient. We can endure and overcome heart-wrenching challenges, especially with the support of others. However, just because a person is young does not mean that they can escape unscathed from any situation. On the contrary, children may become more traumatized than an adult might during a given experience.

Because children are impressionable, trauma can have a long-lasting impact on them. Their brains are still developing, so trauma can have a greater effect on their malleable brains than an adult’s brain that is no longer developing. Makes a lot of sense, right? Neuroscientists have literally found how trauma can leave its imprint on their developing brains through brain imaging. There are other things to consider as well.  Children have not had the life experiences to teach them that traumatic experiences are an exception and not the rule.  They have not developed as many coping skills as an adult might have. They do not have as much control over their life situation and support systems as an independent adult does. Maybe they were traumatized by someone who was supposed to be a support to them.  The idea that because they are children they will be fine is a sad myth for these reasons and others.

So why does the myth that children will be fine, forget, or easily get over the traumatic event exist?  Perhaps people believe that children will be fine because children do not have long conversations and express themselves verbally the same way adults do.  Hence, adults may not hear about it, or if they do it could be through a couple fleeting comments.  Children may act out (or even “act in”) instead of speaking out.  “Acting in” in can include internalizing situations, feeling guilty or blaming themselves, become depressed or self-harming themselves.  Perhaps the myth exists because children can continue playing and laughing despite their significant emotional challenges.  Just like adults, smiling doesn’t mean they aren’t traumatized by something.  Perhaps adults think that they are too young to understand or to be aware of what is going on.  Children are often more aware than we think, so it is often wise to be aware of what we say and do around them.

Perhaps the myth exists because we as adults don’t think a certain event should be traumatizing.  First, we need to understand what trauma is.  Trauma is exposure to a threat of harm and can be something obvious like being sexually abused or witnessing a death or being in a tornado.  While children may or may not not become traumatized in the sense of developing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, children can also experience some stress symptoms over “smaller” situations.  Examples of events include witnessing a car on fire while driving down the freeway, seeing a scary movie or advertisement, or witnessing domestic violence three years ago even though the family is happy and healthy now.  Children can exhibit signs of stress during or after divorce, even though we may think they weren’t involved in or aware of the details of it.  We might tell them to toughen up because it’s just “teasing,” but being bullied can be traumatic. Going to the doctor’s office can be traumatizing (I think we all agree on that one).  Regardless of the reasons we sometimes assume differently, children can become traumatized and there are signs of post-traumatic stress to look for.

Children can respond in a variety of ways to trauma.  Sometimes they become obviously distressed when they have reminders of the trauma.  They may become avoidant or withdraw from certain people or situations.  Children may make comments to you about something that happened, or you may recognize signs of trauma in their play or artwork. They may play something recurrently. Some children have increased nightmares. Maybe you know they often think about the bad memories.  Other children become oppositional, defiant or have temper tantrums when they are traumatized. You may notice they are more irritable.  Others have symptoms similar to ADHD and act impulsively or have difficulty concentrating.  Some children exhibit regressive behaviors such as bed-wetting again.  Children may startle easily.  If you think that your child may have symptoms of traumatic stress, a mental health therapist that specializes in working with children may be helpful.  A therapist can assess what they are experiencing, help teach skills to deal with their anxiety, and help them process and overcome the trauma.

Thankfully, that same developing brain means that they have a tremendous capacity to grow and heal.  Through big and small stressors, empathize with your child and spend time with your child talking or playing.  Just like an adult, children want to feel understood and validated. Establishing safe and loving routines is invaluable. They need that stability.  There is hope.  Remember that caregivers are the most important part in a child’s recovery.

Tanya Lindquist, CSW – Psychological Assessment & Treatment Center

The Best Recruits Keep Your Season Ticket Holders Happy

Published on March 3, 2015 by

College coaches live and die by it.  The Armed Forces do it through a relentless barrage of energetic commercials.  Major corporations use it to Young Boys In Baseball Team With Coachvie for top candidates.  And parents (you sometimes weary souls in the trenches) ought to get in on the act as well.

I’m talking about recruiting.  Not children, of course, since they’re granted God-sanctioned reserved seating in your family.  Season ticket holders for life, that’s what they are.

What parents must recruit are voices, voices to coach children along life’s path.  Raising kids is too hard for any parent to do alone, and we all need a hand or ten along the way.

So we have grandparents and uncles, teachers, neighbors, church leaders, soccer coaches, police officers, and even other kids.  We count on them to teach our kids solid principles of human decency and to be living examples of responsible citizens.

To get the most out of raising kids, parents must be active recruiters; passive recruiting is an oxymoron of the worst sort, tantamount to neglect.

As a parent, I pursue voices that will reinforce the principles and ideals I’m trying to teach my children.  I actively seek out those who will encourage my children to be honest and responsible.  I want my children to rub shoulders with kids who respect authority (and their parents’ authority in particular).  I do my best to expose my children to voices that teach that kindness to the underprivileged is expected, that compromise and cooperation are desirable, and that temperance and self-restraint are normal.

Am I always successful in recruiting the best voices for my children?  Not a chance.  They’re exposed to tons of countervailing forces that I can’t control, but I can live with that.  Like your kids, my kids are strong, they’re resilient, and love will see them through.  And even if they choose to go a different direction with their lives that I’d want, I can live with that, too.  All I can do is all I can do.

I often have parents tell me, “Dr. Gentry, many of the things you tell our 16-year old daughter in counseling are the same things we’ve told her a hundred times.”  I explain that, given their emotional history with her, their voices are easily drowned out by the din of their repetition and her defensiveness.  My voice is new, albeit strangely familiar.

And so I encourage them to begin aggressively recruiting.  I suggest they (for instance) contact the aunt their daughter has always adored, her dance coach, a couple of church leaders, and a stable peer who might befriend her.  I also urge them to tap into voices that have been around the longest: the elderly.

Perhaps the most underutilized voices of all, the elderly have tremendous wisdom and experience to share.  I try to make a point of involving my children with an elderly person or elderly couple for an evening once every couple of months.  Additionally, my wife and I seek out families that personify a way of living we advocate to our children.  We recently shared an inspiring evening with a Tongan couple and their two teenage boys.  Our children were moved to tears as the older boy, a high school senior and muscular football star, cried as he voiced his feelings regarding the evening’s topic: The importance of showing respect to your mother.

Old time values.  Active recruiting of voices that matter.  Striving, enduring, never giving up . . . if for no other reason than because the alternative’s no good.

I, like you, am the best parent at times and the worst at others.  Truth is, I’m never as good as I believe nor as bad as I fear.  I’m there along with you, somewhere in the middle.

And because my voice isn’t as strong as I would have it be, because my kids have selective hearing just like yours, there’s always more recruiting to be done.  Like you, I’ve got to do all I can to keep my season ticket holders in their seats.

  Steven M.  Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

Counseling is for the Courageous, Not the Crazy

Published on January 20, 2015 by

As do virtually all societies, American society rightly esteems self-reliance as one of its core values.  Indeed, the collective strength of a given community depends in large measure on the individual fortitude of its citizens.  However, this idea can be carried to an extreme.

For instance, does self-reliance require that a person “tough out” a broken arm or a case of hepatitis rather than seek medical treatment?  To the contrary, most would question the judgment of such an individual (we might even call him ‘crazy’) for failing to consult a doctor under such conditions.

They need an expert advice.      Likewise, are people who visit a library deemed to lack self-reliance?  After all, they are in need of additional information, and clearly lack knowledge (or excitement, if they’re after leisure reading) of one sort or another.  What is it, after all, that they don’t know, and why can’t they just be happy with what their brain provides?  Hopefully, the absurdity of such thought is attested to by the fact that none of us ever has them.

In most cases, accessing resources in the community that will improve our condition is viewed positively and does not detract from our sense of independence.  Instead, it implicitly suggests that we know how to best meet our needs…a good working definition of self-reliance.

When it comes to seeking help for personal problems, however, the rules mysteriously change.  Whereas a person is crazy if he doesn’t get help for his broken arm, he is crazy if he seeks counseling for his broken heart.  Consulting a library to gather more ‘food’ for your head is ok whereas consulting a mental health provider is a sure sign your head isn’t quite right.  Society has created a double standard which sanctions services for the physical body but stigmatizes help for the mind and spirit.

The truth is, when it comes to self-reliance, accessing needed help – be it from a doctor, librarian, or counselor – does not detract from our internal fortitude.  It is an indication of strength and flexibility, suggesting that we know how to take care of ourselves.

Naturally, we do not consult a doctor for every problem (e.g., a stuffy nose or backache); we show good judgment by using over-the-counter medications as needed.  Nor does a lack of information send us scurrying off to the library at every turn, for a dictionary or encyclopedia can answer many of our questions.

Likewise, a therapist is not needed for problems that can be solved via help and support from friends and family members.  When professional help is needed, however, it is every bit as critical to improving the quality of one’s life as is medical treatment.

Unfortunately, I have known many cases where individuals have ignored grave symptoms in relationships, refused to enter counseling because of their pride, and ended up with emotional gangrene…or worse: amputation.  Those who demonize psychiatric help are often those most in need of its services.

Self-reliance is not synonymous with total independence from others; instead, it includes selective reliance on them.  It involves knowing how to access needed resources and using them in a responsible way.

In most cases, counseling is a temporary “recharging station” on the road of life rather than a resort where you spend an extended vacation.  It is not for crazy people but for those who choose to improve the quality of their lives rather than continue to suffer with the status quo.  Such people are among those searching for more information at the library.  You’ll know them by the casts on their arms.


Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

Parenting: The Ultimate in Relaxation

Published on December 18, 2014 by

Mother with baby in kitchen.During a recent conversation with my two oldest children, my 11-year old daughter asked, “Do you need a degree from the university to do what mom does?”

“No,” I smiled. “A housewife or homemaker doesn’t have to have a college degree.”

Wanting to put in his two cents worth, my 10-year old son quickly asserted, “I don’t want my wife to have to go to college or work…I’m going to let her stay home with the kids so she can relax.”

While being a father may have its relaxing moments, I’m not sure many mothers know the feeling.  In raising children, most mothers and fathers can relate to the following feelings a couple recently shared with me:

“My life is a roller coaster:  one minute I’m running my son to piano lessons, the next I’m trying to mediate a fight between my other son and a neighbor boy, and the next I’m washing my daughter’s coat (for the third time in two weeks).”  The mother of three seemed eager to be heard.

“I can be giggling with my four-year old one minute, then be in a major power struggle with him the next.  When I step back and look at all the things I could do better, I just feel like giving up.  I see things that I could do better on, yet see myself making the same mistakes over and over.  It all wears on me, and the guilt is the worst part.”

“I agree – the guilt’s the worst,” the woman’s husband interrupted.  “Sometimes I feel like I’m on top of things with my children, but then I get caught up in work or some hobby and I forget about the kids.  Or I’ll yell at one of them, even while I’m remembering my vow (made just two days earlier) to work through problems with them rather than scream at them and banish them to their bedroom.”

“There’s just no feeling like looking in on your sleeping child at the end of the day, and realizing that they’re growing up without you spending the time you should with them.  I’m suddenly flooded with promises I have made to help Timmy fix his racetrack, or to talk with Jessica about an argument we’ve had.  Sometimes the feeling’s so strong that I’m tempted to awaken the kids right then and there and make up for my inattentiveness as a father.  I hate the regret.”

Poignant comments like these are the common experience of conscientious parents everywhere.  Like this couple, most mothers and fathers are aware of a number of their shortcomings as parents.  For most of us, the guilt we feel motivates us to take action, to do better as parents.

Most parents recognize that their children get a lot of mileage out of parental attention and effort (of which, by the way, few parents have an endless supply).  Quite simply, nothing seems to be more critical to effective parenting than time and patience, yet with life whirling all about us, nothing seems as challenging for us to give.

So we must make the time.  And we must manufacture the patience.  As parents we are continually beckoned by growing minds and bodies, and if we are honest, we must admit that we find ourselves falling short at times.

For some, “falling short” produces a momentary discomfort that nudges at their conscience and prompts them to make necessary adjustments.  Others have become dulled to “falling short,” and thus fail to give their children more than a meager dose of emotional sustenance.  Then there are those who live under the oppressive tyranny of guilt, a guilt that once motivated but has become so constant that it creates feelings of helplessness, frustration, and despair.

The fact is, most parents do a whale of a job with their kids.  Most parents are intent on giving their children the best they have…and this means their very best time, and their most undivided attention.  Parents simply need to balance out their self-criticisms with a recognition that they do many good things, and with a commitment to continue to strive to do better.  As long as feelings of guilt do not become overwhelming and smothering, they serve a productive function.

When we heed the promptings of conscience to take the time to reach and train our children, or to apologize to them, or to play or interact with them, we become more effective parents.

While good parenting doesn’t require a college degree, it does require the equivalent in time, dedication, and (according to some juvenile sources) the willingness to put up with considerable relaxation.


Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

Reminder to Parents: It’s Next Week

Published on November 14, 2014 by

Someone once said that relationships and feelings are all that really matter in life; that everything else is of secondary importance.  Of the many relationships a person develops throughout
his (or her) life, none has a greater or more long-lasting impact (for good or bad) on him than those formed with his parents.  Such relationships set the stage — provide the foundation — for the child’s developing view of himself, others, and the world.  The bonding process which begins at birth is critical to the development of the newborn’s sense of trust and security.  Later, the quality of the attachment between parent and child affects the child’s developing self-image, ability to relate to others, and judgment and decision-making (to name just a few areas).

Parents give their children a priceless gift when they blend nurturance with discipline to create the basis for a healthy relationship.  As experienced parents know, however, this gift requires more than just good intentions or words alone; it requires considerable time, effort, and patience.  Of these, perhaps none is more difficult for parHappy young familyents to come by than time.

Several years ago the LDS Church produced the Homefront Series, a collection of TV commercials aimed at promoting the Church’s image and values.  One commercial opened with a father lounging in his easy chair while eating in front of the TV.  In the background stood his child, sadly and impatiently waiting for his father to come play catch with him.  An anonymous voice asks the father, “Remember when you promised your son you’d spend some time with him next week?” to which the father lazily nods his head.  “It’s ‘next week’,” the voice pointedly chides.

Periodic reminders that “next week” is here help parents stay focused on their most important shared priority: their children.  Children need their parents’ time and attention, not merely for supervision but, more importantly, for their developing self-image.  They need to feel that they are important, that they’re worth spending time with.  When parents take time with a child, they send a strong message of love and approval that registers deep within the child’s heart.  This is time well-invested, as it contributes to the child’s development of a healthy self-concept.  Conversely, failure to give time and attention to one’s child can, over time, leave him feeling that little of who he is or what he does is of value.  Such low self-esteem places the child at risk for seeking attention and approval in less ideal places and in less desirable ways.

Clearly, the amount of time spent together has a tremendous impact on the nature of the parent-child relationship.  Some have argued that it’s “quality time” rather than the quantity of time spent together which is most important.  While I agree that the quality of the time spent is crucial, I think this argument is often used as an excuse for not spending more time with one’s children (or spouse, for that matter).  The story is told of a man who ordered a prime cut of steak at a fine restaurant.  When the waitress brought him his meal, the man immediately was indignant that the steak was only one inch in diameter, only a fraction of what he had eagerly anticipated.  “But”, insisted the waitress, “you asked for our highest quality steak.”  Clearly, quality counts, but not at the expense of quantity.

Parents busy raising a family know all too well how bills and errands and responsibilities can get in the way of the “more important things” of spending time with little (or bigger) ones.  Life seems to work against us because it often brings on added responsibility the longer we live; just when our kids need us most we seem to have that much more to do.  What’s worse, adulthood robs us of the energy we once had, so we’d rather sit on the couch and read the newspaper or plop down in front of a good video than play Barbies, Catch, or talk about the “cute guys” at school.

Despite these obstacles, just about every mother and father can rehearse instances in their own childhood, “golden moments” that have been forged into memory by loving parents.  I remember, for instance, when my father used to fold up a towel for home plate and call ‘balls’ and ‘strikes’ as I pitched to him in the back yard.  I likewise remember the Saturday evenings when, after bath time, Mom would give us kids a snack and let us choose between going to bed or watching Lawrence Welk on the old black and white TV.  It still doesn’t seem like Lawrence Welk was much of a choice, but I do have the memory of mom singing to the orchestra tunes midst all those bubbles.

One of the greatest opportunities parents have in influencing their children’s lives for good are found in the moment-by-moment opportunities for positive memories.  We’ve all taken advantage of these, such as when you took the time to place a note of love and support in your son’s backpack that he will only discover when he opens his book during math; or when you asked your daughter if she’d mind if you sat by her at dinnertime, then you gloated to the family of the many ways she resembles the ideal mother of a future prophet; or how about the time you surprised your son by including yourself in on a basketball game when his friends come over to play?  Other positive experiences have been created out of outings for ice cream cones, trips to the public library for books, visits to the mountains for a hike or to sing and tell stories around the campfire, and spontaneously splashing in the heaven-sent downpour with the kids.  Family vacations are themselves ready-made producers of priceless memories that often become legends over time.  The establishment of traditions, too, can add to the closeness between parents and children.  Quite simply, the positive influence parents have on their children grows as they spend time with them, be it on a grand scale or in the moments of everyday life.

Indeed, even more important than the “golden moments” are the simple daily interactions between parent and child, such as the time a mother spends and the interest she shows in her son’s cut knee; the attention a father gives as his daughter plays her newest piano piece; the understanding a father offers as his son tells of a fight with a friend; or the patience a mother shows in not retaliating when her daughter says hateful things in a moment of rage.  Similar demonstrations of love are shown by parents who take the time and effort to consistently employ discipline and uphold family rules.  Part of loving a child is taking the time to correct and teach him when he misbehaves.  The above efforts form part of how a child remembers his parents, will greatly influence his childhood experience, and will have a tremendous impact on the type of adult and parent he himself becomes.

Naturally, expending time and effort in a child’s behalf does not guarantee that he will develop as his parents might hope.  None of us is perfect in our parenting nor do we have endless resources to draw from.  Still, we can all give a little  more to our children.  The “little more” involves time and energy and patience.  Our children need our genuine interest in their lives, attention to their successes and failures, encouragement to persist in times of difficulty, and support in their efforts to do their best.  There is simply no substitute, no short-cut to spending time with our children, nor is it something we can delegate to others.  We can all do a little better if we remember that ‘next week’ begins this week.


Steven M. Gentry, PhD., Child & Family Psychologist and Executive Director of  Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

What Parents Should Know About Sexual Abuse

Published on September 11, 2014 by

Note: The following are excerpts from an interview prepared for radio broadcast in the Summer of 1995 with Dr. Steven M. Gentry.  The feminine case is used to refer to the victim; this is done for the sake of clarity and simplicity only, and in no way implies that genders and roles in abuse are so rigidly defined.

Confident parentQ:  What are some of the myths that have been perpetuated concerning child sexual abuse?

A.  Sexual abuse occurs only among strangers (national figures indicate that 85% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the victim).

B.  Children provoke sexual abuse by their seductive behavior (abuse is typically a premeditated, planned act by the perpetrator, who is careful and calculating in setting up and executing his plans).

C.  Most victims tell someone about the abuse (estimates suggest that 2/3 of victims never tell of their abuse due to a fear of being blamed, punished, or not being believed).

D.  Men and women sexually abuse children equally (approximately 90% of perpetrators are men, most of whom are heterosexual and concurrently involved in a consenting sexual relationship).

E.  If a child does not want to be touched, they can say “stop!” (Children typically trust those older than them and therefore don’t question their motives or actions; indeed children are taught to respect and obey their elders.  Moreover, older children and adults exceed younger children in physical strength, knowledge (some victims report that they assumed that everyone gets abused), and sophistication.  Finally, the perpetrator possesses the element of surprise.

F.  All sexual abuse victims are girls (studies suggest that one of four girls and one of six to eight boys under age 18 are victims of sexual abuse).

G.  Incest (illicit sexual contact between relatives) is an isolated, one-time incident (most incestuous abuse doesn’t stop until it’s reported; research indicates it often continues for two or more years before it is reported).


Q:  What are some signs indicating that a child may have been sexually abused?

While any acute trauma or stressful event is likely to affect a child’s mood and behavior; the following symptoms are among the most common sequelae produced by sexual victimization.  Victims of abuse often show a sudden increase in:

~ sadness, depression, listlessness, loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities (e.g., a young child may show a notable decrease in exuberant, spontaneous play).

~ irritability, mood swings, temper tantrums

~ anxiety, avoidance, fearfulness and clinginess, nightmares, sleep disturbance

~ reluctance to go or be with certain people, rejection of physical affection

~ appetite disturbance, wetting or soiling of underwear, physical complaints (e.g., aches, pains)

~ poor school performance, poor concentration

~ preoccupation with one’s own or other’s private parts


Q:  What are some of the ways in which sexual abuse affects a child?

Victims of abuse often report a host of feelings related to their abuse.  These include confusion, guilt, sadness, anger, fear, self-doubt, and shame.  The extent to which a child is traumatized depends on a number of factors, such as:

* the age of the child at the time of the abuse;

* the gender of the child;

* the severity, frequency, and duration of the abuse;

* the relationship of the child to the perpetrator;

* the perpetrator’s use of manipulation, coercion, or threats;

* the parents’ (and other caregivers’) responses to the child’s disclosure about the abuse; and

* the personality of the child.


Q:  Could you elaborate further on the emotional impact of sexual abuse on a child?

Confusion: While abuse is, by definition, among the most painful traumas a person can experience, there may be positive aspects to it for the victim.  These most often occur in the form of 1) individualized attention and/or 2) sexual touch.  Either one of these powerful factors may lead the victim to confuse sexual behavior with caring and being close.  Additional confusion may ensue when children — who often view their parents as perfect, all-knowing, and all-powerful — must reconcile this belief with the reality that their parents did not (and in fact, could not) protect/rescue them.

Fear: If the abuse was incest, the child may feel that no place – even her own home or bedroom – is a safe place.  Incest has a particularly strong effect upon the victim’s ability to trust others, even those close to her.  Regardless of the source of the abuse, the victim may continue to worry about retribution by the perpetrator once she has “told on” him.  Additionally, young girls who lack a clear understanding of reproduction may worry that the abuse – even if it didn’t involve intercourse – may lead to pregnancy.

Guilt: Victims often say “it’s my fault”.  They chastise themselves (“Why did I let this hap- pen?”) and second-guess their decisions (“If I had just done …  differently.”; “If only . . .”).  Too, they may feel guilty for any pleasurable sensations they may have experienced during the abuse.

Shame: This is perhaps the most evident emotion, and also the most pernicious; it is a primary reason victims choose to avoid thinking about or discussing their abuse.  Victims often describe feeling different from other kids.  They fear that other children will find out what has happened and will reject them.  Their self-image suffers as they see themselves as dirty, cheapened, useless, failures, or conclude that “I’m only good for one thing.”

Sadness: Where there is shame, sadness is sure to follow.  The victim may conclude she is a bad person (“I’m no good to anybody anymore”), feel worthless, and feel trapped by feelings and perceptions that may seem like they’ll never go away.  It is not uncommon for the sadness to lead to feelings of hopelessness and suicide.

Anger: Anger is typically the last emotion a victim experiences.  While the perpetrator should clearly be the target of such anger, the victim may find that her anger “spills over” against herself (“I hate myself”), parents, and – if the perpetrator was a man – men in general.


Q:  How should a parent best respond when a child discloses that she has been sexually abused?

 1Most importantly, believe your child.  Children seldom have a motive for making something this serious up.

2.  Remain calm in your child’s presence.  You becoming upset is precisely what she fears most, and it will hinder rather than help her.

3.  Allow her to speak and do not pressure her.  Initially, too much interrupting on your part (i.e., to uncover details) may scare and intimidate her.

4.  Praise her for disclosing the abuse.  Breaking the silence proves to be an extremely hard thing for many children to do, even with those they trust most.

5.  Continually reassure your child that the perpetrator, not her, is to blame for the abuse.  Guilt and shame are among the most potent emotions accompanying victimization; what you say early on can keep negative emotions from intensifying.

6. Assure her that she is safe, that you’re sorry that she’s been hurt, and that you will protect her from further abuse.

7. Respect your child’s privacy by telling only those who must know about the abuse, beginning with the police, the Children’s Justice Center, the Division of Child and Family Services, or a counselor or church leader.  Note that you do not need any evidence for the abuse; others bear the burden of investigating the veracity of the claims.  Your role as a parent is to support, encourage, and protect your child.


Q:  What kind of help is available for victims of abuse?

             Next to prevention, early intervention is the best way to help children deal with sexual abuse.  Counseling can play a significant role in the healing process for the child (and for other family members as well).  The length of treatment varies according to a number of factors (see below).  Every community has a number of therapists with specific training and expertise in working with victims of abuse.  In addition, there are a number of sensitive, well-written books on the topic that can aid both parent and child regain a sense of order and control in their lives.

Fortunately, victims and families affected by abuse can often qualify for state funding through the Crime Victims Reparations (CVR) office, located in Salt Lake City.  This funding offsets the cost of counseling for the victim and her immediate family members; the program coordinates with the family’s health insurance policy to pay 100% of the costs of treatment.  It can also be used for other costs (babysitting, transportation, etc.) incidental to the abuse.  For more information, simply speak with a counselor, the Children’s Justice Center, or call CVR (1-800-621-7444).


 Q:  Does counseling really help, and if so, how?

Occasionally, parents (and victims themselves) resist the idea of counseling, for a number of reasons.  Some see it as a waste of time, believing that “time heals all wounds”.  Others feel that counseling will only further emphasize the trauma and delay healing (“we just need to move on with our lives”).  Still others are concerned about the costs of treatment, or that it will go on too long.  And most find the emotions and memories overwhelming.

While time does heal some wounds, it falls far short from healing all of them.  Granted, facing feelings and memories of abuse head-on is difficult, but the costs of avoiding the topic are far greater and certainly more long-lasting.  Counseling allows the victim a chance to meet with a qualified, dispassionate person to share her experience, clarify her feelings, understand the negative impact of the trauma on her ways of thinking, and learn to make decisions based on healthy coping skills.

Avoidance is a tempting choice, but it only compounds the problem, since feelings and perceptions tend to solidify over time within the child’s mind.  Professional help from a competent counselor can directly, thoroughly, and effectively address the problem.


Q:  Suppose a child’s parents have just learned that their daughter has been sexually abused. Summarize your recommendations to them.

Follow the seven steps outlined in question V above.

As you meet with concerned caseworkers and professionals, listen carefully to their counsel.  Contact a competent professional to discuss the case and determine if counseling is appropriate.  As you have questions arise, seek out material to read on the topic of sexual abuse.

To be sure, learning that your child has been sexually victimized is a life-shattering experience, and it may feel like your whole world has come crashing down.  But these feelings won’t last forever, and you’re not alone.

Don’t be afraid to lean on others, to open up and talk about your own worries, frustrations, and regrets.  Ironically, while it takes emotional strength to address problems directly, doing so produces even greater strength.  And all of this will make you more emotionally available to your child, who needs your love and encouragement now more than ever.


Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D., a Child & Family Psychologist is the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

On Putting Children to Bed: Advice from ‘A’ to ‘Zzzzzzz’

Published on May 7, 2014 by

            I’ve heard it said that the travail of nine months of pregnancy is God’s way of making the prospect of labor more manageable for a woman: by the time you’re ready to give birth, you really don’t care how the doctor reduces your load…you’ll ‘do what it takes’ to have ownership of your body again.

            It’s not long, however, before you realize you’re still ‘owned’ by your newborn.  He needs to be cuddled and fed and rocked and changed and…well, he’s just plain totally dependent on you.  And he’s likely to be terribly disrespectful of working within your framework of your time schedule.

       Lovely family sitting together on the bed     Which means he invariably awakes just as you’re drifting off to sleep.  Or he protests loudly when you lay him down in his crib.  Many parents know the agony of being torn between rescuing the sad little angel and letting him learn the lesson of going to sleep on his own.  It’s a classic struggle between head and heart. I admit I’ve changed my position on the matter over the years; I used to be a staunch supporter of “Ferberization,” a term used to describe the latter approach.  This method, named for America’s most well-known infant sleep expert, Richard Ferber, involves specific tactics parents use to train their infant to develop nocturnal independence.  Some refer to it as “boot camp for babies.”

            Having had their baby in the crib, parents are encouraged to ignore his cries, though they may enter the room at gradually increasing intervals to pat (but not pick up) their infant.

            As you might imagine, Ferberization seldom fails, if parents follow the specific guidelines and are persistent.  Eventually, the baby learns that his cries are for naught, and he gives up and goes to sleep.

            While I no longer favor Ferberization, neither do I see it as a bad option for those who choose to use it.  What does concern me is what I call “Ferber Fervor,” where proponents of the approach become almost evangelical in preaching The Word to others.  The less-than-subtle implication is that non-Ferberizers are sub-average in their parenting.  In their zeal to set forth their agenda, Ferber and his disciples take “leap of faith” assertions.  For instance, Ferber claims that a baby needs to fall asleep on his own so he can “see himself as an independent individual.”

            To this assumption critic Robert Wright replies:  “I’m puzzled.  It isn’t obvious to me how a baby would develop a robust sense of autonomy while being confined to a small cubicle with bars on the side and rendered powerless to influence its environment.”

            Indeed, research in this area of infant sleep is slim to slender.  Statements by Ferber disciples, like child-care expert T. Berry Brazelton, often go unchallenged.  Brazelton has said, for instance, that when a child wakes up at night and a parent refuses to heed her cries by picking her up, “she won’t like it, but she’ll understand.”  Because of his status, Brazelton can get away with such sweeping declarations, even though there’s no research to back up his claim.

            Personally, I prefer the Laissez-faire approach to infant sleep, as it maximizes benefits for both mother and child.  For instance, many mothers report developing an almost reflexive nursing of their baby (without ever waking up).  Thus, mom gets her sleep and the baby procures both physical and emotional nurturance.  The other benefit is that regular feedings help prevent painful engorgement or breast infections in the mother.

            Many critics charge that infants who aren’t ‘self-sleepers’ will have to do so at some point in time.  And they do, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a traumatic time. There are things parents can do to ease into the transition.  And (perish the thought) some children continue to sleep in close proximity to their parents for quite some time; as long as it doesn’t create problems for the parents, I wouldn’t get too fussed about it.

            I know of no research showing that a child whose parents choose a ‘family bed’ approach is more likely to develop fearful, clingy, insecure behaviors later on, just as I know of no research suggestive of emotional scarring in Ferberized children.  While Ferber claims that his approach allows babies a chance to learn how to manage their nighttime anxieties and develop self-reliance, I prefer parental responsivity to infant distress, since I value comfort, nurturance, and reassurance over autonomy at this age.

            But I won’t begrudge or judge others who choose otherwise…sleep and let sleep.


Steven M. Gentry, Ph.D., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah

Concerning the Assessment & Treatment of Grown-up Grumps

Published on April 3, 2014 by

            An 11-year old boy was in my office recently, talking about the sources of some of his frustrations.  Lamenting that his dad promises to take him fishing and camping, but ‘just never does it,” this boy finally let loose with the ultimate in name-calling: he called his father a “big grump.”

             I admit I was somewhat taken back by his harsh choice of words, for there’s not many things worse than being called a grump by your own kid. (I should know; I was accused of being a grump by one of my kids just last summer, and I didn’t like it one bit.)

             I told the boy aboutSenior woman in a red shirt and straw hat my invention of the “Grumpometer” (pronounced like thermometer), and asked him to rate his father on it.  He claimed his dad is always at the high end of the scale, that “He doesn’t know how not to be a grump.”

             While all parents have their moments of grumpiness, most of us don’t loiter around at the high end of the scale.  Still, in my estimation there are far too many parents who are inflexible, unjustifiably restrictive, or simply all too frequently critical of their children.  It is in honor of these parents that the Grumpometer scale was developed.

             I want to reiterate that I’m not talking about parents who occasionally have a bad day, or who get stressed out from time to time.  I’m talking about those parents who make a living at saying “No” to their children, those who seem to be on the lookout for something to correct in people of the little variety.  I’m talking about the parents who can hardly muster a smile or a pleasant word for their children, even when in a ‘good’ mood.

             To those in this camp I would say “Please stop being a grump. You’re giving parents everywhere a bad name.”

             Naturally, grumps aren’t the only ones who need to work on their parenting; even we non-grumps need to
spend more time saying ‘yes’ to our children and less time saying ‘no,’ more time holding them than scolding them, and more time praising them than berating them.  We all need to invest more time with our children playing Twister, helping them out with story problems, sticking love notes in their shoes while they sleep, asking for impromptu piano recitals, or (perish the thought!) playing a game or two of Nintendo.

             This whole business of loosening up and being playful with our kids came up just the other day while I was talking with a 14-year old and his 17-year old sister.  “I wish my dad would loosen up,” he said.  “I just wish he’s joke around with us kids.”

             “Yeah,” his sister added.  “Dad doesn’t know how to play with us.” 

             The idea may sound somewhat silly to some, but I see this as an all too common problem; the “play-challenged” parent.  Perhaps such parents never learned to run in the rain with their kids, or have forgotten just how fun Freeze Tag can be (especially if you have to crawl through a little person’s legs to ‘unfreeze’ them), but if they want to get behind the well-defended wall that many kids erect to protect themselves, if they want to get to the bottom of why a child is so angry, or if they simply want to enjoy some time with little folks, joining children in play is a good starting point.

             I suppose it’s little coincidence that many grumps are also play-challenged.  But being playful and spontaneous with children can help ward off the rigor mortis so many worn down parents begin to exhibit.

             I’ll never forget a particular overnight visit from my 60-year old father-in-law several years ago.  My wife and I were awakened Saturday morning by a ruckus upstairs.  When we went to investigate, we found Grandpa in our three and four-year old’s bedroom, jumping on the bed with them as they sang “No more monkeys jumping on the bed!” Naturally, my wife and I had to ground Grandpa for making us look like grumps, but he wiggled out of it by taking us out to brunch, which we later regretted because, as you can imagine, he became quite a handful at the park.

            Speaking of parks, they’re a great training ground for the play-challenged…or for every grump, from the Head Grump to the Occasional Grump.  The fact is, we can all do a little more to loosen up, to be more flexible, to put a smile on our face and do something spontaneous with our kids.  We can all be a little more playful. Tag…you’re it!

 Steven M. Gentry, PhD, is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah