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

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

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.

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