Five-ish Things That Kids Learn in Families


“What we remember from childhood we remember forever…”   Cynthia Ozick, American writer 1928.

Young children, and teens, sometimes have values, priorities, behaviors and feelings that they have to unlearn, or re-channel if they have been exposed to traumatic life events, or unhealthy behaviors by their parents. It can be a long, slow process but don't give up.  Healthy life skills, coping mechanisms and trust building come from watching you, as well as, being given opportunities to experiment, grow and change. 

The parameters of ‘normal’.

Family life is a microscopic version of the world. It’s where children and teens learn to interact with others. Learn how they fit into social and work (chores or working for others) relationships.  It’s where they learn boundaries and where they learn to evaluate what is acceptable, unacceptable or just plain bizarre behavior.

Often, if tragedy or abuse occurs in a child’s life, they tend to expect bad things unless we help them put things in perspective. It should be every parenting adult’s goal to help kiddos see that life is a series of possibilities–not just a steady stream of problems.

How to handle feelings and conflict.

It can be especially hard for youth who have been threatened or punished for “talking back” to engage in any conversations that they know would have triggered a violent reaction in their mom or dad.  However, their day-to-day success, as well as all ongoing and future relationships rely on their learning how to give and receive feedback honestly, respectfully, and at appropriate times.

If kids yell obscenities, hit, walk away when you are talking with them, or demonstrate other extreme behaviors create a cooling off period, and then explain rules of engagement.  Let them practice when they are calm saying “I” statements that don’t threaten or demean. Role play examples they can relate to such as, “I feel scared when you yell, like you just did.  I know that the odds of a plane crashing are very slim, however, it makes my stomach hurt when you make fun of me for not wanting to fly because that’s how my parents died.  It’s my turn to decide what movie we are going to go see since you choose last week. Was there a reason you want to choose this week too?”

Feelings are honest.  It’s okay for children and teens to be angry, mad, sad, glad, silly or whatever.  What’s important is how feelings are expressed by words, voice tone, body language and timing. They learn respect as much from watching and listening to how you talk to others, and about others as they do from lectures or coaching. If a birth parent is, or was, abusive they may need professional counseling.

Being responsible isn’t easy.

Kids learn from experience–so even when it’s painful let them try new things or re-try old things in new ways giving them more and more control and responsibility. Let them make mistakes. Let them learn about natural consequences, and most important set them up to succeed.

Not all their efforts will be painless, or pretty, but from each attempt they will learn. Show them trust and respect by honestly praising successes (even partial) and together talk through events and feelings when things don’t turn out so well. Be open to their suggestions and be flexible.  When you can’t ‘flex’ explain “why”. Is it too expensive, are you overbooked, or is it simply too dangerous, illogical, or against your values?

Learning to be a good winner or a good loser.

Don’t believe the drivel that anyone can do anything they set their mind to.  I am 5’2″ and will never be 5’7″.  At seventy, I’m too old to become an Olympic champion in anything.  They too have some skills and gifts and some restrictions. If they have been cut from the high school varsity basketball team help them access the situation.  Would extra practice or coaching help?  Would joining a ‘rec’ team improve their future chances in high school, college and beyond?  Are they simply, at 5 foot, too short to compete unless they get a growth spurt?

Additionally, everyone cannot be best at everything.  If they try something and fail then they will have learned a little more about themselves and be better prepared when passed over for a job promotion or maybe learning that there are physical reasons that they cannot eat sugar without serious health consequences.

Sometimes winning comes easily.  They will be better served if they learn early on how to share the glory in a team sport or turn the spotlight to encouraging others.  “I am the greatest” (you fill in the blank) comments can quickly turn off others.

Values and ethics.

We live in a world where everything we do is quickly picked up, passed on and/or critiqued by others on social media.  It’s not easy to be bullied at school or work, but it’s mega multiplied when the bullying jumps to cyber and your child is exposed to ridicule from those he/she interacts with every day.

Since we can’t control everything that happens to our children as youngsters or young adults, we have to help them develop the self confidence and self worth to ride out the storms. Teens don’t always believe that character counts more than immediate popularity. However, surrounding them with family, mentors, good friends who share your family’s values and faith will help them mentally shrug and walk away or calmly say, “that’s not cool”.

Let them know that they aren’t victims and that asking for help from God or others takes courage and strength but we all need others…and we all can help others.

Met earlier this month in Seattle with a number of other grandfamily members (and Donna Butts from Generations United) at the Casey Leadership Retreat. Amazing people. Amazing organizations.

Summer Vacation Tips for Grandparents Raising Grandkids

Summer can be amazing.  Really.  

Set limited, and realistic, goals for changing or keeping hard-fought-progress in good behaviors and life skill acquisition this summer.  Don’t try to accomplish too much and allow lots of time for making  lazy, hazy, crazy summer memories.

Family fun lets you painlessly sneak in life skill lessons.  

Lessons like, “Wait your turn; share, men cook, or changing a , “I need $20,” to “what can I do to earn $20?”

Start transitioning before school ends.

Kids of trauma don’t do well with change (transitions) so start talking about summer plans and summer rules early.

Using behavioral contracts can be effective with pre-teens and teens, “If I get up and make my bed without being told five days in a row I get to (fill in blank).  It gets buy-in up front and there is no room for, “I forgot, I didn’t say that, etc.”

Make the last day of school/first day of summer special, whether going for ice cream or hosting a pool party–especially if your grandchild is sad about leaving their teacher or friends for the summer.

Kids of trauma need structure.

Establish summer bedtimes, screen time limits, as well as when, where and for how long they can hang with friends. Post daily, weekly and one time chore lists. Place a family activity white board in a central location. List dentist, doctor, and counseling appointments, along with camps and small adventures like trips to library, waterparks or helping a teen learn to drive.  Include the whole family, when possible, in volunteer projects whether placing flags on Veteran’s graves or making a meal to take to Ronald McDonald’s House.

Use stickers for little ones.

 

 

 

Trip to zoo.

 

 

Summer camps provide structures and social interaction.  They also teach skills (ball, science, crafts).  Win-win. There is no better job for young teens than getting to be junior counselor (helper) and working up to paid summer-long positions as they mature. Jobs take up spare time, they teach responsibility and there is supervision.

 Opportunities + Opposition = Growth

With each responsibility toddlers through teens accept they deserve more freedom. Sometimes this is a tough lesson for parents–letting go gradually and tightening back up if they misstep, but always letting them try again.  It’s how we all learn.

As parents:

  • Be open to learning new parenting techniques.
  • Talk about birth parents and not-so-happy, as well as happy, life experiences and memories.
  • Accept, rather than fight about, things that don’t matter.  The color or cut of hair shouldn’t be an issue if it’s clean, as long as not a culturally negative message such as gang identification.  Once youth reach the age of job interviews this may have to be re-evaluated.
  • Be a parent, not a buddy.  Set boundaries, consistently enforce consequences, praise out loud (only for honest effort or achievements though), and say “no” when safety or inappropriate behaviors need to be stopped.
  • Meet every friend and their parents. Ask about (ignore the eye rolls and “no one else’s parents” propaganda) parental supervision, guns in the home, drugs (medical and legal recreational), screen limits on content and/or time.
  • Listen before you pass judgement –things do happen that are out of your child’s control.  The problem is if there is a pattern of “not my fault”.  Make consequences fit behavior.  Remember grounding, or taking away a privilege grounds you too, or turns you into the warden.  Better to talk about, “What could you have done differently? Or, what can you do now (like maybe call and apologize or make a list of emergency numbers to call when they can’t reach you next time and curfew looms.)”

Don’t forget that miracles are all around us. Model thankfulness, kindness and having a sense of humor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Drawn by Lola, my great grandniece).

Raising Children of Trauma.

“When I used to get so angry it was like I was drunk and didn’t know what was going on.  Later I’d think, “What just happened?”  I didn’t know how I had gotten to the point of being out of control half of the time,” said my grandson 22-year-old Chad Dingle, co-author of Raising Children of Alcoholics & Drug Users.¹

It was crazy scary, frustrating, and always a long, slow process of talking Chad down after he got so angry that he’d punch a hole in the wall or scream mean hateful things at me growing up. We’d talk sometimes for hours, and sometimes a few minutes, depending on his age and rage. Things would then settle into a truce only to soon start up all over again. With the help of counselors, I was able to keep him and the rest of our family safe but it took a huge toll on everyone.

Both of Chad’s parents had problems with drugs and alcohol, and after age four I tried to shelter him from them most of the time; however, his past and their continuing choices, caused Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) triggers that took years to overcome.  Only recently did I learn that to these children, “stern warnings can become  louder and brusquer and discipline can seem harsher.”²

I always told Chad that regardless what his parents did, he was responsible for his own choices and actions.  Giving him consequences was tricky because I knew why Chad was the way he was…neglected as an infant and physically abused as a toddler but he had to develop self-control and a sense of right and wrong.

Alcoholics & addicts hurt their kids.

Why? Not because they don’t love their children but because their addictions override their desire/ability to get, and stay, sober.  They do things to feed their habit that traumatizes their children.  For example, the Adapt Report©, a diagnostic multi-discipline tool currently being field tested by Dr. James Kagan, M.D., scored Chad’s personal trauma history as “very high”.  In part the commentary read, “…experienced 6 out of a possible 10 traumatic childhood events known to be associated with poor mental health and developmental outcomes.”  It noted that his parent(s) were 1) incarcerated, 2) separated, divorced or deceased, 3) verbally, emotionally or psychologically abusive, 4) physically abusive, 5) struggling with substance use and 6) emotionally neglectful, unloving, or threatening abandonment or removal of child from household.

Why trauma-informed parenting helps.

Even young infants learn survival skills, such as not crying when hungry or hiding under the bed when dad’s mad, instead of relational or developmental. Research shows trauma changes brain response to real or perceived danger. The victims never totally relax even when when just awakening from sleep and they accelerate through the arousal stages of alert, alarm, fear and terror faster than a race driver shifts gears. 

How you parent greatly increases, or decreases, a child or teens’ anxiety and tendency to overcome inappropriate responses such as dissociating (withdrawing into themselves and even physically hiding to avoid a drunk dad or a strung out mom) or by hyper-arousal and aggression.  They need to learn from you skills to substitute for the missing checks and balances in their brains.  They have to learn social awareness, empathy, and how to self-sooth.

Basic parenting tips.

Always say what you are going to do, and then do what you say.  Be consistent, calm, and predictable.  Schedules are as important as rules and consequences; posting them helps.

Pre-empt challenges with choices.  “You can choose to do your homework now and go to the basketball game tonight, or you can choose to stay home and do it after dinner.”

Be nurturing and offer physical comfort to the degree they seek.  For example ask for, don’t demand, a hug and if they reject your attempt don’t make it a big deal, “I guess you’re out of hugs–well maybe tomorrow you’ll have one to give away,” or go for a fist bump or high five as your first step to establishing physical connection.

Incorporate frequent breaks.  “Want to shoot hoops for ten minutes?” or, “You’ve earned a break, what would you like to do for an hour?”, even, “Let’s get a snack, okay?”

Final thoughts.

I’m not a counselor.  I have no formal training in medical or mental health. I wrote this as a mom who adopted a traumatized grandchild and spent/spend time with professionals who generously share their time and expertise.  I always urge professional counseling.  What I’ve written is just a conversation starter.

Contrary to what you might think, the younger the infant or child is when subjected to trauma, the wider the impact and resulting problems. Infants cannot change their own dirty diapers or make themselves dinner…a five-year old can open a box of cereal or tell a neighbor they are hungry.  A one-year-old may learn not to cry, but they can’t go out the back door when dad staggers in the front door swearing.

Let your grandchildren talk about past experiences and emotions.  Emotions are facts and there is no right or wrong way to feel.  How emotions are processed and expressed is the issue.  Help them feel safe in talking with you and a few select others in their lives.

Teach them how/who they can contact (911, neighbors, teachers, etc.) to get help if a situation turns ugly.  Never tolerate actions that endanger you, other family members, or themselves.

 

¹Dingle, Chad.  Raising Children of Alcoholics & Drug Users. ©2015.

²http://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-pediatrics-trauma-guidelines-idUSKBN16R2B5

10 Tips for a successful school year.

School is about academics, but also the building of a child’s character, emotional growth, and expanding relationships outside of the family. Keeping expectations of your grandchild realistic and balanced will decrease your stress level while increasing their self-confidence.

Tip One.  Grades are important, but they don’t always reflect a student’s efforts, rather their test-taking ability–and in subjects such as English they incorporate intangibles such as cultural experiences and teacher/student interactions.image002 2  If your child is failing (or performing under potential) analyze why.  Do they need glasses? A tutor? Rewards or consequences? Help learning how to study, take test, communicate with teachers/peers, or time management guidance? Once you isolate the why, solutions become possible.   

Tip Two.  Designate a quiet place for homework, and a time for doing it. Praise effort and offer encouragement. Help, but don’t take over (says the mom who almost collapsed trying to follow 12 pages of instructions for building a trebuchet).

Tip Three.  Get professional help for cognitive, behavioral, or physical problems impacting learning. School counselors aren’t a substitute for private practice counseling–schools have limited resources and many students. The Oregon Health Plan, and most other state plans and private insurance, offer mental health benefits.

All students with learning disabilities by law (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) are entitled to free testing and the development and implementation of an individual education plan (IEP). Helpful website: http://www.specialeducationguide.com/pre-k-12/.

Tip Four.  Request teachers whose teaching styles match your grandchild’s needs whether it’s for structure, schedules and posted rules, or self-directed study and/or group projects. If the principal resists ask, “Who else can I speak to?” And do it.

Tip Five.  Keep personal information personal unless necessary for child’s safety or special program eligibility. Assume anything shared with administrators, teachers, volunteers, or support staff will be repeated and/or become part of their school record. This is not a negative reflection on our wonderful professionals–rather a by product of the system and all it’s imperfections…things just happen.  Inaccurate, or negative, labels can impact a student forever.

Tip Six.  Attend all planning and disciplinary meetings.  Listen, but don’t agree to anything until after you hear what your grandchild says when it’s just the two of you. Help them admit if they are wrong. Help them learn: life isn’t fair but that isn’t a reason to give up, everyone has to pick their battles including you, and when to go to the mat for them (or in their case what they believe in).

Tip Seven.  Get kids what they need to succeed including Internet access (which can be the library, a neighbor, or through low-cost student Internet Access plans from providers); required calculators, textbooks, clothes, etc.  

Tip Eight.  Encourage extracurricular activities they like. Introduce yourself to coaches, teachers or other mentors such as faith group leaders, scoutmasters, or big brothers/sisters.  Consistently show up to watch. From preschool through high school, I always met my daughter and grandson’s friends and their parents. A few times I vetoed inappropriate activities or sleepovers where parental supervision was questionable. I wasn’t their best friend..but then a parent isn’t supposed to be.

Tip Nine.  Ask for help. Call the Department of Aging, or DHS, to see if they have any money for a special activity, or supplies, you can’t afford, or for suggestions of others to contact.  Check out clothes closets and faith organizations. 211 is an excellent resource for general information.

Scan 112480000Tip Ten.  If your grandchild has a bad day, recognize that it won’t last forever. Talk about what went well, what did not, and what can be done differently next time. By unpacking the baggage your grandkids came with piece by piece every aspect of their life–including school–will improve.

 

What to do when grandkids blame you…

Blaming other people is a kid thing.  Most outgrow it, but addicts don’t. So when your grandkids blame you for their birthparent’s problems remember that it probably originated from something mom or dad said to them–or because of immature and wishful thinking. Instead of stressing, take up their challenge. Picture yourselves engaged in a Scrabble™ game.  Grandkid starts play with ‘blame’, daring you to respond. While it may be tempting to take the “S” from your letter rack and stick it under the “B”, don’t do it.  Open up the playing field by finding words/mental phrases that help you keep your emotional balance:

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B –  Bring it on…this is an opportunity for us to talk.

L Lies and love.  I can deal with both.

AAnalyze, Attitude, Approach, Action, and Accountability. All skills I will teach you to help you walk a different path than your mom/dad.

M-E – as in Me.  I count too.  I will earn your respect, but until then I will settle for your showing me, and others in authority, respect because it’s the right thing to do.

Bring it on.

Keep them talking so you know what they are thinking and feeling and who is influencing them (mom/dad, a certain teacher or friend). Listen to what they are saying, and what they are hiding.  Don’t lecture. Ask non-judgmental questions and keep your responses brief. Correct only vital misinformation in an age/stage appropriate manner. Better to come in the backdoor another day if things are emotionally charged.

Lies and love.

Children of addicts and alcoholics have lived in a world of lies.  Lies from mom/dad. White lies from family (possibly even you?) trying to protect them. Unintentional lies of promises broken from a society that says, “We’ll keep you safe.”  You have to break the chain of lies. Always be honest or they will never re-learn how to trust.

Love won’t blind them long term to their parents’ faults.  They will eventually see the lies told by their parents, and the distortions in their thinking. Only years of you being there–saying what you mean, and meaning what you say–will lead them to understand you don’t lie and you aren’t to blame for their, or their parent’s, choices.

“A” game strategies.

Teaching children life and communication skills benefits your relationship, and influences their every future relationship (work, family, friends). So help them  to analyze what they see and hear, develop healthy attitudes (ethics and values), learn how to approach others (communicate), and take both appropriate action and accountability for that action. Don’t worry if you occasionally blow it by getting upset…or if they don’t seem to be listening. Develop strategies and stick with them.

Limit digital contact with parents if every tweet, text, or phone call undoes your progress. Be there for as much face-to-face contact as your legal circumstances, and their age, allows so you can challenge parental lies on the spot.

Pick your battles and consider possible consequences of your words before engaging. Sometimes grandkids are just venting, sometimes testing, and sometimes heading off a cliff.  Triage and dismiss petty comments with a “You may be right.  I might have misunderstood, or let’s ask your mother next visit?”

Every time they hear,  “I may be wrong.  Convince me.  I was wrong.  You are right,” they eternalize it and start processing their own feelings, and emotions, differently.  Gradually their communication skills will improve, and they will see that you are fair and not to blame.

Don’t skip important discussions but try to find a logical time to introduce them–unless there is an immediate safety issue.  Lysa Terkeurst in her book, The Best Yes, says that repeated choices become our circumstances. Avoidance is a choice. Timing is also.

M-E

Lyrics from Kelly Clarkson,who had a rocky relationship with her birth father, song Piece by Piece resonate with me:

“But piece by piece he collected me
Up off the ground…
And piece by piece he filled the holes that you burned in me.”

It is a compliment when your kids feel safe unloading on you, blaming you. Doesn’t feel good, can’t let them get away with it, but it is progress. Never give up but know when to temporarily give in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When grandparents raising grandkids die, or are dying…

IMG_2932How do you help grandparents who have recently lost their spouse, or life partner? 

You show up.  You listen.  You offer to talk to their grandkids who are struggling with their own fears and tears. Nothing will ever be the same, and suggesting otherwise is demeaning.

Affirm positive steps, and suggest counseling, grief classes and support groups for the family. Child/teen-focused grief release programs, such as the Dougy Center in Oregon or Comfort Zone Camp in Virginia do incredible work.

What do you do if the grandparent them self is dying?

This is 911 heart- stopping stuff but reality can’t be put off.  These grandparents need a new home for their grandkids now, or as their health deteriorates. They need to talk with an attorney, grief counselor, and hospice to determine what’s possible, timelines, and how to legally, financially, and emotionally make it all happen.

Their caseworker must be involved if children are wards of the court. Sadly, some children will be returned to the foster care system, some to a barely functioning birthparent, and others transitioned to the home of an older sibling, aunt, adult-friend, or parents of their best friend.

In my latest book Raising Children of Alcoholics & Drug Users there is a whole chapter devoted to the practical issues of estate planning, wills, guardianships, talking to extended family, and transitioning information for a new care-taker.

All children need to know where they are going to live.  Every grandparent in this situation needs help.  Offer to make appointments, talk to grandkids, or contact their faith community.

Helping grandkids deal with death: advice from professionals:

Tell kids immediately.  Don’t let them hear from anyone else–and certainly not from a thoughtless media tweet or post–if you, or another family member is dying…or if someone they love is dead. Helping a little one, or teen, say goodbye is hard–but not giving them a chance to say goodbye if there is the opportunity is worse.  Sixty plus years after my husband’s mother committed suicide, he is still dealing with the pain of no one talking about his mother, and not getting to go to her funeral.

Use the words died and death, not euphemisms.  If you say grandma is asleep, went away, is with the angels, or ‘we lost her’–children, especially preschoolers, get confused.  They expect sleeping people to wake up, and people who aren’t there to return eventually like when Papa comes home from work. They have no concept of forever.

Using words that describe everyday activities to explain death can lead to anxiety or fear.  If papa was “sick” and “died” then they will be terrified when they, or anyone, gets sick. Explain only serious illnesses, or very bad accidents, cause death. There are some excellent child grief books including Tear Soup and Freddie the Leaf. There are equally good ones for teens and adults.

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Let children attend a parent/or grandparent’s service.  However, consider taking pre-schoolers to ‘after service’ gatherings only.  Ask a trusted acquaintance to watch over them because you will be busy, grieving, and unable to deal with their short attention span, fidgeting, and questions about why people are crying or, “Where is grandpa?”

Ask children how they are feeling and ask often enough, and in enough different ways, to really “hear” what they are feeling. Reassure them by words and actions that whatever happens, they will be safe and with people who love them.

Help them put their feelings into words, or pictures, so they can process grief. Some will feel very sad for a long time, others not so much.  Some will be angry and feel abandoned (don’t forget that for adolescents life is all about them). Reassure them that they aren’t responsible for the death.

Seek counseling for kids if there are prolonged: 

-Changes in school performance and peer interactions.

-Difficulty in sleeping, nightmares, reverting to bed wetting, or needing you in the room while they fall asleep.

-Destructive behaviors such as temper tantrums, using drugs or alcohol, cutting, depression, stealing, bad language, isolating themselves in their bedroom,  or sexual aggression.

-Refusal to talk about the deceased, or talking exclusively about them.

Re-assure grandparent.

Grieving is not easy and there are no timetables, no pre-mapped steps. The activities of parenting often facilitates that a grandparents’ feelings and needs are set aside…but whether they are saying good-bye to their spouse, or saying a long good-bye to their grandkids, let them know you’ll be there.

Ask them if they are spiritually alright?  I’m Christian, but spirituality can include agnostics, atheists, or anyone.  Asking simply opens a conversation door that maybe no one else has been willing to walk through with them.

Regardless of your intent don’t tell them everything happens for a reason, heaven is a better place, or other similar comments. In the bible it says God never wastes a tear. Sometimes crying with another is one of the best comforts we can offer.