Actively Listening to Your Child

Can we talk for a moment about listening? Or rather, actively listening?

As Americans, when we have conversations, we’re conditioned to do something that psychologists call “reloading” while the other person is talking. This means that instead of truly listening to our conversation partner, we’re preparing what we will say next. (Don’t worry. The other person is doing it to you too. You’re not a total narcissist.)

For parents, the reloading problem is even worse when we talk to our kids. Adults tend to think that we already know what’s important in this conversation. ESPECIALLY if we’re discussing a behavior problem.

The thing is, we don’t actually know everything. Consider the possibility that maybe your child isn’t having a fit at bedtime simply for the joy of causing you misery. Maybe he’s not actually refusing to eat broccoli because he wants attention. It could be that there is something your child knows that you don’t know.

In fact, considering that your child is the only person who actually has access to his own thoughts, he definitely knows something you don’t. He might have difficulty articulating it, but he knows more about the reasons for his difficult behavior than you do.

So if you truly want to know what’s going on inside his mind, you’ll have to stop reloading, and start listening. Here’s how to do it.

Start by asking your child a non-judgmental, open-ended question about a problem he’s having.

For example, “Hey. I’ve noticed that you seem to be having some trouble at bed time. Can you tell me what’s going on?”

If your kid answers you, that’s fantastic. Now it’s your turn to listen. Focus on what your child is saying, then reflect it back.

So if your kid says, “I just don’t think it’s fair that I have to go to bed at 8:00.”

Then you say, “I hear you saying that you don’t think your bedtime is fair.” Then you add a probing question to get more information. Something like, “Can you tell me more about that?”

Resist the urge to pass judgement here! There’s no need to give your justification for the 8:00 bedtime or lecture about how many hours of sleep a child should be getting. Just listen, reflect, and probe. Keep doing it until you completely understand your child’s thoughts or concerns.

After this, you can give your point of view. You’re still in charge. You still make the rules about bedtime or whatever the issue is. But your child will feel understood and you might just have a productive conversation.

On Bed Time Meltdowns

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“Dear God, just get me to bed time.” What parent hasn’t uttered those words at least one (billion?) times?

For me, bed time is not my favorite time of day. Not at all. We have very serious power struggles at bed time. My 4-year-old, in particular, is a master at making the getting-to-bed process as painful as possible.

And before you suggest it, here are all the things I’ve already tried:

  • Creating a predictable bed time routine
  • Limiting screens in the evening
  • Limiting sugar
  • Bed time yoga
  • Bed time meditation
  • Giving him a warm bath
  • Letting him sleep with a night light
  • Letting him sleep in my room
  • Snuggling with him in his bed
  • Using a sound machine
  • Rubbing his back
  • Telling him stories
  • Demanding that he just freakin LISTEN TO ME FOR CRYING OUT LOUD IT IS BED TIME AND HE’S FOUR YEARS OLD!

And just for fun, here are a few things I have not yet tried but have seriously considered:

  • Prescription opiates
  • Chloroform
  • Belt-buckle restraints like those things you see in the movies
  • Electrifying his bedroom doorknob after 8:00 pm

(Obviously, I’m kidding. Sort of.)

Here’s the thing. It’s great that some things work for some kids, and it’s normal that they don’t work for other kids. I used to think that if something worked for most kids, then they were supposed to work for every kid. This just isn’t true. And anyone who says differently is selling something.

(For the record, I don’t actually believe that life is pain. I just really love The Princess Bride.)

Annnnnyyyyywaaaayyyy…

Here’s what (sometimes) works for my kid, for what it’s worth.

I stay calm, no matter what. No matter how loud or frustrating his behavior gets, I don’t yell, or argue.

He says, “I should get to stay up as late as I want and you should never get what you want!”

I say, “I know, bud.”

He says, “I’m never going to bed!”

I say, “Ok, bud.”

He says, “I’m going to build a country where kids stay up all night and grown ups never get their way and you’re never invited!”

I say, “I hear you.”

Then I calmly put him in his room, kiss him good night, and walk out. He screams for a few more minutes. I say nothing. Then he stops and falls asleep.

Until he gets back up an hour and a half later, but that’s another story.

What are your strategies for bed time meltdowns?

Mental Health Tools: Dogs Are a Spirited Kid’s Best Friend

Therapy dogs help kids calm down
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Occasionally, I’ll share some of the therapeutic tools that my kids and I use to help control their mental health symptoms. Today’s tool is snuggling our dogs.

One of the symptoms of my son’s mental illness is that he his anxiety often turns to rage. He feels anxious, he convinces himself that a problem is unsolvable, he spirals out of control, and rages.

His therapist has taught him a few tools to calm himself down when he’s feeling anxious, like taking deep breaths and counting to ten, but none of them worked. The reason they didn’t work was because my kid didn’t believe they would work. Why didn’t he believe? I can only guess, but I think it was because his anxiety was so strong that it convinced him that nothing would work.

That all changed when a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) counselor did something amazing: He asked my son what HE thought would work.

My kid had had another one of his rage episodes, and this was the third day in a row that he’d done it. I called CIT in desperation. (If you’ve never heard of CIT, please check them out on my resources page. They are a godsend.)

The CIT counselors, my son, and I discussed what had happened, and the tools he could’ve used to calm himself down. I told the counselor that my son’s therapist had taught him to take deep breaths when he was anxious, but that he never even tries to take deep breaths, even when I remind him.

“Why don’t you try the deep breaths?” said the counselor.

“I don’t know,” said my son. “I guess when I’m feeling like that, my brain convinces me that I can’t do anything my mom says.”

“OK,” said the counselor. “Let’s try to find something that YOU say will work.”

My son screwed up his face. He wasn’t used to coming up with his own tools. “Okaaaaaayyyyy.”

“So,” said the counselor, “what makes you feel calm?”

A pause. Tentative eyebrows. “Snuggling my dogs?”

“OK. What does it feel like when you snuggle the dogs?”

“I don’t know. I just feel better. Like I stop thinking about whatever was bothering me and just relax because they never stop loving me no matter what.”

“I think we’ve found your best tool,” said the counselor.

And he was right. Now, whenever my son starts getting agitated, I send him to the dogs. He doesn’t need a time out or a punishment. Not yet anyway. He needs to settle down FIRST so that he can learn LATER. So he snuggles the dogs. And they are happy to oblige.

What do you all think of animal therapy? Do you have any other innovative tools you’d like to share? I’d love to hear about them! Please comment!

Dog snuggling on couch
Oliver is ready to snuggle!

Let It Be

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The other night, as we climbed into the car after an evening at my parent’s house, my kids were going berserk. Yelling, teasing, complaining, and just generally discombobulating all over the place. I decided to put on some soothing music to calm them down. And to me, there is no more soothing song than the Beatles “Let It Be.”

Apparently, my kids agree, because they all quieted down to listen to Paul McCartney’s comforting libretto. It was quiet. And glorious. And magical. In fact, from now on, whenever I meditate, I’m gonna conjure that moment in the car when my kids all went from noise zealots to zen monks at the push of my Apple Music button.

But then, of course, I ruined it. I failed to heed Mother Mary’s words of wisdom when one of my kids–Rattled. A box. Of raisins.

That’s right. I ruined the magical car tranquility by demanding to know what was making that sound. The sound of raisins rattling in a box. The silence was broken. My kid got defensive. Then the other kids piled on. And instead of a peaceful ride home, I got a bickering ride home.

What’s my point? Parenting is hard, especially when your kids have a mental illness or some other sort of special needs. Don’t make it harder. Your kids already have plenty of behaviors that need correcting. Don’t add in unimportant stuff like rattling a box of raisins.

Did you have a “box of raisins” moment this week? Please share. Let’s learn from each other!

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Health, Mental Health, and Parenting

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Hello friends! Welcome to my brand new blog!

This blog is part of my brand new website, Where the Heart Is. If you followed my previous blog, you’ll recognize the title. It’s the same! This site is quite a bit different, though, so stick with me a moment while I explain.

I might occasionally share posts from my old blog for a couple of reasons. First, they are hilarious and I don’t want to lose them. And second, some of them will fit here.

I created this website for two main purposes. First, I wanted to showcase my writing. As you know, I am a professional freelance writer, and I frequently publish my work in magazines, newspapers, and blogs. Therefore, I need a space where future clients can go to see samples of my writing.

Second, and equally important, I want to share stories of my experiences in parenting children with mental health diagnoses. Our culture is making a lot of progress toward reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness. But we still have work to do. I hope that by sharing my experiences, I can normalize mental health care for others.

I am a former child therapist with an MSW and years of experience, but I still felt utterly unprepared to parent my mentally ill kids. And when I look around at a world of parenting advice that was built for parents of neurotypical children, I feel frustrated and alone. If you’re interested in learning more, I hope you’ll follow me.

And if you are parenting a child with a mental illness, I really hope you’ll follow and get in touch! Love and peace!