Helping kids with back-to-school transitions

Going back to school after the summer can be a difficult transition for kids.

It can be especially hard for a child who’s entering a full-day kindergarten after being in a part-time preschool program the year before. The first few weeks of school may be especially trying, as it is a new routine and children are getting used to a new environment and new set of rules, but parents can help ease the transition into school.

The school day is a long day for young children and they will likely have many emotional needs when they get home. Kids may come home acting moody or cranky. Often, they’re also tired from the long day or could be hungry. The change in routine is also difficult for some children, and being away from home all day can be stressful.

Many children hold in their emotions all day while at school, so when they get home into an environment that feels like a safe space for them, those emotions tend to come out in full force.

As we work to respond to our children’s needs in a way that strengthens our relationship with them, it’s important to try to be patient and understanding of these emotions and to recognize why children are feeling this way. If these emotions lead to misbehavior, we can stay connected by acknowledging the feelings, connecting with our children, and then setting respectful limits.

Children all have different needs upon returning home from school, and as parents we may have to work to figure out what will best help our own children. Some kids need alone time, some may need plenty of outside time to run around, and others may need a way to relax and decompress.

When my oldest son entered kindergarten 2 years ago, I initially thought that when he came home, he’d just want to play with his toys that he hadn’t had access to all day or that he’d want to be outside. But all he wanted to do was watch TV. The more I encouraged him to play or planned afterschool trips to the park, the more upset and frustrated he would be that afternoon. It was a struggle for me to understand that he didn’t want to play and that he needed a way to relax.

I had to remind myself that when I come home after a busy outing, I usually just want to relax with a book. Then, I was able to recognize that he’s very much the same way. We eventually figured out several ways to make that happen. I was OK with television being one of those ways, but I didn’t want it to be the only one or our everyday routine.

Practicing Attachment Parenting also makes me aware of my children’s needs for connection and one-on-one time with me. This can be difficult when children are away at school for the majority of their day. By the time they come home, I’m already feeling tired from playing with my younger child throughout the day and I am almost ready to make dinner. However, I’ve had to make a real point to find ways to connect with them and to set aside time where we can play together.

We also have a consistent bedtime routine where I read to my sons and spend time with them in their bedroom before they fall asleep. Some days are certainly easier than others to make this happen, but their behavior, attitudes, and relationship with each other definitely seems to be better when we can make a point to be as attached as possible.

Building a strong parent-child bond through Playful Parenting

father-1633655_1280One of the most important and challenging undertakings of parenting is to build strong, close bonds between children and their parents. A strong parent-child connection enables children to become confident, independent, develop healthy relationships, and become a peaceful adult.

In his book Playful Parenting, Dr. Lawrence Cohen points out that through play, children explore the world, work through challenging situations and get connected with the people they are close with.

I have found that approaching common parenting struggles with Playful Parenting techniques to be very effective, and it helps to make things easier and more fun for everyone in our family.

Through play, we get to join our children’s world — promoting mutual respect, exploration, and cooperation while enjoying each other’s company.

Using Play to Manage Parenting Struggles

Parents of young children experience many situations where the child resists when they’re asked to do something: They don’t want to pick up their toys or get dressed to go out; they don’t want their hair washed or their nails cut. The list goes on. Making a game out of these tasks can help. It instantly makes the activity more fun and enjoyable for the child and makes it something they’re much less likely to resist.

When my toddler son was into recycling and trash trucks, we made a game of cleaning up his blocks by saying, “Let’s put all the trash in the trash truck.” The blocks were the trash, and the container was the trash truck. When he was 3 and very much into firefighters, we made a game of getting dressed to leave the house by saying, “There’s a fire! It’s time to get in the fire truck. Let’s get on our fire coats and boots!” He’d then be quick to get on his shoes and coat to get in the car.

Many times, parents think they don’t have time for such games. You’re in a hurry to get out the door, so why add in a game and waste more time? But I find that when we play our way through it like this, it actually takes less time for my children to get ready.

Some critics say that parents shouldn’t have to do this and that a child shouldn’t need a game to make them listen. While it’s true that they don’t need it, and there are many other ways to help children cooperate, it does make it more enjoyable. Just like, as an adult, I find it’s more enjoyable to clean while listening to music, or to fold laundry while watching TV. It’s the same concept.

Playing Your Way Through Fears

Play can help release tension and can make what seems scary into something silly. In this way, it can be used to help children work through their fears.

When my son was 4, he was scared during thunderstorms. The sudden sound of thunder was too startling for him, and it kept him tense at bedtime. One night during a storm, I said to him, “What do you think that thunder sounds like? I think it sounds like a train rumbling down the track.” He loved Thomas the Train, so I suggested, “Maybe it’s Thomas!” He started to laugh, and I kept going: “That was really loud. It must’ve been Gordon, because he’s so big!” This turned it into a fun game and made the experience less scary.

Play can also help with minor stresses. A child may come home upset after a hard day at school but then may get to work out some of those emotions by playing school where he is the teacher and in charge.

Dr. Cohen talks more about the idea of using play to handle childhood anxiety in his book The Opposite of Worry.

Connecting with Children Through Play

One part of Playful Parenting is about strengthening connection between parent and child. Children who feel connected and attached to their parents feel closer to them and thus want to cooperate with them. One simple and effective way to connect with our children is to sit and play with them.

Playing can be hard for adults: We’re out of practice, or have low patience, we may have forgotten how to play, or simply feel like we don’t have the time for it. Some people may feel awkward or embarrassed about being silly and goofy if they participate in children’s imaginative play, like a dad who may not want to sit and play with dolls with his young daughter.

However, when we make the effort to be involved in our children’s interests and carve out even as little as 10 minutes a day for one-on-one child-led playtime, our children notice it and respond positively. Deepening our connection with our children makes them more likely to respect us and to want to do what we ask of them. It helps them feel secure and loved, and makes us all happier.

Connecting through creativity and art

art2Doing art projects and other creative activities with my kids is something that’s very important to me. As a child, I always disliked Art Class because I knew I wasn’t very good at art, but starting when my oldest son was 2, I wanted to make art a part of his life. I wanted to let it be something he could enjoy, whether or not he was good at it.

Over the last few years, art has been a way for us to connect, have fun, and learn.

Allowing children opportunities to create their own art is a wonderful way to help instill creativity and confidence. It can also provide sensory experiences, fine motor activities, and chances to learn about different styles of art.

To first get started with art activities, I spent some time walking around a craft store and selecting items that either seemed like the basics (paint, markers, and glue) or like they’d be really fun (googly eyes and pompoms). I also got project ideas from the many blogs dedicated to toddler and preschool art.

Our activities have been very different based on my children’s ages. When my son was 2 and we were just starting, we did a lot of finger painting, sensory activities with things like rice and oatmeal, and water play with cups, bowls, and spoons. As a preschooler, he experimented with painting with strange objects like ribbons and flowers, and we explored some famous artists. Now that he’s 6, we’ve been getting art books from the library for him to select project ideas from, and he’ll help pick out art supplies that he wants to use.

We both try our best to remember that it’s about having fun, not about having a perfect finished product.

When my second and third children were born, I found ways to get them involved in art at an earlier age. I found baby-friendly activities, such as filling a container with colorful tissue paper or a variety of fabric scraps with different textures, and placing paint and a paper inside a sealed plastic bag for them to smoosh around and make their first paintings — completely mess-free.art3

For us, art has been one way to connect. After my second child was born, it was also a way to have some much-needed one-on-one time with my oldest son while his baby brother was napping. For other families, there may be different but equally fulfilling ways of achieving this, if art isn’t interesting to you or it’s not something you can make time for right now. It’s important to explore and find your own ways of connection.

Editor’s Pick: Emotional abuse, a dark form of children’s maltreatment

“Growing up in a household where your emotions are either actively discouraged or punished, or simply ignored takes a toll on you, a developing child. You internalize the message that your feelings, your needs, your views don’t matter. It’s a belief that’s rooted in childhood feelings. That belief/feeling is powerful, and it stays with you throughout your life.” ~ Jonice Webb, PhD, in “Childhood Emotional Neglect: The Enemy of Assertiveness,” Psych Central

Sad ChildIn this week’s Editor’s pick, Attachment Parenting International is shedding light on a form of maltreatment of children that is often kept in the dark: emotional abuse. Unlike physical abuse, there is little awareness concerning emotional abuse — it’s less visible and is rarely covered by the media.

Emotional abuse is often misunderstood, as it’s complex and more difficult to recognize. Although it’s pervasive, and can be as damaging and painful to children as physical and sexual trauma, it’s not considered as troublesome as physical abuse.

Emotional abuse of a child is commonly defined as a pattern of behavior by parents or caregivers that has negative mental impact on the child. It’s also referred to as psychological maltreatment. Some examples of mental abuse are:

  • name-calling
  • verbally insulting
  • shaming or humiliating
  • threatening violence (with or without carrying out threats)
  • ridiculing or criticizing the child’s appearance, abilities or fears
  • failing to express warmth and tenderness to the child
  • neglecting to show interest in the child’s thoughts, feeling or activities.

Emotional needs are intrinsic to our nature as human beings. Attachment Parenting promotes an approach that applies sensitive parental response and practicing nurturing parenting methods that foster strong emotional bonds — also known as secure attachment — between children and their parents. Secure attachment, trust and mutual respect are the building blocks of a strong, healthy emotional foundation that follows children into adulthood.

With increasing awareness and evolved societal norms, many people move away from spanking and other forms of physical abuse. Consequently, however, there is more temptation to shift that punishment attitude toward verbal responses — which may seem innocuous — not realizing that some common responses are actually a form of emotional abuse. Here are a few examples of such comments:

  • “I wish you were more like your brother.”
  • “If you don’t do as I say, I will leave you!”
  • “You’re the reason Mommy is sad.”
  • “Shut up!”
  • “You are a bad boy.”
  • “You think you’re so special, don’t you?”

Verbal abuse is the most common form of emotional maltreatment and results in long-term harm. As noted in this Health Day article, “Yelling at Children (Verbal Abuse),” research shows that verbally abused children are more likely to:

  • become victims of abuse later in life
  • become abusive themselves
  • become depressed and self-destructive later in life
  • develop anxiety.

We are all familiar with adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But children and adults who have been verbally abused will tell you otherwise: Words are powerful and they do hurt, especially when inflicted upon children by their parents — the leading authority figures in their life and the adults children look to for protection, not only from physical harm but also emotional damage.

There are some who excuse name-calling, shaming or other forms of abuse as effective means to discipline or “toughen up” kids — an outdated idea to make them more resilient and better adapt to the “real world” — when, in fact, the contrary is true: These patterns of behavior by parents produce deep emotional and mental scars that undermine self-esteem and affect the ability to have healthy, trusting relationships.

In this Psych Central article, “Childhood Emotional Neglect: The Enemy of Assertiveness,” Jonice Webb, PhD, uncovers that the reason assertiveness is so much more difficult for some people to learn and practice than others is because “assertiveness is most difficult for those who grew up in households that either actively or passively discouraged emotional expression,” both examples of childhood emotional neglect.

Emotional abuse is painful. It penetrates into the heart and the soul of a child who needs to be loved, cared for, and responded to with sensitivity and compassion by his caregivers — not ignored, not humiliated, and not insulted.

A 2015 study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, found that regardless of the type of maltreatment endured — physical, sexual or emotional — children suffered similar consequences. As reported by Reuters, Dr. William Copeland, a psychiatry researcher at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, USA, stated that: “This study is about righting a longstanding error and prejudice about the differences between these common childhood adversities,” adding: “It suggests that whether we are talking about prevention, screening or treatment, our notions of childhood mistreatment need to be broader and more holistic than they have been. There are no hierarchies when it comes to child maltreatment.”

Whose kid was that?

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on Sept. 16, 2008, but serves as a great reminder for any parent who’s been faced with a tantrumming child in public.

“I’m a parent educator. I’m a mom of four. I am an advocate for all things Attachment Parenting. I should be able to handle this. So, what the heck am I doing wrong?”

These are the thoughts running through my head at the grocery store the other day.

breakfast-cereal-173044-mThe store is being remodeled. It is glaringly bright, noisy and busy. The aisles are a crazy maze of disorganization. I have little, 6-month-old T-Bird in a sling, while 5-year-old Bug is doing her best to keep up with me, behave and be curious. The inarticulate “wonk wonk wonk” of the store manager is blaring out of the announcement system and competing with the world’s most annoying music.

All of this is completely grinding on my very last nerve.

T-Bird is her usual, content self and smiles happily at every face she sees from her sling.

Bug, however, has always been less content in these situations. She is much more sensitive to light, sound and disorganization. Even as a very little baby, we recognized that Bug needed things to be a little more quiet, a bit more calm and a lot more toned down.

This was where practicing Attachment Parenting (AP) became invaluable to us.

Bug didn’t like to be close all of the time as a baby. So, we couldn’t depend on babywearing or breastfeeding to be a cure-all with her. But Bug did love being near us so that she could quietly observe us, then practice the skills she had observed.

It became clear to us that Bug absorbed all of the things happening around her equally and that the two most important jobs we had as parents were to help her discern important information from background noise and to model appropriate behaviors.

If we hadn’t been able to respond to her with patience, compassion and understanding, life with Bug would have been much more difficult and frustrating.

She was my third baby, so I was able to recognize that her needs were a little more…ahem…demanding than my first two babies. But I accepted that this was just Bug and her unique personality.

I often try to imagine what might have become of Bug if she had been born into a different family. These thoughts always make me terribly sad — not just because I would have missed out on a wild ride and knowing an incredibly creative kid, but because there is nothing that makes her more upset than being misunderstood. And without AP, Bug would certainly be misunderstood.

So, here I have just dragged Bug into a situation that I know is almost impossible for her to handle. She is skipping and singing loudly in the store in an attempt to compete with the noise and activity surrounding her. The chaos is getting to me as well.

I feel the tightness in my jaw and notice the snippy edge to my voice as I remind Bug to stay close. I could swear that the noise went up an decibel or two. We are winding around abandoned shopping carts, other shoppers and remodeling debris. Bug runs head-on into a woman’s legs. I apologize to her while trying to laugh it off and blame it on the “crazy construction.”

true-story-number-two-251-mI can read Bug’s face: She is embarrassed to have run into that lady and is worried that I am upset. I smile at her tell her that she is my favorite 5 year old. She groans out loud and starts to open and close the freezer door repeatedly in response.

Not good.

I decide that we have had enough and I need to get all of us out of there while we are still sane. I know that I can always come back later or send my hubby if we still need something. My first responsibility is to be a sensitive parent, and Bug needs me to be that parent now. I’m kicking myself for not getting out five minutes ago.

Bug closes the freezer door one last time and follows me as I begin heading to the check-out. She is lagging behind and practicing her best lazy-legged shuffle. This time, I make the effort to use my most friendly, cheerful voice to remind Bug to stay close. She stops dead in her tracks. Arms crossed.

Oh no.

Listen to me, Mom! I have had enough of you telling me what to do in this big, stupid store! she shouts. Really loudly.

The younger, less confident version of me would have been mortified as the other shoppers snapped out of their shopping daze to judge my parenting skills. My ego screams for me to prove to these onlookers that I don’t tolerate this sort of behavior. My knee-jerk response almost bursts out of me: words meant to strip my child of her dignity in order to restore the good opinion of a bunch of strangers.

But I, the parent educator, the mother of four, the advocate for all things AP, can ignore the silent accusations and do what I need to do: be the parent Bug needs me to be. I take a deep breath and mentally flip through Pam Leo’s book Connection Parenting. I remind myself that Bug needs to feel a connection with me right now, not endure a lecture on how she should be behaving.

Whose kid is that?I gasp dramatically, while feigning a look of worry.Where is my precious Bug? What have you done with her? I came here with Bug and now there is only this poor, tired kid who speaks so disrespectfully.”

Bug giggles at my silliness. I make a show of looking all around. I pick her up and look under her as she giggles some more. I manage to slip in a bit of a hug while I pretend to look behind her.

With T-Bird in the sling on my chest, I squat down to make eye contact with Bug. Here comes my Oscar for Best Supporting Mom in a Grocery Store…

Oh! My little girl is back! Thank goodness! I was so worried while you were gone. This poor, tired kid showed up and said awful things to me! I sure hope that kid finds her parents and gets a hug.”

I get a big smile in response. I never even look around to see what all of those people think. I have to live with my children and the consequences of my parenting. My fellow shoppers are a blip in my day. My children are depending on me to be consistent and on their side.

We get out of there and go home to tell her Daddy all about the dramatic kid-mixing-up incident.