Archive for February, 2011

When Mom is Mad: Thinking About Anger Management for Adoptive Parents

February 28, 2011

Every parent has been there at some point… that place where the sometimes stressful complications of family life suddenly get the best of you, and you momentarily change from a reasonable, functioning and nurturing mom or dad into a ball of fury, frustration or despair.    Let’s face it.  Parenting is not only rewarding and thrilling it is also demanding and difficult.   All parents can benefit from  learning about anger management and positive parenting.  It is even more crucial for adoptive parents (particularly those who are parenting children who started life in less than optimal circumstances) to explore these topics.

Katie and I have ended up in several conversations lately about “mad moms.”  We keep hearing from or about adoptive parents (in our examples moms but it could be either moms or dads) who are dealing with difficult behaviors in their adopted child and are responding to that child with anger.   While we certainly can identify with the difficulties facing these parents (having been there ourselves) my blog today is spurred from a larger concern.  I’m afraid that because these kiddos’ behaviors can be so challenging it often times leads adoptive parents to lose sight of the bigger picture and to visit that “ball of fury, frustration or despair” moment all too often.  And when that moment becomes the norm instead of the exception no one in the family benefits.  The child stays stuck where they are emotionally and developmentally or gets worse and the parent becomes even more distressed and challenged to make good parenting decisions.

Optimally we want parents focusing on meeting the child’s needs, moving them to a healthier place on the attachment continuum and building brain based skills like cause and effect thinking, impulse control, trust and empathy.  These are the things that ultimately will produce the desired behaviors in their children.  Punitive punishment and parent raging will likely only create more frustrating moments and build zero skills.   But that is easy to say and so very hard to do when you are in the parenting trenches with a child that has difficult behaviors.

So when is it ok to be mad at your child and what do you do about it?   OK wait a minute.  A feeling is a feeling.  Right?  I mean you can’t help it if you feel mad.  Can you?  It is not  a “right” or “wrong” kind of thing really.  Is it?  Well yes and no.  Katie has been known to quip, “You wouldn’t get mad a child with only one leg because he couldn’t win the three legged race,”  reminding us that if a child does not possess the skills and abilities necessary to behave in a certain way it doesn’t make sense to be mad at that child or respond in anger.

Anger management strategies suggest that when a parent stops in those difficult moments and asks themselves a few key questions it can have a major impact on what happens next.

Questions like:  Am I mad at my child, myself, someone else, or is this a case where there is really no one to be mad at?

The self reflection might go something like this:

I’m tired of my child’s temper tantrum and raging but mad doesn’t make sense since this child does not yet have impulse control and is struggling with attachment and unresolved trauma.  Of course she is having temper tantrums.  Maybe I’m not mad.  A more accurate word might be weary or defeated.  Maybe I’m even scared.  What if these tantrums don’t end?

Or this:

My child just purposefully wet her pants after refusing to use the bathroom before we left home.  It sure feels like I’m mad at my child.  But maybe there is actually no one to be mad at.  After all I know this child has control issues stemming from her years in care and challenges with attachment.  I also know that toileting issues are classic struggles for children with control issues.  It doesn’t make sense to be mad at her for this issue.  But I sure am tired of wet pants and frustrated with dealing with this problem.

It’s important that parents take time to reflect on their feelings before they act because people who are not skilled at correctly identifying their own feelings often choose counterproductive responses to their feelings.  For parents who routinely identify their feeling as “mad” this might look like:

Labeling their child…….”He’s hostile. ”   “She’s unmanageable.”  “He’s selfish.”

Commanding their child……. “Shut up!”  “Be quiet.”  “Sit!”  “Move!”

Name calling…….” You brat!”  “Don’t be a baby!”  “You’re a pain!”

Sarcasm…….”Well I can see we are going to have a wonderful day!” (response to tantrum)

If you see yourself in these responses take time to self reflect about the behaviors  that are prompting this response in you, what the root causes of those behaviors are, what your real feelings are relating to that behavior, and what a productive response to that behavior would be.

And beyond that make sure that you are getting your own needs met.  Do you have someone to talk to that understands the trials and joys of parenting the child who has waited?  If not seek that person out.  Taking care of yourself  is no longer a luxury.  Your child needs you to be healthy so that you can continue to meet their needs.

I’ll be blogging more about this in the coming weeks and Katie and I are tossing around the idea of a webinar that addresses this topic further, but for now we would love to hear your thoughts and the  strategies that you use to keep a calm head in the face of parenting storms.

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What’s In It For Me -itis: Problems with Rewards and Punishment

February 24, 2011

One of those times I just need to vent and because it is parenting related you all get the brunt of it! 🙂 I am so tired of our society incessantly rewarding children.

Clean your room for a week…. new toy! Read 10 books…. get a little pizza! Everyone in the class behaves for a month…. extra recess! Sell a certain number of magazines for a fundraiser… get a pile of crappy plastic toys! Honor society kids get together to do something for residents of a nursing home… go to a movie afterwards! Bring cans of food to school to donate to a food pantry… class who brings the most gets soda and popcorn on Friday! Get good grades… get $10 per “A” and $5 per “B”.

And it goes on and on and on…

The problem with it is that we’re teaching our kids things that we don’t mean to teach them. Things like:
1. What’s in it for me? vs. altruism
2. What’s in it for me? vs. doing it because it’s the right thing to do
3. What’s in it for me? vs. feeling proud of one’s accomplishments
4. What’s in it for me? vs. enjoying the activity itself
5. What’s in it for me? vs. working together
6.  What’s in it for me? vs. focus on the meaning of the activity

Just this week I heard a story about how rewarding children backfired.  A school psychologist took over lunch room duty for a school’s kindergarten lunch shift.  Previously, lunchroom aides set and maintained simple expectations (like take your tray to the kitchen when done, pick up your trash, stay in your seat, etc…)  Lunch was orderly, contained and a non-issue.  For whatever reason, the school psychologist added a reward system to reinforce the expectations.  The class who is the quietest gets a point.  If he sees someone pick up their trash, their team gets a point.  At the end of the week the team/class with the most points gets a treat.

Two things have been noted to happen.  First of all, children have started purposely leaving trash at their tables so that they can go back, pick it up and get a point.  Secondly, at the end of this past week, the winning class was heard to not only brag about how their team was the best, but to also make comments to children in the losing class like, “You are losers!”  or worse, “We hate you guys.”

And for what?  What is the benefit?  I can’t see one.

Finally, another pet peeve related to parenting or caregiving so focused on rewards and punishments…. When rewards/punishments are so commonly used, many children will start asking, “If I don’t do it, then what happens?”  because they are weighing the cost of misbehaving vs. behaving.  It can leave parental competency in shreds!

The parenting philosophies that incorporate rewards or punishments (ie, behavioral modification) are so deeply ingrained in our society that it really requires a paradigm shift to even think about another way.  If you’re interested in reading more, check out the book  Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn.   It’s not a new book, but makes some really important points that I think we at least need to consider.

Heart of the Matter Seminars

Use of “Time In” at School

February 16, 2011

My cousin Martha is a substitute teacher and keeps a blog called “The Substitute Chronicles: True Life Tales from a Sub Who Survived”.   Now, I don’t know if Martha ever reads this blog and I actually don’t know how familiar she is with the work I do, but in her blog post yesterday she gave a beautiful example of what Time In might look like in a Pre-K classroom.

“…So, when I read that quote on the bathroom wall, I thought about all the kids that I ‘may be the world’ to. There are kids from my long-term jobs who I will remember for the rest of my career. In a Pre-K class, I had a student named Hubert. Hubert had the most energy of any child I had ever seen. When I first started the long-term job in the classroom, he couldn’t even sit in his chair to eat a snack! The aide told me that the previous teacher wouldn’t give this child the time of day. She had said that she couldn’t teach him, it was the aide’s job to teach him. And Hubert drove me crazy! He was always breaking his crayons and throwing them all over the floor. Then when he picked them up, he would get distracted and start doing somersaults!

Rest time was a dreaded part of the day for him. If given the chance, Hubert would just run around the room with his Transformers blanket as a cape. This wasn’t conducive for the napping of the rest of the students, however. Everyday, I would put on the lullaby music and get the other kids settled. Then I would go over to Hubert’s special corner, far away from the other students. Usually he would be rolling around in his blanket or donkey-kicking the wall. I would sit down next to him and attempt to settle him down.

Exhortations of “No Recess!” or “I’ll give you Skittles if you sleep!” never worked on Hubert. What did work was sitting quietly next to him and putting my hand on his back. This was enough to calm him down. (Well, it was enough sometimes.) Sometimes I would whisper to him, “Time to Sleep.” Sometimes I would sing. Sometimes, I would just sit there–the presence and attention of an adult was enough for him. And I didn’t leave.

The one thing that I could do to help them was to be a constant, kind person in their life for however long I would know them. And, let’s face it, the kids who need kindness the most, are usually the hardest to love…”

One of the things I love about this example is that Martha didn’t know that she was using what we here at Heart of the Matter Seminars call  “Time In”.    She looked beyond the behavior to the real issue and recognized that this child was unable, for whatever reason, to calm himself down.   The reason in this case–internal alarm, sensory issues, ADD/ADHD, etc… wasn’t important.  She was attuned to this child’s needs and met those needs.

And I can’t help but to point out her last sentence “… the kids who need kindness the most, are usually the hardest to love…”   Sometimes our children’s behavior almost seems designed to repel people.  And although we may not have mushy-gushy feelings of love, we can choose to use love as a verb and pull them close and as Martha says, treat them with kindness.

Race Based Mentoring

February 10, 2011

I just read an article on CNN’s website about a school in Lancaster, PA that has stopped a mentoring program between students and teachers of the same race, gender and/or language.  The students voluntarily self-identified which group they felt best suited them.

According to the article,
“McCaskey East High School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, instituted what it described as a pilot program meant to enrich “students’ experiences through mentoring” and was derived from research “that shows grouping black students by gender with a strong role model can help boost their academic achievement and self esteem,” according to a school statement”

The school points to data that supports the program although there are many critics.  And of course, many interracial families–particularly those who have adopted transracially–are well aware of the same types of studies and parents are often very conscious of same race/gender mentors in their child’s lives.

What do you think?  Was the school right or wrong?  Were they too progressive for the general public who tends to subscribe to the “colorblind theory”?  Or, is it too intrusive for a school to implement and does it promote racism?

Building on Success

February 4, 2011

Yesterday, my 5-year-old wanted to “do a project”.  Luckily, Julie just saw an easy idea for a polar bear craft that involves a silhouette of the bear on blue paper with glue painted on to look like ice or snow.  I got online and found a very simple polar bear shape, printed it out and gave it to Olivia to cut out. (more…)


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