A Child’s Frustration

Q: My 11-year-old son has autism. Recently, he told me that he should not live because he will never be able to achieve his dreams, that he will not be able to have a wife and children because he can’t have friends and he has problem to follow simple rules. He’s also said that he should not belong in this world because he can’t stop doing noise with his mouth even if he tries. He can’t stop putting his fingers in his nose, and everybody finds him disgusting. He can’t stop reading at night when it’s forbidden. He doesn’t want to do chores because it’s boring and he finds it really difficult. He said his sister is always on his back and she is not playing as the rules (he’s right).

In the last year he has changed and become more frustrated. He reacts to everything like it’s the end of the world, where he used to smile and laugh. A lot of people intimidate him at school. Tonight it crushed my heart. Any suggestions?

A: It’s always difficult when a child expresses his fears and anxieties in such a way—kids feel things so keenly and they don’t have the adult experience to know that what’s their reality now doesn’t have to be their reality tomorrow or the next day or the next month, etc. And they lack the skill set to enact change, especially bad habits.

At 11, your son is probably starting to experience puberty in some ways, so his emotions are likely to be all over the map, which means he’s not able to moderate his feelings. Everything’s a crisis!

How can you help as a mom? Along with the following suggestions, I’d also recommend talking with an autism specialist to see what you can do to help him navigate this time as his body starts to change and grow more.

  1. Ask him to identify which habit he wants to change the most, then help him devise a plan to conquer it. Don’t offer suggestions, rather guide him into finding solutions that he can work on.
  2. Share some of your own struggles to change something about yourself—how you tried and failed and keep trying.
  3. Read stories or books about people who overcame hard things by perseverance, etc. Watch movies on the same theme. The more you expose him to other stories of perseverance, the more he’ll absorb that storyline for himself.
  4. Stop trying to talk him out of feeling like he can’t have his dreams. Instead, ask him what he wants to work on to achieve those dreams—show him how to break things into small, tiny steps. He wants to follow simple rules. How does that start? By breaking those rules into steps.
  5. Also tell him that following through with his chores will help him in other areas, like his conquering his bad habits. Show him more clearly the line between cause (do your chores even though their boring) and effect (he develops a stronger ability to keep with something).
  6. Remind him that Rome wasn’t built in a day—that things take time. That he’s been doing these bad habits for a long time, so stopping will take time too.
  7. Above all, remind him in both words and deeds that he’s loved and that he’s exactly who God made him to be, warts and all. If you’re a believer, then reading Bible stories of heroes who fell but God still used them can be of great comfort to kids.

The Power of Preparation

When we’re expecting a baby, we spend a lot of time preparing for its arrival—decorating the nursery, buying the right equipment and clothes, etc. When the baby comes, we spend a lot of time preparing for outings—do we have a diaper bag? Check. Diapers? Check. Toys? Check. Change of clothes? Check. Something to feed the baby? Check.

When the infant grows up into a preschooler, our bag of tricks gets smaller. Upon entering elementary school, we’re rejoicing that we’re no longer a pack horse weighed down by mounds of child paraphernalia.

Somewhere along the way, we forget that we still need to always be prepared when taking our kids out to a restaurant, on a car ride, to the store, to a friend’s house, to visit grandmother, etc. This can put our kids at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to behaving—kids with nothing to do and no way to occupy their mind (and hands and feet) usually becomes kids misbehaving. Occasionally, even with preparation, kids go off the rails. But spending a little time preparing for a trip to the store or across the country will hedge against misbehavior.

Here are my top 5 tips for helping kids entertain themselves outside of the home.

  1. Encourage reading. We shoved books in our kids’ hands from the time they were little—it was my go-to when a kid needed attention or I needed a few minutes to myself. This practice means my kids take books with them to read in the car, at the store, etc.
  2. Have a “go” or travel bag. When my kids were younger, we made sure they had a small bag filled with stuff they could do on their laps, such as magnetic boards or dolls, lace-ups, coloring books/crayons or colored pencils, small figurines or action figures, etc. We avoided electronics and noisy toys.
  3. Take the bag or book when going out. Our kids used to ask us when we told them to get ready to leave, “Will I need to bring something to do?” We usually erred on the side of “yes,” as there were many times a “quick” errand turned into a long wait at the register or rain meant staying inside without age-appropriate toys to play with. You’ll rarely be sorry you made them take their bag or book.
  4. Guide them in filling the time. For long car trips for the younger set, map out a loose schedule of when to color and when to listen to an audio book. Kids sometimes need our help to occupy themselves—not to entertain them, but to provide a bit of direction—as they have a hard time thinking outside the box when they’re bored or not in a familiar place.
  5. Mind the time. Everyone has their limits, so pushing for too much time in the car or trying to pack in too much time with extended family or not watching the clock while visiting friends can tip kids over into misbehavior land. Often, if we had heeded that inner voice that said it was time to stop or leave instead of lingering another half hour, things wouldn’t have gone south in a hurry.

As our kids have grown, they have continued the practice of being prepared to occupy themselves when not at home. It hasn’t always worked out well, but overall, it’s been a huge blessing for us, one that I hope you will work toward too.

Compassionate Outpourings

Kids are touched by news or images of natural disasters. Their hearts can be stirred by the site of a homeless person dragging their belongings around town. “Compassion, empathy, and the ability to collaborate with others are fast becoming the most important traits of social and emotional intelligence that contribute to kids’ well-being and their future career success,” said Katherine Ludwig, co-author of Humility Is the New Smart.

I recently wrote an article for the Washington Post on how kids can help after a natural disaster. Here’s some other ways kids can assist that didn’t make it into that piece.

Focus on the good. “It’s a balancing act to help kids understand suffering in the world without making them paranoid or obsessed with the risk that something could happen to them,” says Penny Hunter, mom to human rights activist Zach Hunter. Pointing out how others are helping—and encouraging your kids to do the same—can provide that sense of balance.

Pack meals. This can be done on a large scale with another group or individually, and even young kids can participate. Schools, faith-based organizations or clubs can pack meals or snacks for first responder, homeless shelters or other groups with a way to get the meals to those who need them.

Christina Moreland’s sons helped to sort donations at a church after Hurricane Harvey.

Donate goods. After natural disasters, clothing, toiletry items, blankets, pillows, and other household goods are needed. Go through your closets and let your kids decide which toys and clothes they could give away. “My kids helped us go through our house and make personal donations of our own,” said Christina Moreland, author of Secrets of the Super Mom and a Houston-area resident whose home was spared.

Serve those serving. Kids can bring cold drinks or snacks to first responders or others helping to clean up after a disaster. One Christmas, my kids decided to bake muffins and cookies to take to our local fire station to thank the firefighters for working on December 25.

Thinking of others is a lifelong journey, and the sooner we can put our children on that path, the more likely they will grow into adults with a compassionate heart.

Did You Say Something? Heart-based Parenting Seminar

This parenting seminar will give you the extra help we all need!

We all want to reach our children’s hearts–to teach them right from wrong and also to encourage them to choose the right over the wrong. But sometimes, it can be difficult to know how to touch their hearts in the midst of misbehaviors. (Please note that these are for Christian parents, as the material is based on biblical principles.)

To keep this affordable, I’m hosting this parenting seminar in my home that will help you get to the heart of the matter with your kids. My daughters (along with other teenage girls from our church as needed) will provide childcare, if needed.

Did You Say Something? Saturday, September 9, 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.

    • Who’s in charge? (Leadership Parenting)
    • Getting your kids to listen (Alpha Speech)
    • Do what I say (Instruction Routine)

To sign up, fill out this form: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScg50jBt2ekKruePkIpCW6z4B6d46qjAaGyQWTPetCuzObKnw/viewform?c=0&w=1

Sleep Isn’t Just for Babies

With the school in full swing, the pressure to pack more into each day accelerates, which usually means sleep, especially for kids, can be sacrificed. “Bad sleep habits affect the whole chemistry of a child or teen’s day,” says Dr. Anayansi Lasso-Pirot, pediatric pulmonologist and interim head of the division of pediatric pulmonology, allergy and sleep medicine at the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital. At her practice, she sees “tweens going to bed at midnight or later without the parents realizing their children are not sleeping enough….We learn some kids are sleeping six hours a night or less, which is not enough sleep even for an adult.”

My article “Why you need to pay attention to older kids’ sleeping habits” in the Washington Post On Parenting outlines the importance of sleep for older kids and suggests ways parents can encourage good sleep habits. Here are some additional ways parents can help their kids and teens develop healthy sleep patterns.

Model good habits. Parents should place a priority on sleep themselves. “There have been several studies that show a parent who leads by example when it comes to sleep is very effective,” says Dr. Robert S Rosenberg, board certified Sleep Medicine Physician and author of The Doctor’s Guide to Sleep Solutions for Stress & Anxiety.

Have a set bedtime. Most nights, our 8-year-old goes to bed at 8 p.m., our 10-year-old at 8:30 p.m., our 12-year-old at 9 p.m., and our 14-year-old at 9:30 p.m. “A consistent bed time aids in the development of healthy sleep habits,” says Terry Cralle, a nurse and certified clinical sleep educator.

Turn off all electronics an hour before bedtime. Again, parents should set an example in this area. “What you do before bed can make it harder for you to fall asleep,” says Lasso-Pirot. “For example, if you’re playing a video game, it’s hard to go to bed right afterwards.”

Keep electronics, including cellphones, out of the bedroom. Have a central docking location or basket for devices. “If your child is getting texts in the middle of the night, know that it is a sleep distraction and can affect performance,” says Lasso-Pirot.

“Sleep is important for all of us and the younger you are, the more sleep your body requires to recharge the brain and process information,” says Christine Stevens, a certified sleep consultant with Sleepy Tots Consulting. “Parents must prioritize sleep for their families and set the example for their children with healthy sleep habits of their own.”

Back to School for Parents

School all over the country is either in session or about to start, which means parents are gearing up for another academic calendar year much like their children. Here are some back-to-school tips for parents.

Image courtesy of digitalart/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net
  1. Don’t project. Whether you loved school or hated it or fell somewhere in between, parents should try to keep their own thoughts about school to themselves, especially the first few weeks. We can’t predict how the school year will go, so encouraging a child to have an open mind is the best thing we can give them.
  2. Don’t worry. All too often, if something goes wrong the first few weeks of school, we’re off worrying about the entire year. Kids pick up on our anxiety, so stay calm and remember that the school year is long and things can turn around for your child.
  3. Remember who is going to school. Hint: It’s not you. Your child is the one who needs to learn to navigate the school, teachers, classes and homework, and your child should shoulder that responsibility.
  4. Offer guidance at a distance. Don’t get overly involved in homework, etc. Provide structure when necessary but avoid becoming essential to the task or solution to academic problems.
  5. Emphasize your expectations. I’m not talking about grades, but about the kind of student you want your child to be. We’ve always told our kids that they should not be the reason a teacher can’t teach—that they should behave in the classroom. We’ve also told them that we expect them to do their best in school, but that we realize that will look different on a report card from child to child and subject to subject.
  6. Provide support at home. Through interest in their schooling to a good place to do homework to helping them develop an inquiring mind, let them know you’re invested in their academic success.
  7. Be true to their school. Help their school succeed too by volunteering where you can, being responsive with paperwork and teacher requests, and supporting the school in the community.
  8. Encourage reading. Whether it’s a magazine or the local team’s stats in the newspaper or a book, promoting reading will help your child grow and prosper.

What else would you add to this list? How do you prepare for back to school?

Can Parents Help Adult Son?

Q: Our 29-year-old son was essentially a model child growing up—a good student with very few behavior issues. He graduated college seven years ago. In 2010, he was charged twice for possession of marijuana, and also prescribed anti-depressant medication. Upon graduation, he took a construction job, which he then lost because of a DUI and driving illegally on a restricted license. 

After graduation, we had noticed behavioral changes, such as an aggressive, sometimes hostile demeanor. He agreed to see a psychiatrist, but stopped after a short time. As his behavior became increasingly hostile and erratic, we suggested that he return to see the psychiatrist, which he adamantly refused to do. Finally, after one particularly disturbing episode, during which he came to our home acting very strangely and ultimately became verbally and physically abusive, we, upon the advice of a psychiatrist friend, called the crisis mental health hotline and had him involuntarily committed to the hospital. We repeated that awful experience twice in the following month due to his continued bizarre behavior and his refusal to follow up with the mental health support team to which he had previously agreed.

He is currently living alone in a house we own, and refuses to get a full-time job, preferring to get by doing odd jobs for people. Due to privacy issues, we never got a definitive diagnosis from the hospital, but nurses we spoke with mentioned schizo-affective and bipolar disorders. The psychiatrist he had seen prior to his hospitalization had advised us to stay in contact with him and to make sure he had food and shelter. His behavior continues to be unpredictable and we are torn between cutting him off financially and telling him he is totally on his own, or continuing to be supportive, not knowing for certain just what his mental status is. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: First of all, I want to say how sorry I am that you’re going through this. I know it must be extremely painful and difficult to see your son not seek the professional help he clearly needs. However, as you’ve seen, there are limits to what you can do to help him, and unfortunately, you can’t make him get better—he has to want that for himself. And right now, it doesn’t look like he’s in a place to do that.

So what to do? You don’t mention that he’s doing drugs or other substances (alcohol, for example), so it appears that he does need medical intervention, which he is refusing. You already had him committed twice and that hasn’t worked out. If you can—and he’s not destroying your property or clearly endangering himself or others—then continue following the advice of his former psychiatrist.

However, I would caution you against throwing around diagnoses—you can’t know for sure what’s ailing your son, and talking nurses, who can’t tell you because of privacy laws, into speculating will only either give you a false impression or send you down the wrong path. For now, you will have to live with the fact that you might not know what’s exactly wrong with your son.

What you can do is to meet him on his terms (as long as he’s not being abusive to himself or others) and don’t try to change him—just love him and let him know that you do through word and deed. Continue to encourage him to seek medical help, either on his own or with you by his side.

I realize hearing that there’s nothing you can do beyond what your son allows is difficult, but you raised him to be his own person—and by all accounts, you did a great job too. I hope and pray you can find a way to stay in his life even as he spirals into a place that’s not good for him.

That Annoying, Bothersome Child

Starting when I was 12, my parents took in foster kids of all ages from a variety of backgrounds. When I was a young teen, 9-year-old Trudy (not her real name) arrived on our doorstep with a bag of clothes and head lice hidden by a bowl haircut. Freckles danced across her nose giving her an impish look that belied her rather rough personality. In short, Trudy was a brat, an extremely annoying child who did everything—and I do mean everything!—wrong. She hit, she had a whiny voice, she had no social graces, no ability to make friends. It was almost as if she was bound and determined to push everyone away so that no one could get close to her.

Like most foster kids, she came from a background that would break your heart—abused physically, sexually, mentally. Ignored, unloved. And so she forged her own abhorrent personality to cope with the truly horrible hand she had been dealt by life.

Image courtesy of Supertrooper/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

But just because she was hard to love didn’t mean she was unloveable, as my parents demonstrated with patience and kindness and discipline and love. Lots and lots of unconditional love. It didn’t matter what Trudy did or didn’t do—my parents loved her. She drove me crazy with her antics, but because of my parents’ example, I loved her too.

I thought about Trudy recently when reading a post on Facebook about a young teenage girl with ADHD (“Milly”) who can be really annoying. The mom posting has a daughter (“Suzy”) who has had some run-ins/incidents with Milly. The mom wasn’t being snarky, and I know she’s probably genuinely concerned about her daughter. I know both parties and do understand both sides of the story.

But still, I wondered…Where is the compassion for Milly? Where is the understanding in the middle of the annoyance? Where is the tolerance for another, even one who does cross the line a time or two in tone or words? Do we just write off these kids and wash our hands because it’s hard? Do we allow our kids to do the same because it’s hard (when there’s no real abuse going on beyond annoyance)?

Loving those love us back, who make it easy by their personalities, isn’t difficult. Most of the time, we don’t even think about it. But loving and accepting those who make it hard, whose personalities repel us at times, that’s when the rubber meets the road.

We have to start by not labeling every annoying kid whose behavior pushes the limits or rubs another kid the wrong way. There’s true bullying and there’s “that kid is hard to be around because of her ineptness with social situations.”

We also need to teach our kids a compassionate response in the face of annoying behavior, and also kind responses. Our kids shouldn’t have to “take” an annoying personality but they should try to handle it in a kind way. Sometimes, that means telling a trusted adult. Sometimes, that means walking away. Sometimes, that means overlooking the other girl’s faults.

Because we never know when our influence or the influence of our kids can be the catalyst to change a child’s life. Remember Trudy? The world was stacked against her, but today, she’s the mother of three boys and by all accounts, a success story. Her upbringing and annoying personality didn’t dictate her future, and I know the positive influence of my parents (and perhaps, to a lesser degree, myself) had a lot to do with putting her on the right path.

Freedom Goes to a Two Year Old’s Head

Q: My 2-year-old recently transitioned from crib to bed. The freedom seems to be more than he can handle, and he has taken to destroying the bedroom he shares with his 3-year-old brother. Of course we’ve childproofed the room but there are clothes in drawers and some books on the shelf, mainly for the older brother. Typically in the mornings, I would make both boys help me pick up the mess before breakfast, but I’m now focusing on just the one boy since he is the perpetrator/instigator( I can see it on the monitor and we did not have this problem with the older one).

Since I’ve singled him out though for correction and sent the other boy down for breakfast without helping to pick up, the behavior has gotten even worse and he’s more mad. He refuses to clean up at all and the day goes downhill right from the beginning with him. He will only clean up if his brother is helping and I stay in the room with them. Left alone with instructions, he refuses. I do not show any frustration but simply let him know he made the mess and now he needs to pick it up or he will spend the day in his room except meals. He then proceeds to have fits, fiddle around in the room and look for other items to pull apart. We’ve stripped the room to bare bones but this is making things difficult. Should I be doing something else or is there a way to get some quicker action on his part?

Image courtesy of num_skyman/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: It’s amazing how different our kids are, isn’t it? Where one is more laid back, another is a spitfire. Where one stays in bed, the other one is a human tornado.

A couple of things to keep in mind with your particular situation. First, a toddler doesn’t have the long-term memory to put two and two together—in this case, that he wrecked his room, therefore he must pick up and stay in his room until it’s done. When you expect a child to do more than a child is capable, that’s when you build frustration—in the child and parent. Of course he doesn’t want to clean up by himself! He hasn’t connected the dots that it’s his mess.

Second, don’t expect quick action from a toddler. They are by their very nature dawdlers. They are learning so much in a short time frame, and everything fascinates and distracts them. This is the beauty and annoyance of twos!

But don’t despair! There is hope to turn things around. You don’t mention when he does this destruction—in the evening going to bed or in the morning when he wakes up. See if you can pinpoint the timing, then you can make your plan. If in the evening, you are likely able to hear him do this (or station yourself outside his door to listen). When you hear drawers opening, you come into the room and stop him in his tracks. Have him immediately pick up the items by the light of the hallway (with you alongside him) and pop him back in bed with minimal talking. If it’s in the morning, gauge when he usually wakes up, wake up a bit earlier, and repeat the halt him in his tracks/pick up routine.

Anytime he needs to pick up, do it alongside him, directing him gently. “You pick up the toy trucks, while I get the trains” type thing. Have him focus on one part of the job, not the entire thing. Clothes all over the floor can be overwhelming for any child, so picking out the shirts, then moving to socks, etc., will help teach him how to manage a larger task and help keep him on task.

Also make sure you have lots of positive touch points throughout the day with him, little interactions that give him your full attention and love. Keeping that close connection will make the discipline times go more smoothly and will help you have a better attitude toward him as well.