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How Parents Can Manage Screen Time

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kids sitting at a table using their devices

Managing the amount of time kids spend on screens is stressful to parents, teachers and even the kids themselves. Most of my students have a bit of a love-hate relationship with their devices. It is often the first and easiest place to hide from what is bothering them but often leaves them with a bit of a screen hangover.

Kids often show addictive behaviour when it comes to video games and social media. A lot of my students say they feel compelled to check their social media frequently out of the fear of missing out on something (what so and so had for dinner?), and a nagging need to see how many ‘likes’ they got on a post. While looking for outside validation is normal, and in reasonable doses, can even be healthy.

The problem with the social media so many of them are hooked on is that it isn’t about checking immediate context (‘No one else is picking their nose–maybe I shouldn’t either right now’), and it isn’t about real human connection. Instagram, for example, is a highly curated and superficial view of a person’s life. Kids do not always think about that – often they take it at face value. This can lead to a great deal of anxiety when they don’t think they are measuring up (to people they don’t even necessarily know). A ‘like’ on a post is not a meaningful connection, but it can be misinterpreted as one. Sometimes kids are aware of this but still cannot resist the pull of the screen.

Video Games

Video games are another controversial and addictive use of tech. We all decompress in different ways, and in reasonable doses, gaming can be a great way to do this. I have also had kids admit that they use gaming as a way to avoid dealing with problems. Again, we all do that to a certain extent. Figuring out when it goes from a net benefit to a net loss is the challenge here.

These days, we all rely increasingly on digital technology to do our work–and that certainly includes school work. Simply saying “No screen time”, while often tempting, isn’t realistic. So how do you help your child find a healthy balance?

Plan Ahead and Do it Together

Developing a plan with your kids is a good first step. They need to have a voice in the ‘rules’, particularly at the tween stage of life. This will reduce attempts to negotiate or break the rules later on.

Some things to consider:

  • What is the device is being used for
    • Is it the most logical way to accomplish the task (this can include decompressing)?
    • What is the specific goal they are trying to accomplish?
    • Is it being used to avoid something else that needs to be done?
    • How does the child feel afterwards?
  • How much time is spent on screens
    • Compare to time engaged in physical activity
      • Creative or real life social engagement
  • What is the content
    • Is it in line with their social/emotional maturity?
    • Is it in line with your family values?
  • Have specific tech and non-tech times in a day or in a week
  • An earning component
    • Completing chores or homework
  • How they see you use technology
    • Are you willing/able to consistently live by the same ‘rules’? Modelling the use of tech/screens that you want them to use is very important.

I’ve included a link to the article by Claire Gagne, called “4 Parent-Tested Systems You can Use to Limit Screen Time”. She has some great tips to help figure out how your family can manage tech and find a healthy sense of balance in life. Gagne also notes the dangers of engaging in negotiation–something that can quickly undermine the work you have done in setting a routine. Shifting the focus from ‘screens or no screens’ to ‘what makes a happy, healthy, balanced person/family’, is an effective and less emotionally charged starting point.

How Political Polarization is Hurting Our Kids

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kid stuck in the middle of two adults

This week I’d like to highlight an interesting article by Gary Direnfeld, called “The Trouble at School and the Need for ‘We’”.

In what often feels like an increasingly polarized political environment, the author points out how kids often pay the price. He gives historical context going back to deinstitutionalization in the 1970s, the increased need for a double income to support a household, a lack of social services and ongoing cuts to what exists and the normalization of increased screen time as a few key factors in the erosion of meaningful connection time between parents and their kids.

He does not place blame on parents–this is not about shaming. Rather, he points out that as a society we have started to take ‘either/or’ positions (frequently modelled by our politicians) on issues like integration in the classroom, which results in a combative atmosphere, pulling our collective focus away from finding solutions by working together. After all, we all want the same thing; happy, healthy, well adjusted kids.

When is a Stress Toy Helpful?

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kid playing with fidget spinner

A few years ago fidget spinners became insanely popular with kids and were suddenly widely available at the check out of almost every store. They also became one of the most frequently confiscated, and even banned items by teachers. Does this mean fidget toys are bad? Not at all. There are a few key considerations, however, in choosing an effective and appropriate stress toy or fidget.

First of all, stress toys and fidgets have different purposes and audiences.

Stress Toys

  • A stress toy is meant to channel nervous energy and provide emotional relief through physical release
  • Learning style is not a significant factor

Fidgets

  • A fidget is meant for kinesthetic/tactile learners. It helps release a surplus of physical energy so the child can better focus
  • Stress is not a significant factor

Some kids are very tactile learners and find it hard to concentrate without moving. Physical touch and activity helps them process their thinking. So the first consideration, is ‘does that sound like your child?’ Do they actually learn better when moving/doing? If so, a fidget may benefit them and anyone who shared space with them in a classroom.

How do I know it’s a good fidget?

  • A good fidget allows a child to channel the excess physical energy into the toy so they don’t do something that distracts others or themselves (clapping, tipping back on their chairs)
  • Is focussed on the sense of touch
    • It does not make noise
    • It is not visually distracting
    • Does not become a ‘multi-player’ game
  • It does provide appealing fine motor movement (rolling, twisting, squishing)

Some examples of tactile based toys and devices

  • Yoga ball instead of a chair (again, this depends on how it is used. I personally cannot be trusted with anything that bounces. They do have yoga ball holders which can help)
  • Rings or bracelets that can be easily rotated, twisted or shifted from finger to finger
  • Twiddle muffs (fit on your wrist and have different things to pull, twist and press)

What makes a good stress toy?

A good stress toy allows the user to channel frustration and anxiety in an unobtrusive way. A fidget is mainly to focus that sensation of touch. A stress toy should require a degree of physical effort.

  • A squishy ball that requires some force to compress
    • A blob of plasticine in a ziplock works well
    • Try putting sand in a deflated balloon for a similar effect

Context is everything

Tactile learners will always need to work in movement and/or physical touch to help them learn. If they are not in a classroom/audience situation, they can make as much noise and move around without distracting anyone else. For some kids, taking time on their own to work off stress physically (going for a walk, run, playing a sport, creating something, or working on a zen tangle) will be better than just the stress toy. The trick is finding something that will help them get through situations where they are not as free to choose.

  • Talk to your child and your child’s teacher about their needs and what has worked or not worked in the past
  • Put the onus on them to test out different strategies and report back

How Kids Can Push Back When Faced with Social Isolation

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kid shrugging off friends

One of the most common and ugly social scenarios I see at the tween stage is the use of isolation as a form of social control. One person (sometimes more than one) is targeted as a scapegoat by the group and is ignored, left out, and often the subject of rumours and online harassment. This seems to be more prevalent in girl friendship groups, but it can certainly happen with boys and even mixed groups. If this is feeling really familiar, let me plug a useful book Queen Bees and Wannabees by Rosalind Wiseman.

It is worth noting that in an isolation situation, the majority of ‘players’ are not either the direct target or the instigator. They become involved as a peer pressure ‘helper’. While kids often feel like they don’t have choices, this position offers them more control than they realize. They just need to take time to break down what is happening.

Breaking it Down

A couple of weeks ago, I was working with one of my groups on identifying different ways people try to control one another. This is what they came up with:

  • Persuasive reasoning/logic
  • Setting an example
  • Bribery
  • Threat/blackmail
  • Isolation/ignoring
  • Peer pressure based on multiple versus one, or social status

Next, we listed some of the more common and problematic situations where they have either used or had one of the aforementioned strategies used on them.

  • Being told by a friend not to be friends with someone
  • The larger group has decided to do something and you will be the odd one out if you don’t go along
  • Overtly or implicitly threatened that you will either share a consequence/be blamed or become the next target if you don’t do something
  • Passing a rumour that you have either started, or embellished
  • Passing on an unsubstantiated rumour that you heard

Never underestimate the power of simply breaking something down into pieces and looking at it. Having 2 lists meant that brainstorming strategies were a lot easier to tackle than we initially thought.

Pushing Back

Planning and practicing strategies to deal with tough social situations, when they have a bit of emotional distance is so important. They all agreed that the ideal is to stand by what you truly believe. Be direct and logical. For a lot of kids, however, that this is not always realistic. Social status means a lot to them, and ‘pushing back’ risks their social rank. Here is what they came up with for managing a friend who gives an ultimatum like “You can’t be friends with _ if you want to be friends with me”

  • Call their bluff “I am not going to dump my friend because you want me to. I’m sorry if this means we can’t be friends right now”
    • They may retaliate
    • They may back down
  • Find a way to buy time so you can think and not just react emotionally or even talk it through with a trusted adult or uninvolved party
    • Say you need to think about it
    • Make an excuse to get away temporarily (cough, need a drink, important text, headache)
    • Distract friend from the emotional charge by making a joke and pretending that you don’t think they are serious

Try to prompt your child to look at various options/strategies for responding to a challenging situation. Help them work to think through the possible results of each option when they are not in the emotional heat of the situation. This will help them regain some of the control that peer pressure seeks to remove.

How Can Kids Feel Safe When They Need to Cry?

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crying child with critical onlookers

My students are always in a state of transition. I guess we all are on some level. My grade 6’s in particular, at some point over the course of the year, struggle with expressing frustration in public; particularly crying.

Up until middle school, according to my Junior and Primary colleagues, crying is par for the course. In my school’s situation, (grade 6-8), the grade 6’s still cry in class when they run out of words. Afterwards, they often worry that they shouldn’t be crying anymore.

Crying is normal, natural and can be both emotionally and physically cathartic. Unfortunately, the flip side is that anything we do publicly is subject to judgement. Social judgement is not always equitable either. Girls still tend to have more leeway. Context also has a large impact – there is a difference in ‘social response’ to someone crying over a death of a loved one, or serious physical pain (gender gap here though) and someone crying because another person pushed their buttons and the crying is a frustration response.

I don’t believe there is an all encompassing rule here. There are a few things for kids to consider, and as I have said in previous posts, thinking it through in advance, rather than the heat of the moment is what I recommend…

feeling - thinking

Below are some of the factors we talk about in the group, to help decide where each individual’s comfort zone is. It is different for everyone.

  • How I am likely to feel after?
  • How does the context change this? (think of different likely and previously experienced scenarios)
  • Do I trust the people around me, given the context (think about the friendship pyramid)? (hot link)
  • Is there time and space (permission) to get privacy first, if I want it?
  • Can my stress buddy help me if they see that I need it?

It may seem crazy to plan something like a cry in advance, but given the fact that for our kids, the rules around such things do start to really shift at this age, it is worth a conversation. As I write this, lurking in the back of mind is that gender inequity. I try to teach my kids how to keep themselves physically and emotionally safe, but is there room to challenge social norms here? I would like to think that we could evolve into a society where we would all feel equally able to express painful emotions without fear of social judgement, particularly based on something like gender. In having them link crying with safety, am I enabling toxic masculinity on some level? I don’t know. It is certainly a conversation worth having, and one I intend to bring into the next session with my kids.

Why Your Kids Are Stressed and What You Can Do

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kid reading a book about why kids are stressed

This week I thought I’d share a couple of timely and insightful articles. The first article is 10 Reasons Why Teens Have so Much Anxiety Today by Amy Morin. It’s about why we may be seeing more stress in teens today that we did in previous generations. There has certainly been a lot of talk within education and the mental health community about rising rates of anxiety in youth. We are finally at a stage where we can talk about feeling anxious more openly than in the past. However, I don’t think that this is simply a matter of increased disclosure rates. Our society is ever changing, and that change seems to be happening at an ever increasing rate. It is not a surprise that anxiety levels go up.

This article 9 Strategies for Building Coping Skills in Children With Anxiety by Katie Hurley, is a handy guide for some stress management strategies to use at home. It is simple and comprehensive. I would suggest you even make a list of the key strategies and post them on the fridge to keep them top of mind on a regular basis. Enjoy!

What Makes a Good ‘Stress Buddy’?

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Kids helping each other through stress

It’s one thing for kids to be aware of helpful strategies, but another altogether to be able to use them when needed. The thing with stress is that it is emotionally fed. It can really block our ability to think.

The main motivation behind this entire blog is to help parents cue their kids by sharing vocabulary and strategies. Tweens, however, are funny beasts; they can appear one way with adults and be an entirely different person with other kids. This means that even with adults ‘on the job’ cueing a child when needed, they can still manage to hide a lot. At this age, many of them are more likely to let it out with trusted friends. This is where having a same age stress buddy can really help.

I encourage the kids in my groups to pair up with someone. Ideally someone in their class, so they can help each other out. When one is feeling stressed and too emotional to be able to access their ‘training’ the other partner does the thinking for them. Usually, this just involves a reminder in the form of a simple question.

Stress Buddy Approach

“You seem really frustrated right now. Remember your self talk; what are you saying to yourself in your head?”

This does mean that both partners need to be aware of the signs of stress from the other, and to be aware of appropriate strategies. If your child does not have a friend who is in this position, it may require a bit of teaching when both are feeling good. This can be as simple as sharing typical signs of stress and a few key strategies.

“Hey when I’m stressed, I get really quiet and avoid eye contact. If you see me do that, can you check in? Usually, I need to pay attention to what I’m saying to myself in my head. I can be really negative when I’m upset. Reminding me to think about my self talk will really help”.

The goal is just to get the more emotional partner to a place where they can think a little more clearly. Once they can do that, their memory is likely to work much better.

Good Stress Buddies:

  • See each other regularly, including times when parents/adults do not
  • Can recognize each other’s most common signs of stress/anxiety
  • Are comfortable checking in at that point
  • Can suggest a simple strategy to help partner move from the feeling end of spectrum toward the thinking end of the spectrum

5 Steps for Kids to Manage Stress and Anxiety in Public

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kid meditating calmly

Many students find their stress ramping up during class, either because of the actual academics or because of social issues pressing in around them.

As adults, we often have separation between our friend groups and our colleagues. This distinction is much more blurred for kids in school. Navigating friendship groups and social status is a lot of pressure for kids and not an intuitive process for most. Add to this the pressure of juggling academic expectations (theirs, ours and the teacher’s), and they may be having a rough time focussing in class.

This week’s strategy is about taking a subtle time out in the middle of things to try and regroup and refocus. Given that your kids are heading back to school from a break, this is a great time to go over the following strategy before they are stranded in a crowded classroom in an unhelpful emotional state. Even in a crowd, it is possible to build some time and space.

1. Hearing

Have your child consider where they are when they feel most stressed (in the gym sitting on the floor, at a desk, or on the schoolyard). They should try to simulate the physical positioning they will need to deal with during the week. With eyes either closed or fixed on a particular object/spot in the room (feet work well), begin by paying attention to the sounds in or attached to their bodies:

  • Breathing
  • Heartbeat
  • Rustling clothes

Give them 30 seconds to a minute and then cue them to broaden their focus to sounds immediately around them in the room. Encourage them to pick out at least 3 sounds, as the specificity increases their focus and continue at a similar pace (30 seconds to a minute) and continue to broaden their focus in an ever widening circumference.

2. Physical Feeling

Once they have stretched their hearing to a logical maximum (sounds outside the building), have them shift senses to focusing on physical feeling. Begin by cueing them to notice how warm or cold they are; are there parts of their body that are warmer than others? Have your child:

  • Pay attention to the sensation of the different fabrics they are wearing on their skin
  • Focus on the sensation of the air around them (is it still or moving, temperature)
  • Focus on the parts of their body that are more tense or more relaxed
  • Wiggle first their fingers and then their toes, focusing on the sensation that generated not only in their fingers and toes, but hands and feet – can they feel the air moving?

3. Smell

Have them focus on what the air smells like:

  • Residual shampoo/body wash scents
  • Food smells
  • Mechanical smells (the smell of a lamp bulb burning)
  • Sweat or other natural body odours (you know your kid – use your judgement here!)

4. Sight

Move onto their visual sense. This can be overwhelming and require cueing to restrict/limit their ‘visual processing’. Consider using one of the following:

  • Isolate 4 specific things you can see without moving your head or your eyes (just adjusting eye focus)
  • Pick out 4 things by the far wall that are red
  • Identify 4 different textures within 5 feet of you

5. Emotional Feeling

Finally, have them do an emotional check-in. This can be done by choosing an adjective to describe their current state of mind (such as optimistic, worried, tired), or simply using a 1-10 rating scale. A final cue that all feelings are temporary may be useful! Practicing taking in a couple of deep breaths while repeating in their heads a positive mantra (like all feelings are temporary) is a good way to bring them back to focusing on being part of the group they are in.

Teach Your Child to Let Go of What They Can’t Control

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sad kid with bowl of things to control

When I think about the things that ramp up my own stress, it becomes a laundry list that can be boiled down to feeling like I have a lot of responsibility and very little control. Many children seek to control situations in order to limit the resulting change (too much change = stress). To a degree this is a good strategy, but like anything, can be taken too far and become counterproductive.

I like spectrums for their simple visual appeal, so consider the following…

Stagnancy, Stability, Novelty and Excessive Change

We all need a certain amount of both stability and novelty. Move too far toward either end, however, and you tend not to feel very good. It also becomes harder to think clearly about what you or your kids may need to get to a more comfortable place. This week’s strategy involves helping your child to assess what they can control and what they don’t.

I am not only a prolific spectrum diagrammer but a prodigious list maker. I think it is the simplicity of a list that helps me distill and clarify my thinking. Sit down with your child and make a list of the things you identify as stressors:

  • Challenging classmates/teachers
  • Demanding extra-curricular activities
  • Pressing deadlines
  • Specific family obligations

This is a very general example, but encourage your child to be as specific as they can. From there, sort each factor into 2 lists:

  • Things I control
  • Things I don’t Control

There are a couple of ways to play it from here. First, you can look at what your child doesn’t control and give them permission to not waste energy worrying. Their mind will fight it, so coming up with a mantra that they say to themselves (or heck, out loud) whenever the persistent negative thought whispers in their ear may help; “I do not control and am not responsible for the actions of others”.

Option two considers that sometimes we have more indirect control than we think. True we cannot control the actions of others, but to a degree we control our response to them. What can your child do to minimize those negative responses?

  • Mantra and walk away
  • Practice (roll play) interaction in advance
  • Plan a fun thing to do for each time they need to interact

Structure vs. Freedom; Finding the right Balance

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kid torn between freedom and structure

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As we head into the December holidays, most kids (and teachers) are desperately looking forward to some downtime. This abrupt release from a structured routine is a welcome relief to many, but for others, it is an open ended stress pit.

If we think of freedom and structure as two ends of a spectrum, imagine where your happy place is. Do you embrace not having a plan and going with the flow? Do you impose structure to feel productive and avoid a sense of aimlessness? A bit of both? How about your child?

Think about how your child responds to summer vacation – do they manage to fill their own time, or drive you nuts asking for something to do? Have you always filled their time (camps) for them?

This is a great week to sit down with your child draw out the spectrum above and see where they think they land. In my experience, particularly with my stress management groups, the majority of kids need a bit of structure to avoid feeling stressed. This doesn’t mean every minute of the day needs to be accounted for, or that as a parent you need to decide what they do and when. Intermediates are increasingly ready to take on more of this responsibility for themselves. They might just need you to point the way.

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  • See where they land on the spectrum
  • Prompt them to think of regular daily activities they could plan for to provide the right amount of structure for them
    • Daily walk
    • Reading
    • Play dates
    • Working on a personal project
    • Free time (yes some people do need to schedule this)
  • You could ask if there is an activity they need to limit in order to feel good overall (gaming, screens, excessive school work)

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