Archive for the ‘ Behavior ’ Category

Let’s Not Pretend That Play Isn’t Important

Friday, September 7th, 2012

This is a guest post from Mary Hynes-Berry, Ph.D., a senior instructor at Erikson Institute in Chicago. Erikson is a leading graduate school in childhood development, working to improve the care and education of children up to age 8.

Last week, a University of Virginia press release announced “Pretend Play May Not Be as Crucial to Child Development as Believed, New Study Shows.” Angeline Lillard, Ph.D., the lead investigator, reported that, in a review of 150 prior studies, “We found no good evidence that pretend play contributes to creativity, intelligence or problem-solving. However, we did find evidence that it just might be a factor contributing to language, storytelling, social development and self-regulation.”

Early childhood experts see those statements as contradictory. The last decade’s explosion of brain research firmly establishes that, in early childhood, development is very much intertwined; cognitive, social-emotional, and motor skills all affect one another. Developing language, storytelling, social development, and self-regulation will contribute to developing intelligence, creativity, and problem-solving skills—meaning pretend play is an active ingredient in all of them.

What’s more, while we can identify different kinds of play, it is difficult to isolate just one form—and that’s what this study does. The study concludes that constructive play is a crucial factor in developing creativity and problem-solving skills, but rules out pretend play.  That doesn’t make sense. Think about how your own children play: When they’re imagining, they’re also usually physically moving about and constructing props or settings, such as turning a box or a few blankets into a castle or a rocket-ship, right?

The danger of this study is that it could fuel the current obsession with testing, which pressures teachers to drill numbers and letters into children, leaving no time for play-based learning. In fact, Dr. Lillard recognizes the same point in the conclusion of her academic article.  Her final sentence should have been the lead for the press release: “The hands-on, child- driven educational methods sometimes referred to as ‘playful learning’ are the most positive means yet known to help young children’s development.”

Image: Barefoot baby girl “shopping” via Shutterstock.

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The Girl Who Wouldn’t Be Blessed

Friday, August 10th, 2012

Like many Jewish families, we usher in Shabbat, the Sabbath, by lighting candles, saying the blessings over the wine and challah bread, and blessing our children. Or at least we try to. Our older one has tried various forms of resistance over the past few months and seems to see her weekly blessing as some sort of, well, curse–or, at least, a babyish practice that she should have grown out of.

The blessing itself takes all of 10 seconds. My wife and I place our hands on each child’s head one at a time and recite in Hebrew the traditional blessing for girls: “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah”–the Jewish matriarchs–followed by three short verses from the Bible. (Numbers 6:24-26, in case you were curious.) To me, it is a beautiful and moving custom, one that is deeply meaningful and makes me feel a special connection to my children every week.

Adira, who’s 5, begs to differ. A few months ago, she started running away from us when it came time for her blessing. We’d follow her into her playroom or elsewhere in the house, hands reaching out to bless her as quickly as we could, often on the move while we did so. We didn’t want to push her too hard and turn what’s usually a beautiful moment into a weekly power struggle. (Lord knows we have enough of those already.) We later started insisting she be at the dinner table for these few moments, but as a concession in the lengthy negotiations that followed, agreed to bless her without touching our hands to her head.

I can live with that.

Recently, however, she’s been asking when she will be old enough not to be blessed, throwing out suggested ages when she feels this weekly torture should surely be past her. I proudly and emphatically tell her that at no point in her life will I stop blessing her. I usually launch into an explanation of the blessing and why it’s so meaningful, but by then she’s running off to play, after a quick pause to help us bless her younger sister.

We recently did agree that if she becomes taller than me–and it’s a toss-up at this point whether my very-short daughter will catch up to my very-short self–I will agree to let her forgo this bit of tradition, if she still wants to at that point. I’m betting that by then she’ll have come around and enjoy her weekly moment, or will have forgotten this agreement altogether. If not, somehow I think I will renege on this promise and find a way to keep offering her her blessing.

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Forget Chicken Chains. Here’s a Child’s Take On Gay Marriage

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

Same-sex marriage has been on my mind, but not because of a certain chicken restaurant. On Sunday I’m going to the wedding of a cherished friend, who is marrying his boyfriend of nine years. When the dress I’d ordered for it arrived last week, I tried it on, explaining to my daughter Julia (who turns 7 at the end of the month) where I planned to wear it.

Julia: Who’s getting married?

Me: My friend Glenn.

Julia: Who’s he marrying?

Me: A man named Jeffrey.

She stopped chewing her bagel and was immediately puzzled.

Julia: A man?

Me: Yes. Men can marry men if they want to, and women can marry women. I don’t think you know anyone who’s done that, but I do…

Then her face got red and I could see that she was almost going to cry.

Julia: I am very confused.

Me: I know, honey. I can understand that. But what’s the matter?

Julia: If they have babies, then they won’t have a mommy, just two daddies.

Me: Aw, but that’s okay. You only need one parent who loves you, and many kids have two if they’re lucky.

She was still totally flustered and actually had tears in her eyes.

Julia: But how do they have a baby if they’re two men?

Me: Well, they can adopt a baby. Remember we talked about adopting?

And that was pretty much that. The topic hasn’t come up since, but I wondered if I’d handled it correctly. Did I say the right things?

I turned to Deborah Roffman, a sex educator in Baltimore who’s been teaching children and counseling families for more than 30 years. I thought she’d be an ideal person to ask since she just came out with a very helpful book called Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ “Go-To” Person About Sex. “I think you did great. My guess is that you might have been unnerved by her reaction,” she ventured. Yep, I said–honestly, I feared that it revealed some underlying prejudice. “This subject makes us feel insecure, and we worry that we have to be so very careful with it, but we really don’t,” said Roffman. She believes Julia had a pretty basic assumption about the world–men only marry women–and it was scary to her that she was wrong, that she didn’t understand something so fundamental to her. “Her reaction was more about the confusion than the topic.”

Then she gently suggested that with subjects like this, I consider being more proactive going forward. In this case, I could’ve prepared Julia by saying something like, “Listen, I’m going to a wedding next weekend and it’s going to be interesting, and I want to tell you about it. Most couples you know, like me and Daddy, are women and men. But it’s also possible for men to marry men, and for women to marry women. My friend Glenn is marrying a man named Jeffrey.”

Her advice really made sense to me. “A lot of parents hesitate with stuff like this, thinking, I have to wait until my child asks. No, you don’t,” she explained. “It’s a little easier, sometimes, if they ask questions, but with the important things in life, you want to front-load, so your point of view can get there first.”

Have you had tricky conversations like this with your child? How’d it go?

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Maybe the Olympics Aren’t Going to Stress Me Out

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

First of all, I’m laughing that my post yesterday, about how it’s going to be nervewracking to watch the Olympics with my almost-7-year-old daughter, comes right before a post by a mom who shares what it’s like to watch the Olympics when your daughter is actually in the Olympics.

But I figured I’d update you on how it went last night when we watched the rest of Sunday’s gymnastics competition with Julia. Short answer: totally fine! I’d drilled it in to her that one person was going to be eliminated, and as soon as Jordyn Wieber teetered on the beam, Julia declared, “I think she’s going to get cut.” Soon after that, she announced that Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman were her favorites. So when Jordyn was indeed cut from the all-around finals, Julia wasn’t so fazed. And there you have it. On to today’s team competition…

Photo: Keep Calm and Carry On Against the British Flag via Shutterstock.

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The Olympics Are Going to Stress Me Out

Monday, July 30th, 2012

Balance BeamI’ve been excited to get my almost-7-year-old, Julia, into following the games. We got off to a rocky start Friday night, when I let her and her younger sister stay up later than usual to watch the opening ceremonies. Very quickly this “privilege” felt like more of a punishment. The girls were beyond confused by what they were watching; it was a downright brutal thing to view with inquisitive children. “What’s the Industrial Revolution?” “Why do they wear those clothes?” “Why is that lady jumping out of that plane?” “What do you mean, she’s not really jumping out? What is she doing? Who is jumping out, then?” and so on. I asked Julia to stop asking so many questions, but as she fairly pointed out, “Mommy, I like to understand what’s going on!” Finally I had to turn it off and call it a night.

Last night we let her watch some of the women’s gymnastics, and she was glued to the screen. She immediately picked a favorite (McKayla Maroney); announced to me and my husband that she’s going to be in the Olympics, too (we let it go); and tried to predict who was going to get the best score and why. Around 9:30 p.m., when NBC switched back to swimming, it was bedtime. She hopped into bed, bringing her dad’s Sports Illustrated featuring the Fab Five on the cover. I taped the rest and promised we’ll watch it tonight, and then I went to sleep, too.

Now I know that Jordyn Wieber had her shocking loss, and I’m dreading watching it with Julia. My little girl feels things tres deeply, and gets emotionally invested in pretty much everything we watch together. In fact, we couldn’t even continue with “American Idol” this season because she would dissolve into hysterics at every elimination, and talk about the fallen competitor for days and weeks afterward. (Not long ago she named a goldfish Shannon after Shannon Magrane, who was one of the first to be kicked off, back in March.) How did I not think of this when I suggested it’d be a fun thing to watch together?

Yeah, yeah–I know the Olympics give me the chance to reinforce the lessons that someone always has to lose, that life isn’t always fair, and so on, but the fact remains that it’s going to be a loooong two weeks in our home. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes tonight.

Image: Professional gymnastic balance beam in sport palace via Shutterstock

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Need Help With Your Child’s Behavior?

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

Who doesn’t?

We’re halfway through National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and we wanted to make sure you knew about an important event that’s happening: Friday at 12 p.m. EST, our friends at Child Mind Institute, as part of their Speak Up For Kids initiative, will present a live Facebook talk called “Managing Behavior: Strategies for Parents and Teachers.”

The presenter is Melanie Fernandez, Ph.D., ABPP, a clinical psychologist with expertise in treating kids’ behavioral problems. Dr. Fernandez is especially well-versed in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder, and she’s the director of Child Mind Institute’s Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) Program. PCIT is a fascinating technique where parents are coached (behind a one-way mirror and while wearing an earpiece) by experts as they’re playing with their child and given specific suggestions on how to monitor and reinforce their child’s positive behaviors, ignore mild negative ones, and give commands with calm, consistent follow-through.

To watch the hour-long presentation, go to CMI’s Facebook page at 12 p.m. on Friday, where you can post questions for Dr. Fernandez and chat with fellow attendees.

In the meantime, check out all of the events happening around the country through Saturday, May 12, as part of Speak Up For Kids. Mental health professionals in 48 states (and 14 countries!) are leading free talks on childhood mental health disorders and topics of concern to all parents including ADHD, anxiety, depression, behavioral challenges, bullying, trauma, and online safety. Check here for events near you. And for those of you in the New York City area, consider tomorrow’s talk at the 92nd Street Y: “Parenting 2.0: Raising Healthy Children in a Digital Age.” Steven Dickstein, M.D., pediatric psychopharmacologist at CMI, will discuss how much and what kind of exposure is appropriate for kids, and give parents pointers on how to manage children’s screen (and phone!) time, monitor social media participation, and protect them from cyberbullies. It’s free; RSVP at

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Is Autism Being Diagnosed Too Late?

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

That’s the question you can’t help but ask when you read the latest news from the Centers for Disease Control about the prevalence of autism. The alarming figure so many of us are familiar with–1 in 110 children have autism–is actually rising. The number is now 1 in 88. (And when you look at the number of boys who are found to have autism, it’s frighteningly higher: 1 in 54.)

The CDC’s data reports that the median (not average) age at which children are diagnosed with autism is 48 months. It’s 53 months for autism spectrum disorder/pervasive developmental disorder, and 75 months for Asperger disorder. Considering how greatly kids can benefit from early intervention, those ages are worrisome. Our friends at Easter Seals raise concerns: “We are completely missing the mark on early diagnosis, given that autism can be accurately identified at 24 months,” says national director of autism services Patricia Wright, Ph.D., MPH. “We have a lot of work to do in the area of early identification.”

To that end, Easter Seals’ Make the First Five Count initiative, with help from CVS Caremark, has launched a free online screening tool that gives all parents of children up to 5 years old access to Brookes Publishing’s Ages & Stages Questionnaires. This tool does not diagnose (that’s important to note), but it allows you to figure out whether your child is developing appropriately and help you pinpoint concerns you may want to discuss with your child’s doctor. It only takes between 10 and 20 minutes for you to answer the questionnaire and you’ll have results emailed to you within two weeks. Please share the link with other parents of the 5-and-under set, and we can help lower that too-old age of diagnosis.

Photo via Shutterstock.

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Is This Condition Real?

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

We’ve been hearing a lot these days about a disorder called PANDAS. Maybe you’ve read about 15 teenagers in upstate New York who suddenly developed what was originally described as a tic disorder? It’s now believed to be PANDAS.

PANDAS stands for Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Streptococcal Infections. Essentially it means that for some children, being exposed to a bacterial infection such as strep can trigger severe symptoms of OCD. How? The infection triggers the immune system to produce antibodies intended to attack the infection. But the antibodies attack the brain instead—specifically, the basal ganglia, which is the part that controls emotions, behaviors, and physical movements.

It’s turned out to be a very controversial diagnosis. Some doctors say there just isn’t enough evidence to prove that strep or a similar infection can lead to OCD. Or that the studies proving its existence are flawed. They’ll say that the children who are “suddenly” acting vastly differently have probably been showing signs of OCD for months or years, and the parents just haven’t picked up on them.

We’ve just published a report on PANDAS, and the moms in our story would beg to disagree. They say their child’s personality radically changed—from one day to the next, literally. (PANDAS researchers say that’s the number-one hallmark of the disorder.) Can you imagine your previously well-adjusted second-grader becoming terrified of, say, radiation poisoning from the electronic devices in your home? That happened to one of the families in our article. What would you do if your happy-go-lucky 5-year-old started regularly kicking, hitting, and spitting at you and her siblings? That’s another example from our piece.

Despite the growing body of research behind PANDAS, and from organizations as esteemed at the National Institute of Mental Health, there’s lots that experts don’t know. For one thing, no one knows how common it is. Some experts say it affects up to 30 percent of all children with OCD (which affects between 1 and 2 percent of children). Others will go so far as to say it’s as prevalent as autism, and that doctors just don’t understand the condition well enough to diagnose it. Another sticking point: treatment. While some kids with PANDAS can be successfully treated with an extended course of antibiotics–because it halts the antibodies going after the brain–others take the meds long-term (as in months or years). This brings up the problem of antibiotic resistance, and doctors are not in agreement as to how risky long-term antibiotic use is.

When children don’t respond to antibiotics, parents can consider giving their child intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) therapy, thought to boost the immune system by delivering concentrated amounts of antibodies from healthy blood donors. But IVIG is expensive and not usually covered by insurance, and not studied well enough for doctors to know exactly how many treatments are needed. And it doesn’t always work.

Some parents don’t buy PANDAS, either. When we posted our story on Facebook, some moms and dads expressed concern that PANDAS is just another way to excuse a poorly behaved child. Others said that there’s nothing odd about a kid who acts differently when he’s sick–though our story explains that the children don’t show signs of OCD until after their illness. We know this much: The topic generates a lot of passion, a lot of theories, and a lot of misinformation. When you read our story, let us know what you think.

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