Thursday, November 29, 2012

Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting - Not Just for “Kids"”

My two daughters were guinea pigs during my training under Noël Janis-Norton to become a Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting practitioner. I was practicing the skills in my own home and reporting to Noël how it went.  Things were going well with the younger, but the elder teenager was resistant. “Don’t use your therapy on me!” she would say. She would roll her eyes at Descriptive Praise, Reflective Listening, and think-throughs. Noël advised me to persevere.

I was beginning to doubt Noël. Her program had been developed at the elementary level.  It didn’t seem to be translating to my teen. Things were becoming calmer and easier, but my older daughter was begrudging the techniques. I had been using the five skills to help make my household run more smoothly. One of the routines we were establishing was keeping the kitchen clean. One day I walked through the kitchen and noticed it was sparkling. I knew my older daughter had done it (without being asked!), but since she had been so resistant to Descriptive Praise, I decided not to say anything.  Later, when we got into the car to go out, she flopped in the front seat, folded her arms, and said, “You didn’t even notice I cleaned the kitchen!”

Noël was right! I was wrong.  Despite their outward reaction, children and teens need Descriptive Praise. It is food for their soul. She was also right in her encouragement to persevere. Too often we respond to the reactions of the moment. We withdraw. We give up without that immediate positive feedback to our efforts. Of course we know we should not, but we do. I try to remember the kitchen experience with my daughter when I am ignored, rebuffed or dismissed.

Noël was also right when she encouraged me to “tuck in” my older daughter just as I was doing for my younger. I had decided not to go through the ritual with my teen because she was prickly and I thought she wanted me out of her space. But I was in training, so I wanted to do what Noël recommended. Tucking in my teen was a stilted experience at first. I was sincere, but my daughter seemed to be enduring the moment. I persisted. I would say sweet things and resisted the urge to review the day, bring up “helpful” criticisms or remind her of things she had to do. I would then say a prayer out loud even though it may have seemed a little hokey to her and then I would give her a little kiss. After awhile she warmed just a little and our relationship strengthened.

The five Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting skills may have been born in an elementary classroom, but they are foundational to all ages. They have even been known to work on spouses! Descriptive Praise is used by the best managers and, once you become proficient in this skill, you'll also probably notice Reflective Listening being used by the best customer service representatives.  Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting skills work with everyone, kids teens and adults.

Amanda Deverich (see profile below)
Williamsburg, VA

Monday, September 17, 2012

Homework Routines Not Just for Kids

The other night was a great reminder that getting back into good homework routines is not just about what our kids do, it's about what we do too.

After his second day of school, my 6th grader was diligently working on his homework and had spent 1 1/2 hours on it when I came into the room. I figured he was probably finishing up. When I looked at the math assignment he had been working on (the whole time!), I could see that this project would actually take a few more hours to complete and he still had three other subjects requiring homework to be turned in the next day.

I reacted with concern and irritation, telling him he had to move on, and that if he was concerned about not finishing it, he could email the teacher. I was also annoyed that the teacher could have possibly expected the kids to turn this in the next day. The guideline for homework was supposed to be 20 minutes for this class!

My mistake was neglecting to do the first step of the Calmer, Easier, Happier Homework program and to "Prepare for Success". Noël Janis-Norton always recommends to start homework by sitting down with your child and asking him to tell you about his homework. Look at the assignments for every subject, asking questions about each one to make sure he knows what he needs to do and how to do it. If I had done this, I could have anticipated that this math project was unreasonable for him to complete and limited the amount of time he spent on it. Instead I reacted in a negative way - certainly not fair to my child who was just doing what he was supposed to do.

Preparing for Success is so important. It's all about being proactive and taking steps to help your child succeed. When we don't prepare, we react, and our reactions are often negative and rarely helpful.

Lesson learned though. Now each night my husband or I take five minutes to do step one, reviewing the assignments and putting a time limit on each one when necessary.

Laura Runnels Fleming (see profile below)
Pasadena, CA

Friday, July 27, 2012

A Reminder About Descriptive Praise

The other day in a parenting session with a couple and their two toddlers, I noticed that the parents were both very good at descriptively praising their children when they were doing the right thing. But when they told their toddler to stop doing something wrong, and the child did stop straight away, the parents said nothing.

This is an easy mistake parents often make. In the Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting approach, cooperation is the key to making family life calmer, easier, and happier, so we must make a point of mentioning whenever our children do what we've asked them to do - or stop doing what we've asked them to stop doing!

So when your child does what you want them to do (whether it's starting to do something or stopping doing something), make sure you notice and mention it by giving them Descriptive Praise. This is a sure way of motivating your child to cooperate. "I asked you to stop banging your spoon and you did what I asked straight away. Thank you."

Suzanne Ferera (see profile below)
Vancouver, Canada

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Calmer Parenting skills - not just for "kids"!

Most parents interested in Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting have younger children ages three to twelve.  Some smart parents of adolescents pick up the tools. More and more in my counseling practice I am meeting parents struggling with the frustration of teens who fail to launch.  These parents have exhausted the nagging, complaining, and punishing routes to motivate their children.  Mom and Dad find themselves at their wits end. The good news is, it is never too late!  The Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting methods do apply.

A few weeks ago a parent shared with me her frustration about her recent high school graduate's inability to get a job - any job.  She had come to the end of her rope and was adopting the strategy of some parenting experts who rely on consequences as the ultimate motivator. She had given her daughter the final ultimatum that if she did not have a job at the local day care by the end of the week she would have to move out of the house and in with her father. (The job had been found through a friend of the family and was guaranteed. The daughter's responsibility was only to download some forms, complete them, and submit them to the center by the end of the week. The obstacle to this was finding a working computer by either getting it back from the sister, borrowing one, or going to a public location.)

Mom was very frustrated. She was sure her daughter would not accomplish this small task.  A long history of lack of motivation and follow-through were damning and crippling.  We discussed the probable scenario:  Mom would call home to see if the daughter had submitted the papers.  Most likely the daughter wouldn't have done it, then mom and daughter would get in a fight and mom would have to force her daughter to live with her father who perhaps could do better.  The daughter would feel worse about herself and angry with her mother. Nobody felt good in this situation, and worse, there was little hope that Dad would be more successful. The only hope was relief of constant conflict and also that maybe something would possibly change in a new environment.  Not very encouraging.

I told mom about Descriptive Praise.  Descriptive praise is the most powerful and effective motivator there is. It is simple, but not always easy.  Descriptive praise is noticing good, just "OK" behavior or even small steps in the right direction and describing exactly what you see.  We reviewed the most probable outcome of the upcoming phone call with her daughter.  Most likely her daughter would not have submitted the papers to the daycare. Mom would feel angry, hurt, sad, and frustrated.  However, there was the possibility that she had taken some small step.  I suggested that mom set her feelings aside and look for whatever small step there was and to descriptively praise that step - no matter how small it was.

The next day mom came back to me with a big smile and upbeat attitude.  "You were right!  She had not completed the forms, but she had downloaded them.  I descriptively praised her, saying 'Alright, honey, that's a good step forward; you got the computer from your sister and already downloaded the forms.' I think my daughter was surprised to get the praise instead of the irritated reprimand and it completely changed the dynamic. She said that she would try to complete the forms and get them in tomorrow.  She even sounded a bit upbeat."  Mom was so happy.  This was entirely different from the expected destiny:  a hostile phone call ending in a hang up, a sullen daughter with no real energy to finish the task, and a disappointed, frustrated mother.

Mom may still have to follow through with the consequence, but with continued support using descriptive praise this daughter may secure the job and make further progress toward self-reliance in other areas of her life.  As parents we can spend our energies with negative methods that sometimes work, but most often only frustrate us when we do not get results. Or we can invest in positive methods that leave us and our children feeling happy as we move forward.

Amanda Deverich (see profile below)
Williamsburg, VA

Thursday, May 10, 2012

My 3 yr old refuses to walk down the stairs!

A few days ago I ran into a parent who had attended Noël Janis-Norton's  Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting seminar a few years ago. We reminisced and laughed about a memorable question she had asked Noël during the seminar. The issue she was having at that time was that she and her husband always had to carry their 3 year old son down the stairs because he refused to do it on his own.  Whenever they encouraged him to hold the railing and to try taking steps, he sat down and cried until they picked him up and carried him.

In Noël's kind and common sense style, she said,

"Why do you think he won't go down the stairs by himself?"

The mother thought about it for several seconds, shook her head and then sheepishly answered,

"Because we're carrying him?"

As she said it, she and her husband laughed and all the parents in the room laughed as well because everyone there could relate to this scenario. Here's what Noël said:

"Exactly. Whenever parents say something like 'My child refuses to....' or 'My child will only eat....' or 'My child won't....' all it means is that your child is in the habit of those things. He's in the habit of being picked up and carried down the stairs, or he might be in the habit of only eating chicken tenders or maybe he's in the habit of you staying next to him until he falls asleep. And habits can be changed pretty quickly. So instead of thinking of it as something he won't do or can't do, think of it as it's just something he's in the habit of doing at the moment, and you can change it. The most effective way to change habits is by using the Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting strategies we teach, especially think-throughs, Descriptive Praise and Reflective Listening."

The parents got united and decided to make a new rule that they would no longer carry their son down the stairs but would walk next to him and hold one hand while he held onto the railing with the other. So at a completely neutral time, not right before he was about to go downstairs, the parents told him the new rule and did a think-through with him, asking him to tell them what the new rule was and then having him answer a few questions about what he should do to go down the stairs safely.  They also "Prepared for Success" by anticipating that he would be upset by the new rule and then using Reflective Listening to acknowledge and validate his feelings and to help him move through the upset feelings faster, such as "You might wish we would still carry you since we've been doing that for awhile." 

After doing a few think-throughs about the new rule, he started going down the stairs on his own, and his parents were right there nearby to give him lots of Descriptive Praise for being brave and self-reliant!

Laura Runnels Fleming (see profile below)
Pasadena, CA

Friday, April 27, 2012

Sharing toys or snatching toys?

I often get asked by families what they can do to help their children share their toys and not fight or snatch from each other, or what to do when they are with friends and similar sharing problems occur.
A simple and very useful rule that will soon eliminate most hassles over who gets to play with what, is this: any toy left out is shared. In order for this rule to work, each child needs a sacred space where they can leave their belongings undisturbed and where they can play undisturbed whenever they choose to.

If your children have their own rooms, that can be their sacred space. If your children share a room, then the sacred space for the special belongings they don't want to share can be a closet or shelf in the bedroom. In addition, wherever in the house your children are playing, a temporary, movable sacred space can be created with a mat or a towel or a folded blanket. The other child cannot even touch the towel or step on the towel. But if the child leaves a toy on the floor, even by mistake, even if it's only a few inches away from the towel, then it's fair game for the other sibling or friend.

You may assume that a toddler could not possibly learn to leave another child's toy or construction or drawing alone just because it's on a special towel. In Montessori nurseries even two-year olds are trained not to touch anything on another child's mat.

Suzanne Ferera (see profile below)
Vancouver, BC

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Connect for better relationships and improved behavior

Children crave focused attention from their parent. It is the deepest way to experience connection, love, and support. At Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting, we call this type of one-on-one time "Special Time". Some parents naturally enjoy the activities of a child - playing with blocks, throwing a ball, reading books or just being silly. So this is easy. Others of us have a harder time pulling our focus out of work or the task at hand and when we have time, we just want to enjoy some adult activity. Regardless of our natural temperament, our children need special time with us for their healthy development.

Special time encourages attachment, soothes anxiety, and provides a firm foundation for growth. It is about engaged calm communication and presence. And your child especially needs special time with you if he or she is is acting out and seeking your attention in negative ways.

So how much one-on-one time do children need each day? The ideal amount of time is thirty minutes per child. Thirty minutes! Most likely you are wondering how any parent today can find thirty minutes to spend focused on just one child. And, what if there are siblings? A family of four might require two hours in which no laundry, grocery shopping, or work would get done. This is not possible. Correct. Few moms or dads have two hours each day in which they are doing absolutely nothing. However, special time doesn't have to mean doing “absolutely nothing.” If your child is misbehaving, thirty minutes is an investment in a solution. If it seems impossible, start with just 10 minutes. What we find is that parents quickly see how doable it is and the many benefits - their child gets the focused attention he needs and feels better and behaves better, and the parent enjoys the time and the connection and feels like a better parent. 

Special time doesn't require forsaking everything for kid focused activities. It is not limited to coloring, book reading, exploring in the park or throwing a ball. Though these are great play activities, they are often a destructive parent trap I frequently see in my counseling office. Problems arise when family life is dominated by children’s activities. Little time or energy is left over for adult relationships or self. Special time can be integrated into the pattern of a normal day- whatever your “normal” may be. Normal life involves work and play.

One of the best ways to get special time with your child in a busy schedule is to be present in the moment. This concept is most easily understood if you think of the difference between “being at the grocery store with your kids” and “being with your kids at the grocery store.” The first perspective, being at the grocery store with your kids, focuses on shopping. The focus is on getting through the store quickly, keeping the kids near the cart, and trying not to forget anything. The second perspective, being with your kids at the grocery store, involves listening to their requests, training them to understand “no”, empowering them to get the can of beans off the shelf, and learning to read labels. Being with your family is the primary focus, the task is secondary. Grocery shopping is work. It is not kid focused play, but it can be an opportunity for powerful quality time in which children share experiences with you and learn about life. Certainly, grocery shopping or any other chore may take longer, but the payoff is much greater.

The concept of being present with your child can be applied to nearly any task such as folding laundry, doing the dishes, cleaning the garage, preparing a meal, driving to pick up the dry cleaning, etc… Most often we don’t engage our children in these chores because it is quicker and easier to do them on our own. Sometimes the children would rather not. However, special time is important and when we are lax about spending time with the people we care about, our relationships wither from distance.

Special time is one the most precious gifts we can bring to any relationship. The power of peaceful presence and focus is deeply nurturing. It may be the most difficult to offer considering the schedule, stress, and how often parents themselves may feel under-nourished. Thirty minutes per day is a lot. It will take practice to get that in. It is also a recommendation, not a requirement. Good parenting does not mean perfection. Be sure to label the time you spend with your child. Framing special time as it happens in your busy day may make it easier to provide and enrich your life. Most likely you already are spending at least thirty minutes with each of your children, but you may be multi-tasking so are not necessarily "present". Take the opportunity to connect.

Amanda Deverich (see profile below)
Willamsburg, VA

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Power of Descriptive Praise: how to reduce impulsive behavior

A friend who recently began volunteering in her five year old son's classroom told me this success story about using Descriptive Praise in the classroom.

She was helping with an art project with a small group of kids. She had noticed that one of the boys in the class had poor impulse control and always seemed to find himself in trouble. Before they could begin the art project, the children had to wait until she finished giving them the instructions. She could see how fidgety this little boy was, and as he reached out to grab the paint brush she said to him, "You really wanted to start painting, but you're waiting patiently while I finish giving you the instructions. You're remembering the rule. It's so hard to wait, and that took a lot of self-control." He slowly drew his hand back, looked at her and smiled. At the end of the class, this little boy came up to her and actually gave her a hug.

My friend was shocked by the power of Descriptive Praise, but this is a result we often see when this technique is used consistently at home and at school.

Laura Runnels Fleming (view profile below)
Pasadena, CA

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What to do when your child is upset

I was in the car with my girlfriend and she was late picking up her 13 year old son from school. She had phoned him to say she was going to be late, and he was already anxious about being the only one left outside the school.

When she arrived he was angry and upset. She immediately launched into an explanation about why she was late, and he got more angry and upset. I intervened and said, "Think of his feelings rather than your own." I then coached her to do a skill we call Reflective Listening. I explained that he doesn't want to hear your reasons or excuses--that he is upset and wants you to listen to his feelings. She then said to him, "I'm usually on time, and maybe you were worried about being left alone." He replied, "What kind of mother would be late for her child?" Instead of getting into another round of explanations and reasoning, she said, "I am sorry I was late; that must have been really upsetting." He then replied, "I don't like this, I am used to getting my mum all riled up and having an argument."

In the Calmer, Easier, Happier parenting approach, Reflective Listening is one of the five core strategies we teach parents. This skill teaches parents how to stay calm and deal with their child or teenagers uncomfortable feelings without getting upset, angry, denying, reasoning, justifying or explaining. With Reflective Listening parents learn an effective way to communicate that all feelings are valid no matter how unpleasant, although some actions are not allowed no matter how they feel. This strategy also gives us a way to stay calm!

Reflective Listening steps:

1. Listen to your child or teen, nod and make encouraging comments like "Mmmm, I see, Oh, Ahh"

2. Temporarily put your own feelings on the shelf (when our kids get upset, it often make us upset!). 
    Resist the urge to justify, reason or explain.

3. Step inside your child or teen's shoes and try and guess how he may be feeling

4. Reflect back in words what you think he may be feeling--be tentative. Use phrases like "Maybe you're angry that..." or "You might wish our rule were different about...", etc.

You will see that once your child or teen feels heard and understood, he'll be able to get over strong feelings more quickly and will be in a better position to listen to what you have to say or to problem solve for himself.

Suzanne Ferera (view profile below)
Vancouver, BC

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Homework: How much is too much?

Recently my little sister contacted me for some big sisterly (and professional) advice. My nephew, a bright and active nine year old was battling homework every night. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to do it, but the volume and variance of tasks was overwhelming to manage. A worksheet in math, a project in science, a list of spelling words, and a paragraph to write seem simple to prioritize, but so does getting the kids off to school, getting the groceries, paying the bills, delivering dinner, and supervising homework. The reality of doing is more difficult than drafting the list.

My sister wanted to know how much was too much. Are her instincts correct that the homework load is too much to expect, or is she off the norm and is not demanding enough from her child? Her first stop was the teacher and then the school. Both were willing to discuss but neither appeared willing or able to reduce the homework demand. To my sister, this appeared to be a sacred cow issue despite the two hours it took for the family to accomplish the task. She had to make a decision, continue with the culture’s current demand or stand alone at risk.

My sister chose to adopt the recommendations given by the Department of Education, National Education Association and National Parent Teacher Association of ten minutes of homework per grade level. She felt, as the Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting program promotes, that the time limit would be a strong motivator for her son and not make homework a punishment. She and her husband decided to shift their efforts from pressuring him to get the work done to: focusing on positive feedback and goals, reinforcing he do his best, increasing personal meaning and a sense of autonomy by providing choices, and reinforcing the feeling of accomplishment and responsibility.

My sister is making a brave move stepping outside the cultural norm of pressuring her child to achieve at school no matter the cost. I believe her risk will be rewarded in her son and her family’s mental health. The moving film, The Race to Nowhere,, documents the increase in risk of suicide, depression, and stress related illness in young children today that is directly related to the pressure to achieve. Additionally, not a focus of a film, but a poignant experience in my counseling experience, is the life crisis of the students who have mastered the pressure but do not know where to go once they are out of school. They do not know where to go in life or how to create opportunity despite their exceptional skills. There has to be a better way to achieve growth and success. Setting a time limit on homework is one concrete measure to keep parents and their children from being pulled into the never ending, accelerating competition in the race to nowhere.

Amanda Deverich (view profile below) 
Williamsburg, VA

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Praise that works

Last week, my 11 year old was studying for a math test and had just finished a practice exam. As I was looking it over, I noticed that he got every problem right. This wasn't usually the case. Often his numbers don't line up very well, so that can throw off his answer. He also tends to do a lot in his head and then doesn't check his work by writing out the equation.

My first instinct was to go tell him what an awesome job he did on the practice test, but then I realized how vague that praise was and took a second to really think about what was so "awesome". So I just described what he had done differently. I said,

"I looked at your practice test, and I noticed that all your numbers lined up and that you even took the time to check your answers by writing out the equation. You might have solved the problems right anyway by just doing them in your head, but you went that extra step to make sure you got the right answer. That was very thorough work!"

He was looking at me, taking in every word, and he gave me a big smile.

It's ever so tempting to just throw out the "Amazing" or "Great job" kind of praise. The problem is that it's too vague to be meaningful to children, and truthfully, it's also exaggerated. The second type of praise we're often tempted to give in this situation is the "You're so smart" type of praise. Our goal is to build our child's confidence, but current research in educational psychology by investigators such as Carol Dweck, strongly suggest that praising performance or intelligence actually backfires and diminishes motivation as well as children's performance. What is effective for increasing motivation and the willingness to take on challenging work is focusing praise on your child's effort. If you haven't read the fascinating article in the NY Times about the inverse power of praise, it's worth your time.

My son ended up with a high score on the test. The Descriptive Praise he received about the practice test gave him very specific information about what he had done to achieve that score. One of the wonderful things about Descriptive Praise is that it is not only effective at improving a child's habits, which in this case was improving my son's attention to detail, but it also made both of us feel so good. It boosted my son's confidence, and it made me feel good as a parent that I was influencing him in a positive way by praising his effort.

Laura Runnels Fleming (see profile below)
Pasadena, CA