Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Shy Children and Sad Parents

Friendships are really important for kids.  Friendships help kids learn social skills.  They help kids learn to identify feelings and ways of responding to them.  Friendships are a source of fun and memories for kids.

Sometimes, though, a child having friends is more important to his/her parents than it is to the child.

I've worked with parents who are sad, worried, and heartbroken because their child doesn't seem to have any, or many, friends.  Parents start to attach stories to these observations.  They worry that their kids are being bullied.  They worried that their kids are lonely.  They worry that their children are sad and feeling left out.  For a parent, seeing their child have only a few, or worse, no, friends is a great heartbreak.

It doesn't have to be heartbreaking.  Sometimes children with few friends are just shy and introverted.  Their preference is for solitude.  They enjoy being alone and doing quiet things.  They aren't looking out a window longingly, watching neighbors playing and wishing they could be outside.  They usually know they could join in if they wanted to.  They are just grateful that they don't have to because their preference is to be inside doing something they enjoy.

So, how can you tell if your child is shy or struggling?       

Plain and simple, kids who are struggling with friendships often look like they are struggling.  They are talking about other kids and what they are doing or not doing.  You might notice that your child is reaching out and other kids aren't reaching back.  You might start getting reports from school that your child is having difficulty with peers. You might observe more impulsivity, frustration, and irritability with your child. Watching your child with other kids, you might just observe something that can only be defined as "awkward." These are all signs that your child is trying really hard at making friends and having little success.

I am going to talk to you in my next entry about helping kids who are struggling socially so stay tuned. Hint: Subscribe to my blog in the upper right corner and it will land directly in your inbox.

For today, we're going to talk about kids who are not struggling.  They seem calm and content. Their body posture is relaxed.  They may not talk too much but they don't seem tense, sad, or disappointed.  They seem at ease with themselves.  Usually, they are more at ease with themselves than their parents are watching them!

If the milk hasn't even spilled, there is no reason to be sad.

If you're worried about your son or daughter, you're likely talking to him/her about it.  Do you sense sadness?  Do they seem disappointed?  If not, don't attach those stories on to them. If they are good with their level of social interaction, work with yourself to be ok, too. No need getting sad if they seem content and happy with their lives.

Your child may have a preference to be home when "everyone else is out playing." Before you attach a social problem onto your child, rethink the problem a bit.  Your child is happy and content being home?  He or she likes spending time with you?  Your child seems to be having a good time hanging out with the family?  How is that a bad thing?  Odds are, you have created a family space that is loving, nurturing, and happy. An environment like this sets any child, shy or not, up for success.  It makes sense that your child would be happy there, too.  Don't question it.

Friendships are only one way kids learn about relationships.
Yes, friendships can be amazing opportunities.  Kids can learn about sharing, taking turns, conflict resolution, and a whole host of other things.  They have opportunities to test out their feelings and ways of reacting to them.  I don't argue any of this.

However, kids can still learn and grow in these areas, even if they are introverts. In fact, introversion can usually help kids become more emotionally intelligent as introverts are commonly really good observers.  School provides them with plenty of social opportunities.  So do sports, boy scouts, girl scouts, camp, or after school programs.  Kids can learn about feelings by reading about them in stories, observing what they see in the world around them, and engaging in social settings where they are more comfortable.  We live in a social world and your child will not be lacking in opportunity for social or emotional development, even if their preference is to be away from other kids.

Set your child up for success.

When parents start to worry about their child's level of social interaction, the first thing they start to do is problem solve. They start arranging playdates, scheduling sports activities, and arranging family outings, all in a misguided attempt to fix a problem that is only a problem to them.  When shy kids sense this, they retreat more into themselves.  They don't feel understood or accepted and worry about being forced to change.  They see your sadness and worry and their focus becomes easing that, rather than paying attention to themselves.

Take stock of your child.  What does he or she like to do?  When do you see him/her happiest?  Where is he/she the most successful?  Paying attention to where your child is successful will help you create more opportunities for your child to experience this success.  When kids are moving within their preference, they are more comfortable observing and learning from others.  They learn about empathy.  They see how other people interact.  They not only engage to the extent that they are comfortable doing so but they also become more willing to try new things and take more risks because of their interest in the activity.

Give up on forcing your kids to be social.

Since I was a kid, I have hated peas.  Hated them.  People have told me that I "just haven't has them the right way." Some have said that I just need to have them "fresh from the garden." Others have said "frozen are much better than canned." To each of them I say "Nope! Nope! and Nope!"  I just don't like peas and I cannot be talked into liking them.

I bet you can see where I am going with this.  Hop on.  I promise it's going to be ok.

You cannot force social interaction and friendship onto your child and expect him/her to like it.  Forced interactions cause anxiety, mistrust, and doubt.  No one will warm up in that kind of environment. When you decide you know what is best for your child and thrust it upon them, you are playing the power card.  As a parent, you may get what you want but at a high cost.  You'll cut off dialogue, shut your child down, and create an environment where being social is scary. 

Time to stop thinking that you know what is best for your child socially and start listening to your child.

Be on your child's team.

If you join with your shy or introverted child on his/her preferences, they will be more likely to ask for help when they need it.  If kids know it's ok for them to be shy, they'll talk about times when being shy or introverted is hard.  They'll be open to your support, and yes, problem-solving.  Once they know it's ok for them to be the way they are, they are more willing to try new things and take new risks.

Call or email me if you find yourself worried about your shy kid.

With just one consultation, I can provide you with the tools you need to help your shy child shine and prosper.

Next up: Helping parents of kids who are struggling socially.

Until then,

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Address Your Parent Guilt and You Will Reduce Your Parent Fails

I want you to join me in the fight against parent guilt.

I know...initially there's something that can feel good about saying "I wish I didn't let my kids watch so much TV" or "I am mad at myself for yelling at my kids so much".  If you can tell yourself you know what you should have done, in some backwards way, you are reassuring yourself that you do know a little bit about parenting.

Parent guilt creeps in at times when you are overwhelmed, tired, frustrated, and feeling ineffective. You feel a loss of control and if you can convince yourself that you are the problem, then you have control again.  You can change whatever you think you did and feel better. You have access to the solution.

Sitting in that overwhelmed state with no clue as to what a solution might be is maddening,  At the right moment, in an overtired day, it can be scary.

It's that fear that opens the window for parent guilt to creep in.  It all comes down to one solitary thought: What if I am a bad parent?

Hang on.  That kind of thinking is a cancer that can challenge parent/child relationships and can compromise your abilities as a parent.

How is that?  After all, if you're punishing yourself, you are telling yourself you can do better next time. Punishments are about learning, right?

Not in this case, unfortuately.

When it comes to parent guilt, we are dealing with shame.  It's staring you right in the face and is making you feel small and ineffective.          

When you feel guilty about something, your first instinct will sometimes be to overcompensate. You might buy your child something he or she hasn't necessarily earned. You'll be more likely to tolerate disrespect because you'll tell yourself that you "deserve it". You want to make amends so you might allow your child to skip vegetables and still have dessert.  Bedtime might be delayed.  Rules around screen time might be softened as you try to atone for your "parenting sins".

What do you think happens next?

The guilt powers parenting fails.

Harsh words, I know.  I don't like telling people they are committing parenting fails but it's true. Changing rules or expectations out of guilt causes confusion. You become inconsistent with yourself. You lose bits of your household structure.  You make a few too many compromises and if you don't reign it in, your relationship with your child can be affected.

When parents become inconsistent or when a child's structure changes without explanation, a child can develop anxiety.  They feel less in control and are worried that the adults don't have control either.  This can cause kids to distance themselves, act out, or show restless behavior.  Structure and consistency tells kids that you've got this and that they are safe.

As much as you think you are making amends for something you are guilty of, you run the risk of inadvertently causing new problems for your family. Kids start to feel and act entitled, relationships weaken, and parent stress intensifies.

I get it.  Parent guilt can't just be turned off like a switch.

I wish I could make your parent guilt evaporate just by wishing it so.

As with any parenting challenge, it's only managed with work and a commitment to change on your part.
  • Commit to reducing your parent guilt. The first step will be changing the way you think and acknowledging that parent guilt isn't serving you. Make a commitment toward reducing the power that parent guilt has in your life.
  • Accept that everyone, and every family, has non-negotiables.  There are things in your life that cannot be changed.  Work.  Finances. Outside commitments. You need to work.  Other people besides your kids count on you.  There are always going to be competing needs and demands that cannot be avoided.  The sooner you accept this as a reality and stop expecting yourself to be some superhero parent, the sooner you can reduce parent guilt by problem solving more effectively.
  • Not all non-negotiables have to suck.  Some non-negotiables can and should be things that will promote your own health and sense of well being.  Date nights.  Time with friends.  Time for hobbies. Exercise.  You need these things in your life to be your most authentic self and the best version of you.  Without them, you'll go mad and your parenting is sure to suffer.  Time to stop feeling guilty for things that make you a better parent.
  • Stop comparing yourself to others.  If you haven't walked a mile in their shoes, you have no way of knowing the challenges that other parents face.  You also have know idea as to whether or not they share your families values.  The challenges and obstacles you face will be different from theirs.  Making comparisons without all the facts and then assuming you are the guilty party is a waste of energy.  It zaps your positive outlook and sense of hope.  It slowly kills your spirit and that cannot be good for parenting.
You cannot make yourself a better parent by making yourself feel worse.

No good can come from the kinds of thinking errors you make when you are feeling parent guilt and are encumbering yourself with unrealistic expectations.

There are better tools for improved parenting than parent guilt and shame.  

Find them with me at Fresh Start Parenting. I am a parent coach providing local and distance coaching in Wakefield, MA. I can provide you with the tools that will help you meet your parenting goals, find your parenting wins, and leave with more confidence and less shame.

Until next time,