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Tips for Balancing Freedom and Safety

Allowing your child more freedom often feels linked to concerns for their safety. Younger kids want to ride their bike beyond their street. Preteens want to hang out with friends after school in the town center. Teens want to go to parties. Older teens ask to to borrow the car to drive with friends. Their job is to become more independent, push limits when appropriate, explore the world and gain knowledge through direct experiences. Your job is to encourage this process of growth and development, but safely and smartly.

But parents can easily freeze up when they face these parenting situations. They run the latest news headlines through their mind and feel fear. When you allow fear and worry, or even anger, to surface during your parenting, you aren’t your best. You’re leading your kids with your emotional brain centers – you are parenting via your primitive Limbic System. When emotional, you lose access to the most important parts of your thinking apparatus, your executive functions and decisions-making abilities. You want to parent with your frontal cortex!

Here are a few tips.

  • Don’t make parenting decisions while emotional. Decision-making should always be a logical task. Follow basic steps to slow the process down and follow procedures and rules. Never make important decisions on the fly. Always enlist other viewpoints, such as checking in with spouses, trusted relatives, friends, other parents, maybe even teachers and coaches.
  • Watch less cable news. Studies show watching news events on screens too long, particularly 24/7 cable news, can leave you with more traumatic feelings than people who were actually at those events. You aren’t getting the news or staying informed, as much as overstimulating your limbic system. You believe the world is far less safe than it actually is.
  • Stop over-communicating your fears to your children. Tell them “this is what I think, and sometimes feel this way, based on what I know…” vs. “It’s dangerous to do that… Kids get killed all the time doing… ” When you communicate what you are fearful of more calmly, it helps to keep your child or teen calm as well.
  • Devise a simple plan that rewards greater freedom for small steps of compliance. Keep moving your kids further out into the world in graded steps, tied to them showing small gains.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.


Q&A: How to restore balance at home

Question and Answers on speech bubblesI love my kids, but I’m exhausted and I think they are too. Any tips for restoring some balance to our home life?

Exhausted? That means you’re expending too much energy to run your household. Maybe you’re trying too hard. Most parents I know work to be their “best” and to do everything for their kids. I think they’re putting unrealistic expectations on themselves. Rather than trying harder, try this:

  • Shift your mindset. Start thinking of yourself more as a leader (and not only as a parent). When we approach parenting as a set of leadership skills, the job becomes clearer and more gets done. First lead yourself. Get calm, collected, never yell (it only makes you look weak).
  • Avoid perfection and over-scheduling and don’t expect your kids to always be happy. That’s not possible or realistic. Good leaders are also in charge of what their environment is like.
  • Be thoughtful about what you allow into your home. Foremost, control high stimulation. Watch exposure to screens and negative news broadcasts. Set up your house to be a place where people face each other and talk.
  • Be aware of hyper-stimulation, information overload, noise, disorganization, and multitasking. These all tap your energy and rev up your nerves.

Above all, focus on the big picture – tell yourself what really matters is happening right now… right in front of you. That’s mindfulness, and it helps you appreciate precious moments. Start enjoying the time you have with your children. They won’t be young forever.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.


Online “Learning Programs” – Do they work?

A mom from Arizona recently asked about a program she saw on the Internet to help her son be a better learner. He hates handwriting. It frustrates him. This program promises to retrain her son’s brain by using handwriting along with listening to music, so that his emotional systems are calmer and he can focus and write with less frustration.

On the surface, the program sounds good, and seems like it would deliver on its promise. BUT, the scientist in me isn’t buying it, for now.

Here’s what I do to be a better consumer of treatments and promises of better living that we are all barraged with daily. Be your own scientist. Think like a scientist. It’s empowering to be a critical thinker!

  1. Watch for labels like “Grounded In Science”. Grounded in science isn’t science. It’s maybe the  start of a scientific inquiry. All new treatments and ideas, no matter how good they sound, need to go the distance. They have to run their scientific course so to speak. That means they need to go through controlled, thoughtful, multiple studies. Researchers have a tough task. They set out to prove themselves wrong in hopes of showing that a pill or a clinical technique has some merit, up and beyond beyond all the other possible reasons it seems to work. Only then do they know it is worth using. This takes lots of time, years in fact.
  2. Watch for testimonials (instead of real studies). Testimonials are always positive. Those are hand-selected and intended to promote the product. They are designed to make you feel good and emotional. When emotional we’re thinking more with our hearts (emotional and irrational) and not our minds (logical).
  3. It’s worth a try… if a program is not very expensive or time-consuming, and you don’t consider it to the exclusion of all other known/tested programs. In the case of this mom from Arizona, she could sit with her son to do writing exercises (calligraphy is fun) while playing calming classical music in the background. New age music and instrumental is often better as lyrics tend to distract. If her son seems to enjoy it, if he gets calmer and seems to focus longer, that will likely help him at school (and homework) where he has to be more attentive and use handwriting.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.


Does Equal Opportunity apply to siblings?

A mom of two boys recently asked: “I have one son in private school and the other isn’t.  Should I explore private schools for the other son, even though, he’s doing great in public school I want to be fair and offer them equal opportunities for success.”

This question really gets at key issues:

  • When a child is doing well, thriving, has friends, grades are solid, and most important, seems happy… don’t change schools. Think of that old expression, If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. In medicine and diagnosing we say it more formally, First, do not harm Or if you are a fan of The Beatles, Let It Be. The more we intervene with good intention, the greater the risk of messing things up.
  • As your children get older, approaching middle school and beyond, you should wholeheartedly adopt the following definition of “fairness”: What’s fair isn’t given them all the same things, but what each of them needs when they need it. In other words, when kids are very young, it makes sense to break every cookie in two, measure each scoop of of ice-cream, buy everybody sneakers at same time. Once they’re older, their individual differences and individual needs branch out and move on different paths of growth… and that’s what should dictate your decisions for giving them what they need to assure them opportunities.

Go with your intuition more as your kids get older, treat them more as the individuals that they are.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.


Don’t over-think your parenting

High parenting expectations (while wonderful, and that’s how most of my clients are) can unintentionally and significantly sabotage best parenting practices. This is true especially in raising young high-energy, spirited boys. That’s because young boys by nature can be all over the map developmentally. Very attentive parents easily get pulled in a hundred directions. They end up chasing each challenge and worrying more and more. That only communicates anxiety back to their kids, which fuels more acting out. Parents need to build in the normal ups and downs of development so these messy moments can play out.

Better to take a low worry, it-will-all-work-out, big picture view. Stick to the basics behaviorally. Maybe add a visual simple chart with clear rewards that are frequent and reasonable. Ignore the tantrums and the inappropriate behaviors until kids calm down and then address what needs to improve. Keep a calm exterior. Don’t raise your voice. Know in your heart of hearts he will be fine, and he will.

Finally, look at what situations he does better in – shows his better self. From that, you can figure out best practices for each of your kids. Is it a calmer, less stressed, less crowded classroom or daycare setting? Is it a more experienced teacher and sitter that he does better with? Around sibs is he worse? If so, plan special 1-1 time to reward him for being patient. Make sure there is always lots of motor movement throughout the day – many breaks – especially before times when he might be expected to sit and attend.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.