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Archive for the Category Better Parenting


Motivating Boys To Become Better Young Men

Parents, being adults, try desperately to talk with their sons about deep feelings. They fear their sons are hiding their emotions and that’s causing all sorts of problems behaviorally. Pushing most boys and young men to “open up” and express emotions can backfire. They often shut down. While it’s important to not bottle all emotions up, a surprisingly different approach is often more effective in helping boys feel positive and moving them developmentally forward.

Find what they desire and then push them to make positive changes in order to earn what they want. Case in point, one young man wants an iPhone and guitar desperately. He can think of nothing else. Those are symbols of power and young adulthood, but he’s not acting like a young adult these days. He fights with his parents and doesn’t do basics, like homework and chores.

Rather than explore in long-term therapy how he feels or why he does these things – as if there are deep rooted problems to bring to the surface – I recommended to his parents that they set up a simple behavioral program to earn the guitar and phone based on incremental, realistic changes. If the boy is motivated to earn these things, he will change.

What’s most surprising in my years as a psychologist is how effective this simple strategy is with boys and young men. They adopt greater maturity not by talking through their feelings, but by working harder and harder for what they want to achieve and own.

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

Stopping Sib Rivalry… First, Do No Harm

Truth is, you can’t fix sib rivalry. It’s part of growing up. Surprisingly, the best thing to do when sibs fight is nothing. Don’t ever comment on the fighting and never jump in to save one child from another. As soon as parents get pulled into these perpetual mini-battles and complaints, sibs play up their victimhood. The tears start flowing. The accusations of hurt feelings and ouches skyrocket. It’s a classic parent trap you need to avoid.

Then why so much fighting? Here’s what’s really going on beneath the surface. Both sibs want your attention and want to win (that means you side with them over their brother or sister). Haven’t you realized that sib rivalry sparks as soon as you step into a room… and haven’t you noticed it’s really bad in confined spaces (like cars) where you’re stuck in the front seat like a judge listening to passionate legal arguments. So, keep in mind, your presence is a catalyst for these epoch battles. Don’t join in or try to fix them – it makes things worse.

But there are times you can’t ignore, for example, if one sib smacks the other for no justified reason or an over-the-top insult is lobbed. When this happens, march the offender immediately to their room without warning or a second chance. No lecturing… they already know what they’ve done is wrong. Remove them from family interaction for a bit (I call this a time-away in my book). And if both kids are fighting or getting under your nerves with yelling and nasty behavior, don’t try to negotiate or settle the fight or figure out who did what. You’d have run a DNA analysis like a CSI investigator to get at the bottom of it. Instead, immediately separate them, give no second chances. Give equal time-aways in separate, quiet space. And tell them this:

“I don’t know why you keep fighting and making so much unpleasantness. We don’t do that in our home. You both will have to stay separate until you figure out how to work out your differences and your disagreements better.”

Then do something nice for yourself… pat yourself on the back… knowing you avoided a classic parent trap. Then enjoy the ensuing, temporary quiet!

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

Big, Scary Thoughts

Thinking student sitting at deskA parent of a gifted five-year old wonders why her son often sounds unhappy and fears growing up.

Many smart youngsters can become easily overwhelmed by their brain’s capacity to think too big. Imagine you are only five and you’re thinking about the meaning of life, growing up and having to find a job, wondering what it would be like to be alone! Very young children have no real-life experience to put any of these big, scary thoughts into perspective.

I recommend not spending lots of time talking about these big thoughts with very young kids. That only reinforces them to feel worse. If your child isn’t sharing these uncharacteristic big (negative) thoughts away from you, that may be a sign that you are fueling those concerns accidentally.

Better to acknowledge big, scary thoughts fast, then put them in their place!

First explain that thoughts are in our control: “I know you have very strong feelings and worries. Sometimes your feelings get too big – but they are only feelings and they can change. We can make them smaller or turn them into happier thoughts if we want to…”

Then show your child how to control them: “Let’s move, let’s go outside, let’s do something real like play, run, wrestle, and that’s how we stop those feelings. We don’t have to think of them right now – but if later you still feel them – we can talk about them. We can find good ways (like drawing or singing or making a play about them) to make sure they don’t seem too big or stay around too long.”


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

The ADHD Excuse


ADHD symbol design isolated on white backgroundA parent I know is questioning if her second grader has ADHD. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. There are many things that mimic the symptoms. It takes time to make an accurate diagnosis and well-trained professionals should always be consulted. Meanwhile, her son has picked up on the ADHD terminology. He’s saying he can’t focus on homework because his “brain is distracted.” When he gets caught doing something he shouldn’t – like swearing at his brother – he says he’s “being impulsive.” Are his problems due to an attention deficit? Perhaps. But he’s also complaining that sorting his laundry is way too hard. And the Legos that cover his bedroom floor can’t be organized, because, well – it’s “just too hard.” This boy is smart and I think he’s found a convenient get-out-of-jail-free card … an excuse he can call up whenever the going gets tough. Whether this boy has ADHD or not, excuse-making is a slippery slope. In time, he might start believing these limitations.


If you’re investigating a diagnosis of ADHD, or your child/teen currently has this diagnosis, here’s how to avoid ADHD excuses.


  1. ADHD should never be framed as a serious disability. Tell kids that ADHD is a brain style. It doesn’t completely define who they are or limit what they can do. In fact, this brain style can have great advantages (such as athletic skill, creative thinking, and healthy risk taking). ADHD also lends itself to a mind-set that we adults strive for – living more in-the-moment and being more mindful. Yet, there are potential downsides. There are struggles keeping on task, especially when there isn’t something novel or very interesting to focus on. Patience is a serious challenge. Delayed gratification can be hard too. And, not all risks taken are positive.


  1. Emphasize that what matters is how ADHD fits (of fights against) the demands that different environments place on people.


  1. Remind your child that any problems with ADHD (high motor activity, sustaining focus, and being impulsive) can be worked on with or without medications. Most important, remind them that ADHD symptoms tend to decrease (or drop away) as kids grow – as development of the frontal cortex catches up in teenage years.


  1. Remind your child that their brain always has the capacity to learn and change. Pushing oneself to improve, develop better work habits, and maintain healthy life routines – like getting enough sleep, exercise, and eating right – will help control ADHD symptoms. Watch over-exposure to screens too… those have been correlated to higher ADHD symptoms.


  1. Finally, and most important, push back on any ADHD excuse-making. ADHD should never be a reason to avoid trying new things or giving up.


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

Advice for Potty Battles

Potty training One mom recently asked what to do when her five year old refuses to cooperate and tantrums when asked to simply sit for a few minutes each morning.
He actually said to her, “I will NOT poop – I will never poop again!” 

Potty training is hard. Boys tend to learn it a year or so after girls. Boys also get into more struggles over sitting programs. Having worked with many such cases over the years, I’ve learned that a common feature is this type of control. These boys catch on early that refusing to poop (or follow a basic sitting program) makes them the center of the family universe.

Here’s a simple set of behavior approaches that work. If problems persist, make sure you check in with your pediatric specialist.

– Tell him it’s his choice to sit or not. You will give him one (maybe two) nice, calm reminders when it’s time to sit. If he goes in and sits like a big boy (he doesn’t have to poop… just sit), then he earns a reward. The reward can be something relatively soon after (15/20 minutes on iPad or TV show he likes), or after. When school’s in session, some play time on playground before class is a great reward. The reward can be a sticker on a chart that earns him something later that day or before bed. Anything that is relatively small (not expensive) will work. One parent I know has a prize bag on top of fridge that she can take down filled with small thcotchkes.

– You have to let him fail at this. And be prepared he will throw a tantrum. But try to move on with the day as best as possible. In time it will turn around as he starts to give up control and seeks the reward(s). When (if) he refuses to sit, make sure you calmly remove something important that day or week that’s scheduled. Let the consequences do the work.

– You have to start setting clear house rules. Say “in our house, boys and girls do not poop in their pants. Big boys at school sit on the potty…” Make it declarative (use 3rd person plural). Say it with conviction and power – not with anger – and saying this statement throughout the day here and there is key. You are the leader of your home. you are like his teacher (who he tends to listens to). You don’t take anything personally, You just announce the rules – deliver consequences – and children choose or don’t choose to follow them. This is where he has control, over his decision to join in or not with the rules. Tell him you have faith in him that he will choose the right thing and get his reward.

– When he has an accident, make him participate in cleaning up. He has to put his soiled undies in a special place (perhaps a bucket with a mix of water and light bleach). He has to get into the tub/shower and help clean himself (find ways to help him fix the problem). Kids who pee the bed at night, for example, do it less when they are responsible for helping to make the bed the next morning and change sheets… we want all consequences available to help him shift the behavior.

– Keep a chart – leave open spaces if he doesn’t sit in the morning – and put a nice sticker if he does the sitting.

– Finally, know that peer pressure can sometimes be a good thing. Time with peers (who are brutally honest about these issues) will push him into a better developmental path come fall.

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