How to Not be a Helicopter Parent (But Still Stay in the Airport)

Children these days live in worlds that are highly structured and overscheduled. Whether it is playdates, schoolwork, clubs, sports, or volunteer work, life gets busy very quickly and parents become full-time administrative assistants to make sure everything gets done. Well-meaning parents can take over many aspects of their children’s lives because the intent is to keep their children “on course”. This makes sense in theory, but in the long run, it does not help children learn the skills they need to be successful as adults. These skills include organization, delayed gratification, autonomy/responsibility, initiative, accepting disappointment, and reformulating a plan.

So what does it mean to be a “helicopter parent”? In short, it means that the parent is overly involved in the child’s life; the parent does not let the child learn from their mistakes or from normal childhood experiences. For example, they may take on their child’s school projects, argues with teachers/professors about grades, and choose their child’s college.

There are certainly times when it makes sense for parents to take control of situations and monitor them closely, especially in cases of safety or age-appropriateness. Obviously, the first time you let your child drive a car by himself, you would have some rules and limits around that activity. Or when children have a cell phone for the first time, you would have some boundaries regarding when or where they can use their phones. For younger children, you would monitor them getting used to doing chores around the house. 

For situations that don’t necessarily fall in those categories, here are some specific examples of ways to not be a helicopter parent, but “stay in the airport”:

  • Fostering self-esteem. Make it clear that you love and value your child, even when he/she has misbehaved (“I’m very disappointed in what you’ve done, but I still love you very much.” “That homework looks challenging, but I am proud of you for doing your best.”). Model good self-esteem and healthy habits for your child.
  • Self-regulation. It can be tempting to jump in and fix situations, but children find it most helpful when parents listen, validate their concerns, and offer assistance only when needed and in a way that the child will find helpful (“Those kids were really mean. It’s natural you would feel embarrassed about what they said. Is there something that I can do?”)
  • Delayed gratification. Teach your children the value of time and money, the satisfaction of achieving something through hard work, and the importance of planning ahead. Some practical examples include:
    • When you child wants to meet friends at the mall, don’t drop everything to be the chauffeur. Ask your child to schedule things in advance with you.
    • For activities (sports or otherwise), ask your child to choose carefully and stick with the activity for the duration to keep their word.
    • When buying clothes or toys, consider asking your child to “pay” a portion of the item from his allowance, time doing chores, or from their salary if they are old enough to work.
  • Social skills. The transition from elementary school to middle school (and from middle to high school) can be challenging when it comes to making sure that your child is socializing with positive individuals and making positive choices. To give your child the opportunity to make their own choices, parents and children benefit from having regular conversations about their friend group. Parents also get great clues about concerns this way.
    • Know the names of your child’s friends.
    • Listen to the stories that they tell you about their friends (even when you would rather listen to anything else).
    • Ask your child what they enjoy about their individual friends (“You talk about Kaitlin every day, what do you like about her? What do you dislike about her?”).

      If your child is socializing with someone who isn’t making good choices, it’s important to find out what is drawing your child closer to that person. Sometimes kids start hanging out with someone because that person seems to get attention, even when it is negative. Sometimes kids start hanging out with someone because they feel like they belong and fit in with a group, even when it is negative. In these cases – as tempting as it may be to forbid your child from associating with someone – let your child make the decision so they can learn from the consequences. When parents make the decision, children don’t learn the skill of decision-making. It is also important for children to understand the definition of “friend,” which is another great conversation for parents to have with kids. One way of doing this (without it being too much like a counseling session) is to watch one of your child’s favorite TV shows together then ask them which relationships are positive and why, and which ones are negative and why. Remember, you’ve been teaching your child positive values since they were young. As they get older, this is the time you get to see if they were listening or if they need some refresher courses on what they have learned.

It is important to remember that changes may not be immediately apparent, so be patient. Changes take time. Negative behavior may escalate in the short term as your child may try to see if they can persuade you to give in. Stay firm and consistent and before you know it, you will see responsible and independent young individuals right before your eyes. And maybe you will get to go on a beach vacation with that helicopter that you won’t have to use anymore.

– Tobi Russell LPC, CAADC, CCS-M, BCETS, is director of a counseling service in Rochester Hills, Mich.

The Hidden Dangers of Teen Dating

My 17-year-old son started dating this year, a lovely young woman who has been a friend since seventh grade. They are both nearly adults in age, but still adolescents in many ways. As parents we discuss everything from sexting to STDs to pregnancy with our son, and I know her mom does the same. We have planted books that contain answers to questions he may be embarrassed to ask. But it honestly never occurred to us to talk to him about domestic violence. He does not witness violence in his home, but he certainly sees plenty of it in the media, from games to YouTube to movies.

Domestic violence – specifically teen dating violence – is not a topic we should ignore simply because it is not part of our experience. Just because a child does not experience violence at home doesn’t mean they are not susceptible to violence – as victims or abusers. Here are some important facts from the Centers for Disease Control:

  • 1 in 11 female teens experienced physical dating violence in the last year
  • 1 in 15 male teens experienced physical dating violence in the last year
  • 1 in 9 female teens experienced sexual dating violence in the last year
  • 1 in 36 male teens experienced sexual dating violence in the last year
  • 26% of women and 15% of men who have experienced domestic violence had their first experience before the age of 18
  • LGBTQIA teens are more likely to experience dating violence than their heterosexual peers
image credit: CDC

Many parents are unaware of these statistics and may also be unaware of how teen dating violence is defined. There are four types:

  • Physical violence – when one partner harms another by hitting, kicking or otherwise physically assaulting them
  • Sexual violence – forcing or attempting to force a partner into performing a sexual act; includes sexual touching but also includes unsolicited non-physical sexual activity such as sexting
  • Psychological aggression – using verbal or non-verbal communication to exert control and/or inflict harm on another person mentally or emotionally
  • Stalking – unwanted attention and contact that is systematically repeated in order to cause fear and attempt to control the behavior and activity of the other person

Some of these behaviors, such as sexting, can start at a very early age. Children commonly get their first smart phone at age 10 and a discussion about sexting needs to happen before their personal phone is placed in their hands. Both boys and girls need to understand what kind of pictures are OK and which are not OK. They also need to understand that unsolicited sexual overtures cause the recipient to experience the same kind of distress and anxiety as if they had been physically sexually harassed.

There are a number of behaviors to look out for if you are concerned your child is experiencing or perpetrating dating violence (from the National Domestic Violence Hotline website):

  • Your child’s partner is extremely jealous or possessive to the point where your child stops spending time with other friends and family. When asked how they feel about this, your child might say something like: She thinks my friends don’t like her, so she doesn’t like spending time around them. Or, she thinks they’re a bad influence on me, and she’s just trying to help.
  • You notice unexplained marks or bruises.
  • You notice that your son or daughter is depressed or anxious.
  • Your child stops participating in extracurricular activities or other interests.
  • Your child begins to dress differently; for example, wearing loose clothing because their partner doesn’t like for them to show off their body or attract the attention of someone else.
  • Your child worries if they can’t text/call their partner back right away because their partner might get upset.
  • Your child expresses fear about how their partner will react in a given situation.

It’s important to stay tuned in to your teen as they make their way in the dating world. Teens who experience abuse or violence in their adolescent relationships are at much higher risk in college and adulthood. Teen victims may experience depression or anxiety; may use drugs to escape; may pass along the violence they experience in anti-social behaviors like lying, shoplifting, bullying, or physically abusing others (younger siblings can become a target); or may experience suicidal ideation or even attempt suicide.

Open a communication channel about healthy relationships with your children starting at a young age. Encourage them to think critically about the health of their friendships as those behaviors form the basis for their intimate relationships. Most of all, be that non-judgmental listening ear so they know that you will love and support them in all aspects of their lives.

For more information and resources, visit the CDC’s Dating Matters website.

– Kathy Henry is the adoptive mom to two amazing young men; a writer and business marketing consultant; and an active volunteer in her public school, Unitarian Universalist church, and community.

Sibling Rivalry and Bullying: Parents Have More Influence Than They Think

image: Mindaugas Danys, Flickr. CC license.

You hear the scream from the other room and run in to find one kid crying and the other child holding a treasured toy. The accusations and explanations fly back and forth while the tears flow. After a few minutes you realize you’ll never really know the whole story so you:

  1. Take the treasured toy away for a while so it’s not a source of conflict.
  2. Give both the kids a time-out since they need to be separated for a while to cool off.
  3. Throw up your hands and go cry in the other room since this is the fourth time today you’ve had to mediate a dispute.
  4. Yell at the kids since you are so frustrated that they can’t share and get along.

Sound familiar?

Every parent with more than one child is faced with sibling disputes all the time. Whether its toy stealing, physical stuff like pushing/poking, or verbal trash talk that drives the sibling to anger or tears, sibling rivalry is a feature in every family at one time or another. Understanding what drives the behavior will help parents address it appropriately.

Sibling rivalry

Sibling rivalry is triggered for a reason. The child who is acting out wants or needs something. Sometimes he is looking for a parent’s attention. Sometimes she is looking to cure boredom, and sometimes they are looking to get a reaction from their sibling. Figuring out which is the main trigger is very important as it will guide the intervention.

Young children under 5, who are arguing with their siblings, are almost always looking for parental attention. If you really think about it, they aren’t getting any “joy” per se out of their sibling’s reaction but will amp up the behavior if you don’t intervene. They want you. If you don’t run in, the screams get louder and the tussling gets more pronounced.

Another sign that kids are looking for your attention rather than the sibling’s is when they look over at you for your reaction when they are about to do something to their brother or are in the middle of the fight with their sister. They are less engaged with each other than they are interested in your response. A sure sign that the interaction is all about you!

The challenge is realizing that by paying attention to these little scuffles you are reinforcing them and creating a pattern of behavior between the children that can lead to bigger issues down the road. With young children, often ignoring your children’s interactions rather than negotiating, punishing them, or trying to play referee can allow them to work things out on their own and prevent you from become the object of their attention.

The time to help teach children how to negotiate with each other, share well, and be kind is when you are playing with them, not by intervening when they are arguing on their own. Comment on and model these behaviors with your children when you are playing together. You can even role play and practice what to do when you are upset when they aren’t mad; you can give them tools to use at other times.

Another strategy that works well with kids of all ages is to be a play-by-play announcer when you see something happening between your children. Sometimes you don’t want to ignore what you see but know you shouldn’t solve the problem for them. Instead, by describing what you see (the actions and the feelings), you give voice to both of the children in the scuffle and allow them to work things out themselves, perhaps even seeing the other child’s point of view. Here’s an example: You walk in and find 4-year-old, Joey, holding the 2-year-old’s, Jimmy, favorite stuffed animal and he’s crying. Say something like: “Jimmy, you sure seem sad and mad. Joey, you’re holding Jimmy’s best friend. He seems sad and upset. Jimmy is reaching for the toy. Joey, you are keeping it from him. That seems to be making Jimmy even more sad and upset. What are you both going to do?” and then walk away.

When rivalry becomes bullying

As children get older, sometimes what may have started off as an attempt to get the parent’s attention has turned into something more. One sibling has begun to enjoy the “rise” she gets out of the other. Instead of wanting to get the parent’s attention, now the child enjoys the emotional drama that the sibling shows when verbally triggered or egged on in other ways. When this sort of behavior occurs, it can become more serious and, if frequent and unchecked, it is no different than bullying in any other environment.

Most children wouldn’t want to think of themselves as bullies or be labeled as such, but somehow bullying behavior at home isn’t thought of in the same way. Parents have a responsibility to intervene differently when they start to see behaviors that are targeted, affect self-esteem, are power/dominance driven (regardless of which child is older), and persistent. Ignoring these sorts of exchanges can lead to an aggressor-victim dyad in the family that can persist for a lifetime. If one sibling consistently taunts (especially when the verbal taunting is personal and drives the other child to feel insecure or inadequate), intervention is required. Managing both the bully and the bullied in this scenario is key. Both parties are fragile and need support. Bullies often lack self-esteem, are anxious or depressed, or are looking to get attention in unhealthy ways. Getting them help is essential. The child who is being bullied needs strategies to disengage, as well as support to feel secure and safe at home. This last bit can be challenging since the child was the victim of bullying in the place that should feel the safest.

Many parents downplay sibling bullying. “Kids will be kids.” “All kids fight.”
You have to develop a thick skin.” “Siblings will always be meanest to each other.” All of these are examples of things parents say to themselves. And the occasional argument between siblings is normal. But when these interactions become taunting, physically targeted, humiliating, or dehumanizing, it is not normal anymore and intervention is necessary.

The relationships within our family are the best practice we have for relationships in the rest of our life. How we learn to talk to each other and treat each other is the key to our success in friendships, work relationships, love affairs, and as parents later. Teaching your child how to solve his or hew own problems through proper attention to the stuff that matters, ignoring the stuff that doesn’t, creating a culture of positivity in your home, and intervening early if any sign of bullying rears its ugly head is the key to raising kids who will be friends for a lifetime.

– Dr. Molly O’Shea, a board-certified Beaumont pediatrician, offers traditional medicine in non-traditional ways including newborn home visits and emailing parents directly. She has practiced pediatrics for nearly 30 years and was the “Ask the Pediatrician” columnist for the Detroit News for many years. A journal editor for the American Academy of Pediatrics, she also organized the AAP’s national continuing education programming for pediatricians. Dr. Molly loves cooking, traveling and spending time with her family.

#20yearsofweddedbliss

couple holding hands at sunset

You know I am totally kidding.

The 20 years part is right on. The bliss… well, that part is just a fantasy; a social media hashtag that captions an image that leaves the rest of us feeling like there is something missing from our marriages.

This Valentine’s Day is special for us because my husband and I are celebrating our 20th anniversary. And as any couple knows, we have had our share of hard moments and happy ones — times when it would feel easier to be apart and days when we couldn’t live without each other. And with four kids in the mix ranging from 16 to 6, the truth is that there just isn’t a lot of time these days for each other.

But we can’t use that as an excuse. Because, let’s be real here, who wants to walk this life with a partner we feel constantly out of step with? So while we may not be the most romantic couple, we do hold hands (in the car when we head out to do errands) and we always kiss each other goodbye. And although we don’t post it on social media, we leave cards for each other when one of us is struggling or needing a reminder that they’re loved. Instead of getaway weekends, we take turns scheduling date nights and love watching a good Netflix series together at home. We grab a coffee together in between sports pick-ups and sometimes we just supermarket shop so we can have 30 minutes alone. Nothing groundbreaking here I know, but these small and simple (key for us!) moments become the glue that keeps us connected in this busy life of ours.

And just as much as we try to make these moments of togetherness count, we also encourage each other to step out. A weekend away with a best friend, a beer out with a brother or anything in fact, that helps remind us that we aren’t just a wife, husband, mom or dad. The missing each other part has become just important as the being together part.

Over the years we’ve learned a kind of dance that seems to work for us. And when we misstep, we realign. And we keep communicating. ALL. THE. TIME. And we try not to hold grudges because who has time for that? And yes, our kids hear us argue and sometimes see us leave the house for an hour or two because we just need a break. But I’m OK with that because they are learning that a realistic marriage requires attention, negotiations and a lot of resetting.

This year, we will probably go out for dinner like we usually do for our anniversary. And if I were to post a picture of us on our anniversary, I’m pretty sure my hashtag would read something like #20yearstogether. Understated but significant nonetheless.

– Andree Palmgren, LPC, has a private practice in Westport, CT and is a mom to four kids ages 16, 14, 11 and 6.

 

 

Kindness counts

"be kind" in chalk

Sunday marked the beginning of “Random Acts of Kindness” week. Knowing it was coming up, I decided to run a two-week experiment in our household; I’ve heard it takes two weeks to make something a habit.

Our family dinners always include a report of the day by each family member. My husband and I ask our kids to share a banana split (something good about their day) and a banana peel (something hard). A few weeks ago, my husband decided to also ask the kids, “What was something kind you did for someone today?” In theory, this was a great idea! Unfortunately, we sometimes got side tracked by our banana splits/banana peels and forgot to follow up with the kindness question.

For the past two weeks, my husband and I recommitted ourselves to asking our kids every evening at dinner, “How were you kind today?”

Here are some highlights:

  • By the third night, the kids were reporting their kind act without being prompted by the adults.
  • The gestures progressed into more authentic acts of kindness as the two weeks progressed. For example, “I held the door open for my teacher” became “I asked John to sit with me at lunch because he looked unsure about where to sit.”
  • One act of kindness became several acts of kindness throughout the day.
  • By participating ourselves, we modeled a variety of kind acts and that encouraged our kids to show kindness in different ways (to a friend, to a stranger, to themselves, to a pet, etc.).
  • The kind acts began — and I use that term lightly 🙂 — to filter into the kids’ relationships with each other.

In our house, kindness counts. It’s a family value and now it’s become something we all practice daily.

– Andree Palmgren is a licensed professional counselor with a private practice in Westport, CT. She is also a mom to a 15, 13, 10 and 5-year-old.

Hey, we’re in this together! A reminder for new parents

woman with arms around man

Unaltered image. Ashley Webb, Flickr. CC license.

Your baby is finally here and your dream of being parents finally came true. Sure, this is something the two of you excitedly dreamed and talked about for so long, but now that baby arrived, you may find yourselves feeling unhappy and disillusioned. Maybe you and your partner are feeling distant from each other when you thought a baby would bring you closer. What’s going on?

Most importantly, know that you aren’t alone. Research conducted by Dr. John Gottman, a renowned couple’s therapist and researcher, found that two-thirds of couples report increased conflict and decreased relationship satisfaction after the birth of their first baby. It can be one of the most stressful times for a couple’s relationship.

It’s been said that having a first baby is like throwing a hand grenade into a marriage. Those sweet little babies explode into our hearts and lives; they are the center of our world and the subject of almost all conversations. As a result, becoming new parents is one of the happiest times of our lives, while simultaneously being one of the hardest.

Those first weeks often leave parents feeling scared, clueless and exhausted. Many parents are overwhelmed with the endless work caring for an infant brings. They feel angry and betrayed when their partner doesn’t help out more or seem to care about them or their needs anymore. Parents often take their disappointment and frustration out on each other. Even a strong relationship can be severely strained during this transition time.

So what can couples do to lessen the conflict between them and improve their relationship as they adjust to becoming parents? Here some suggestions to help you keep your relationship positive and strong.

Communication is key

  • Talk to each other. Tell your partner how you’re feeling and what changes would help you feel better. Be sure to avoid criticisms and attacking language, such as using “always” and “never,” which only escalate conflicts. For example, stay away from statements like, “You never help out around here,” or “You’re always late coming home.” When partners hear things like this, they only think about defending themselves instead of truly listening to what you’re saying.
  • Listen. Really, truly listen to your partner’s concerns. Try not to become defensive with each other and instead, look at things from a problem-solving perspective.
  • Be understanding. Make the time and effort to find out what’s going on in your partner’s world from his/her perspective. For example, new moms are biologically hardwired to focus on caring for their newborns and don’t stop to think about how that feels to her partner. While moms don’t intent to exclude or ignore, it is often how dads feel. As a consequence, dads can act out their anger and frustration at feeling left out.

Define a new normal for awhile

  • Welcome help and support. It is perfectly appropriate to ask for and accept help from others. Families used to live in the same area generation after generation, and these relatives helped while first-time parents adjusted to their new roles. That’s often not true today. Instead, accept help from friends, family, co-workers, your religious organization, or community programs that offer it. Ask for help if needed. There is no gold star given for doing it alone.
  • Lower your expectations. It’s OK to let household chores slide or not cook homemade meals. As new parents, your focus should be on caring for baby and taking care of yourselves, which includes getting adequate sleep and bonding as a family. Some other things may need to lapse temporarily and that’s fine. As children grow and parents adjust, these things will once again be addressed.

Returning to work

  • Establish a new routine. Once one or both parents return to work, give yourselves time to work out a new routine. Review it every few weeks and adjust it as needed so that it works for both of you. Understand that finding what works for you both make take some trial and error and it will be unique to your situation.
  • Divide and conquer. Work out a division of labor that seems equitable to both of you. Caring for children, especially infants, is very work intensive. Arguments about “who does what” are common causes of relationship problems for new parents. Find solutions that work for you both then follow through on your part of it. Agree to tweak it as you find what works and what doesn’t.

Appreciate each other

  • Check-in daily. Make time to touch base with your partner daily, even if it’s only 5 minutes. Listen to his/her concerns and be supportive, but don’t try to solve the problems. Sometimes we all need to just vent and know that our partner is there for us. The biggest connections between partners can come from the small moments of feeling heard and valued.
  • Small gestures matter. Leave a note or send a text letting your partner know you’re thinking of them. Thank them for doing something helpful especially when you didn’t even have to ask. Let them know what a great mom or dad they are already. Even a small thing will show that you still love and appreciate your partner.
  • Make time for yourself. Give each other some “me” time on a regular basis, in a way that feels fair to both of you. We all need some time to ourselves to recharge and to stay connected to the person we were before becoming a parent. Revisit your arrangement and adjust it as needed.
  • Time together is important, too. Schedule some time together on a regular basis to have some fun. Too often couples become consumed by the demands of working and parenthood and they neglect each other. Make having fun together a priority!
  • Schedule time for intimacy. No, it doesn’t sound romantic, but with the busy life of new parents, it’s often schedule time for this or it never happens. It’s important to remember that you are both not just parents; you are the partners who fell in love enough to create a family together. Take the time to continue letting your partner know how special he/she is to you and how much you still value them as a person and as a partner.

And remember: Keep your sense of humor! Sometimes the way we look at things and the attitude we take makes all the difference between a big fight and a good laugh!

– Karen Duffy, LPC, NCC is an IFS coordinator with the Beaumont Parenting Program

Finding my tribe

group of women friends

I couldn’t be as effective at parenting as I am without my mom tribe. In fact, I have a few. Each one serves a different purpose for me. One is a person, I belong to a twins group and an online group. I tried getting into another one, but it just wasn’t for me.

My person has been there, done all of it with three kids. She knows when I need to vent, when to worry with me and when to tell me to get over it. I need that. We all do.

In the earliest days of my motherhood, I made sure to find out if Beaumont’s Parenting Program accepted adoptive families. The director was very understanding and got us into a multiples group in the next cycle. It was wonderful. Now, five years later, we still meet with three of the families regularly. I love them. I loved being in a group of people who had two babies at the same time. We all had dark circles under our eyes. We all went through it together. One day, I hope to be invited to those kids’ graduations and even weddings.

My online tribe is more of a secret, like Fight Club. We just lay it all out there. It’s a safe place to rant, swear, and be disenchanted with children and partners. It’s also a great resource for swapping items, a great knowledge storehouse for childhood illnesses, and it’s way cheaper than therapy. They are my people.

The fourth tribe is an amazing group of women working on their online business. I liked them a lot, but in the end, we weren’t a good fit. And that’s OK. I still admire their product from afar. I found the distance in that relationship that I needed and struck a balance.

We all have our “go to” group or friend to help us get through the craziness of parenting. At least, I hope we do. We all need someone to reaffirm that no, you are not losing your mind. Your child is just nuts right now, but don’t worry. It will pass. It always does.

It really does take a village to raise a child. But, more importantly, I think it takes a large suburb to raise an effective parent.

– Rebecca Calappi is a freelance writer, adoptive mom to twins and past Parenting Program participant. Surprisingly, she’s mostly sane.