Kids, Impulse Control and Public Spaces

kids and impulse control

kids and impulse controlI was not at the Cincinnati Zoo when that 4-year old bolted from his mom into the enclosure. I am not an expert on gorillas or on zoo design. I don’t know the child in question or his parents (some reports state dad was there, too, although he’s not come under fire like mom has). We do know that it was a tragedy — a child (and his family and the bystanders) were traumatized, a 17-year old gorilla lost his life.

Preschoolers are developing their impulse control; they don’t already have it. You might have heard about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. That’s the test where researchers sat down with children 4 to 6 years old and gave them a marshmallow. The researcher tells the child something like, I need to leave and you can eat that marshmallow or you can wait and then you’ll get a second marshmallow when I get back. Then the researcher leaves the room and observes what the child does through a one-way mirror. And what they found is that the younger a child is the more likely they are to eat the marshmallow.

Young preschoolers, they are bird (marshmallow) in hand type people.

And then there are those children who have a harder time with impulse control. Those kids tend to be more active, less scared, more persistent (the ones who will nag nag nag you) and less concerned about punishment and reward. They are kids who live in the RIGHT NOW. These are the ones who eat the marshmallow before the door finishes closing behind the researcher. That’s a temperament thing; some kids just have more impulsive personalities than other kids and will need more support, understanding and opportunity to develop their self-control.

Back to that marshmallow test. They’ve looked at it a lot over the years and one of the things they’ve found is that children are able to delay gratification (be less impulsive) when their environment is “reliable,” i.e., when their environment is more predictable.

Here’s a video that explains that:

Now I want you to think about this when we think about young children in public spaces, where reliability is generally lower. If you’re at home or at your daycare or at your babysitter’s, you pretty much know when you’ll eat and what you eat. You know where the bathroom is. You know when your little sister goes down for her nap. You count on this consistency.

Then there’s the zoo that — with all it’s fun and excitement — is extremely unreliable. You will likely have to wait for the potty, It may be one of those scary self-flushing potties. Your juice might be warmer than you like it or be the wrong juice or the wrong straw. Your dad promises you that you’ll see the snakes but when you get there the exhibit is closed. Children have finite resources to draw on so even a child with pretty good impulse control might hit their limit at places that lack reliability.

I’ve been to the zoo with a slew of 4-year olds (my own and other people’s including some pretty hectic trips with a whole preschool class) and I know that at a certain point everyone is tired, grouchy and done-in. For any child — not just one who’s struggling with impulse control — this is the point where the lousy behavior comes out. Stand at the exit of a zoo sometime and watch how many kids are carried (or dragged) out sobbing. Notice how many wrench free of their parents’ hand or let go of the stroller or their parents’ back pocket to run to the cotton candy stand or souvenir store with their parents hollering at them to “Get back here!”

This time it was something far more dangerous with tragic results. On another day it might have just meant a lecture or a time-out.

Like I said, I wasn’t there and I didn’t see it. I don’t know that child or his parents and I’ve never been to the Cincinnati zoo so I can’t speak to the efficacy of the barriers around its exhibits. But I do know 4-year olds. Events like these are blessedly rare but impulsive behavior by preschoolers is not.

The Labyrinth of Life


labyrinthWhen I was twenty I was dating someone who was sober and so I was attending Al-Anon meetings both to support him and because my (also sober) best friend was encouraging me to go. At that time in my life I had this idea that getting sober was an event with a before (drinking) and an after (no drinking). I don’t know why I thought this but I think it was part and parcel of being twenty and not knowing very much and thinking that things could be as easy as that. Back then I thought there was a finish line marked “success” and that grown ups who had any sense were living there and that’s where I — and my boyfriend and my best friend — were headed because we were doing what the experts said, going to meetings, stepping forward one day at a time.

I trusted the straightforward path with straightforward rules and I trusted that as long as we were moving forward and following the rules we would end up at the finish line. I didn’t know then that life is more like a labyrinth — meant for wandering — and that there is no finish line. I didn’t understand that life is process and it’s the process that matters.

When I began working at a women’s shelter in my mid-twenties, the life-as-labyrinth became clear to me. I expected shelter to be a point of resolution, the place where Before met  After. But most of our clients were moving in circles that were slowly (we hoped) growing wider. They were living — and in many cases reliving — their particular crises, gathering information as they went. Instead of a signpost, clearly delineating the way, our shelter program was a rest stop: a place to be nourished and nurtured (if the client wanted our nourishment and nurturing) but not a step towards anything in particular unless she chose to make it one.

I remember one client in particular, who I will call Jill. She was a stand-out client, the one we asked to speak at our fundraisers and the one whose story we told when we wrote grants. She came to us after her time ran out at another shelter and she worked our program hard, managing the myriad of appointments that she had with us and with the other programs — the programs for jobs and housing and care for her kids. She would put her two children in a make-shift double stroller and head out the door to push them up the big hill in front of our building to get them to the top where all the buses lined up, heading out to meeting after meeting. She did this because she wanted to and because she was ready to. She wanted to stay sober and safe; she wanted a better life for her kids than the one she’d been living.

She was amazing and she remained a success story after she left our program securing a good job, long-term housing, and therapy for herself and her boys. But it wasn’t because of us (her case managers); it was because she sought us out and thankfully, we were there. I have no doubt that our presence had an integral role in her life but she was the author of her own change. She was able to see a way out of the circle in her labyrinth to someplace wider with better opportunity.

Here’s what’s important: it was not her first stay at shelter. She’d been there before when she had only one child and was still using, eventually going back to the man who hurt her. That first visit with us she wasn’t ready so she left (actually she was asked to leave when she came back to shelter drunk).

Did her success the next time around make her a failure before? No, not in the big picture. Her failure in our program was part of her process in life’s labyrinth. Jill’s way was complicated, as it is for many of us. The first time she came to shelter is as important as the second because it’s where she had to be before she could get to where she was going. She is the one who came to us the second time, she is the one who remembered the way and she is the one who used our help differently than she was able to use it before.

In my own life I see the same widening of a circle that looks familiar. I meet people and think, “Oh, it’s you again!” a particular kind of relationship I need to get better at, a friendship that feels an awful lot like a friendship I’ve lived before. There’s always something to learn on the way, a better understanding of who I am and who I want to be. Parenting my kids is a chance to reexamine the ways I was raised. Arguing with my husband is a chance to understand each other better. Sometimes the sameness seems stifling and then I know it’s time to find my way to another part of the labyrinth, that the frustration I’m experiencing is a sign that it’s time to grow.

Healing is a process. Where someone is in their process is where they are. Perhaps they can hear only every other thing we say or maybe only every third or four or fifth or even TENTH thing we say. Perhaps a client will have only one epiphany in a program or in counseling but that epiphany may be enough to get them to turn a corner six years down the line. Maybe one day they will remember that thing they learned and that will be the important thing they need to step out of the path they’re on. Or maybe they will not get any epiphanies but they will learn that there are places where people will sit and listen to you; that there are places where hope drives the conversation. Maybe what they need to know is that there is refuge for when life gets too complicated, for when they’re finally ready to stop and rest awhile on the way to where they’re meant to be.

Teens, the Internet and Toxic Support

teens and the internet

teens and the internetThe internet has brought us a lot of nice things like kitten videos, the ability to watch only the funny parts of Saturday Night Live and really great gifs. But it’s also brought us a lot of ugliness, sometimes in the form of support groups that can actually make people sicker.

There are a number of web sites populated by young teens and young adults that perpetuate the very illnesses they purport to help. These are blogs, hashtag communities (where users find each other via hashtags on social media accounts) and message boards centered around eating disorders and self-harming.

Here are two articles (one recent, one not) that talks about the research that’s sprung up around these virtual communities:

Parents of tweens and teens have a hard time navigating the sticky, complicated waters of online safety and groups and sites like these make things even trickier. I’ve had plenty of kids come to my office with an online support system that really worked for them. I’ve also had kids who were learning specific ways to be sick — or strengthening their identity as someone who is sick — because of their online community. Because a site that says it focuses on, for example, recovery can still be a place where people compete to be the most ill. After all, if you get completely well then what happens to those friendships? Kids who are hurting crave connection, even when the connection is harmful.

Now I love the internet and I’ve been participating in online communities since about 1995 so even though this scares me, too (I mean, I’ve got kids and I care about the kids who I see in my office and I care about the kids my kids and your kids run around with) I don’t think that the answer is to lock down all things internet mostly because it isn’t realistic. Even if you have all the security settings on your home network, there are library computers, friends’ laptops, and friends’ phones and iPods. Our digital kids are smart — smarter than we are — and they will find work arounds if they really want to find them.

(Do you know how many of my teen clients who aren’t allowed to have an Instagram account or a Tumblr or whatever but who manage to have those things anyway? Almost every single one of them — and that’s just the ones who admit it to me. They’ll post from a friend’s phone or add the app at school and delete it before they get home.)

I’m not sharing this information to scare people; we need to know what’s out there so we can figure out how we’re going to handle it.

This is why I encourage parents to think about the advantages of allowing their child access to Tumblr or Instagram with caveats, like that safe mode stays on, the account stays private (or stays anonymous) and that you’re going to be monitoring them. If you find out that every Instagram account they’re following is tagged with #secret_society123 (that’s a proana hashtag) then you know it and you can do something.

But don’t just monitor for the yucky stuff, ask them to show you the fun stuff. Go ahead and sit through an episode or two of their favorite YouTuber, ask them to share the community they’ve found on Tumblr, get involved just like you do with their real life experiences so that if and when you need to intervene you’ve already built it into your relationship. The internet won’t be something you fight about; it’ll be something you talk about.

Just like we don’t keep our children from participating in the great big real life world because there are some really scary things it, so we shouldn’t keep them from participating in the great big virtual world. Our kids need to know how to manage being an online citizen; we’re the ones who have to teach them.


My big move


As some of you know, I recently moved my office just across the street. I moved for several reasons but the biggest was that maintenance on my old building was becoming an issue for my clients and for me and I wanted to give the people who come to see me a better experience than that.

My new office has the same conveniences of my old location (easy access to 71, 270 and 315 — close to the grocery, library and shopping) but there’s greater privacy, better snow removal and better natural light. (Ok, that last one is something I probably notice more than my clients but boy am I enjoying getting to see outside more!)

I also have more space in the playroom, which makes it easier to work with the wriggly kids who might need to roll, tumble or stretch out while they play. I’ve only been there a week but already I can see how this is going to benefit therapy sessions with my youngest clients and that’s been enough to make the move worth it.

I have to tell you that when I began planning my practice in 2012 I was eyeing the office space I’m in now but it wasn’t available when it finally came time to sign a lease. My dad used to work on the 2nd and then 1st floor when my family moved here in 1978 and my siblings and I loved going in with him on weekends to play on his secretary’s electric typewriter and draw with her fine-tipped Flair pens; I have good memories of that building. So I was very excited to find just the right space available when it came time to leave my old office.

I’ve been posting pics everywhere and I’m going to post some here, too. Click to make bigger!

The Myths of Good Parents


The Myths of Good ParentsWe do not raise children to go out into the world and be perfect and build perfect relationships with perfect people. That would be impossible. We raise children to be good enough to build good enough relationships with other good enough people. Therefore, good parents are, by definition, not perfect. It’s our imperfections — deftly handled — that will help our children to grow up and handle other people’s imperfections with compassion, understanding and good boundaries.

With that in mind, these are some of the pervading myths of good parents.

Myth: Good Parents Don’t Get Angry.

Actually good parents do get angry. Sometimes they even yell and stomp around. But good parents work hard to manage their anger appropriately, apologize when they handle it inappropriately and work to get help if their anger feels out of control or truly scary. Good parents need to know that their children are going to deal with people who get angry (otherwise known as: everybody) for their entire lives. They also know that their children are learning how to handle their own anger so they learn to see the everyday challenges of living as learning opportunities for all of us.

Myth: Good Parents Always Enjoy Their Kids.

No. they don’t because the children of good parents are not always enjoyable. ‘Nuff said.

Myth: Good Parents Have it All Figured Out.

Actually good parents get that this parenting thing is a process and it’s changing all the dang time as kids move from one developmental stage to another. Good parents may feel great about parenting a 3-year old and absolutely lousy about parenting a 13-year old or vice versa because those are totally different kinds of parenting, which take a totally different skill set. Good parents get help (books, friends, therapists) when they feel stuck and most good parents will eventually feel stuck because parenting is hard.

Myth: Good Parents are Fair.

Nope, good parents try to be just but they are not always strictly fair. That might mean different bedtimes, different chore expectations or different privileges for different kids. Sure, sometimes good parents take the easy way out and just buy everyone the same pack of gum — no arguing! — and other times they wearily wade into explaining yet again that just because your sister gets to go to a birthday party doesn’t mean that you get to go to Kroger’s to pick out a cupcake. Good parents learn to withstand tears and sorrow with sympathy but without giving in. Sometimes they don’t because, remember, good parents are imperfect.

Myth: Good Parents are Patient.

In fact, sometimes good parents are patient and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes good parents don’t have the energy to be patient or they’re having bad days. Good parents learn to bring this experience to build empathy with their own impatient kids.

Myth: Good Parents Have Clean Houses, Lots of Home-Cooked Meals and Amazing Holiday Traditions.

Ummm, sometimes? Sometimes not. Good parents do some things really well and other things not so great. Good parents may be terrific softball coaches with filthy kitchens. Good parents may know how to make a mean pot roast but can’t make cookies to save their lives. Good parents don’t always remember to buy pumpkins in time for Halloween or advent calendars in time for Christmas. Good parents don’t always have money for the tooth fairy. Good parents sometimes don’t notice their kids have grown out of their tennis shoes until they notice them limping across the playground. Good parents forget to pack the diaper bag.

Myth: Good Parents are Confident.

Sure, sometimes good parents look at a parenting challenge and say smugly to themselves, “Yeah, I got this.” But lots of other times good parents lie in their beds wondering if that decision they made about homework or screen time or dessert was the right one after all. They work hard to model the great grand work of self improvement, understanding and relationships. They live complex lives that sometimes create challenges they hoped their children would never have to face — divorce or death or depression. They struggle and worry and fret. They move forward because they have to, not always because they’re sure.

Myth: Good Parents are Consistent.

This is one of the things every parenting book says: Be Consistent. And it’s true that consistency will save you a lot of trouble in the long run. If you always say no to the candy aisle in the grocery check out line your kid won’t necessarily stop asking (or whining) but they’ll learn that when you say no, you mean it, which will come in handy when they’re teenagers. But sometimes the candy seems like a good idea because you’ve got such a headache that you’ll say yes to anything to get them to shut up. Good parents sometimes make short term decisions just to cope because life is like that.

Myth: Good Parents are Born, Not Made.

No way. Most of us have to work hard — ongoing — to be good parents just like we have to work on our skills to do anything else well (play tennis, bake yeast breads, create killer TED-inspired presentations, etc.). Good parents sometimes get tired of all of the self-growth and effort that being a good parent takes, particularly when they look at the 2-year old wailing on the floor or contemplate the disaster-area of an 11-year old’s room or note that the 16-year old is missing curfew. Then those good parents reach out to friends for a night out or call a therapist for help or reread How to Talk So Kids Will Listen again. Sheesh, says the good parent to herself, when am I gonna get it? But the good parent keeps trying.

Do you want support in the hard work of parenting? Contact me. I’m a big fan of helping parents (and the kids who love them).