For many kids, Halloween is an important social event, and for some, their favorite holiday. Below is a link to tips from the CDC on how to make the annual fun safer for those who participate.
Social coaching is about observing the obstacles that are getting in the way of a child or teen, and depending on the nature of the child or teen, directly or indirectly pointing out what we see happening, and offering up some food for thought.
Here are some actual instances this past week where food for thought was needed:
A child who was repeating the word suicide and thinking it was funny, or trying to shock everyone. The food for thought there was to think about the possibility that someone in the group had lost someone they loved to suicide, and how funny would it seem to that person. It would not. It would be extremely hurtful.
One of my male teens deliberately inserted himself into a conflict that was occurring between four girls. His food for thought was why he felt the need to do that. Was it just for the thrill of being involved in the conflict or enjoyment of the drama? Was he trying to help? Was it a good idea to get involved?
And, the conflict that he was involved in? One of the girls was playing with a large exercise ball and refusing to kick it around and share it with the other girls. It developed into the girls trying to get the ball from her, arguing with her, and then ultimately excluding her from the group. Her food for thought? Was it worth having her own way to the detriment of having a relationship or friendship with the other girls? When the group started, they were all nicely interacting together. Does getting your own way (and being inflexible about it) overrule the desire or need for positive relationships?
Social coaching involves asking these questions and letting the child or teen do some thinking. Many times, once they have a chance to reflect for a few minutes, you will see the child or teen moving in a more positive direction. Other times, they stand by the negative choice. In those instances, the food for thought is that they have chosen the consequence of their choice, will need to live with the outcomes, and only they have control over whether or not they want to try a different dish at another time in the future.
My nuclear family crew have historically not been the greatest of communicators, leading to conflicts and misunderstandings. We have agreed to, and have been actively working on this as a family, and seeing some nice improvements. Even as grown adults, we can all still work to improve in the areas that are troublesome. For us, it includes fully listening, clarification on what we hear, and clearness in the messages we send and speak.
One important rule that we follow, and that I teach to parents and educators, is to make sure that we are addressing the action or the problem to be solved, and not attacking the person. Examples sound like:
- You’re just lazy, versus, I’m frustrated that the trash wasn’t taken out.
- You don’t ever listen to me, versus, I really would like to finish what I am saying.
- You just don’t care about anyone else, versus, I need to feel as though what I say or think matters.
When we address the action and not attack the person, we have a much greater chance of better communication, getting our needs met, and the lessening of conflicts. Try the “I” statement rather than the “You” accusation language and see what happens in your interactions.
Conversation skills are something that many parents ask us to work on when we are social coaching kids. The ability to initiate and sustain a conversation can prove a huge task, taking a large degree of effort, especially for kids with a known social communication difficulty. There are ways to break down a conversation into parts.
Conversations are made up of just two elements, comments and questions. So, kids need to learn to make a comment and ask a question. If you decide to practice this at home, two comments to each question is a good start, and then switch roles.
Some kids get stuck on asking questions. We can simplify this component by teaching kids that most questions in a conversation are WH questions. Who, What, When, Why, Where, Whose, Which, and How (which contains a W and an H).
A conversation practice session could go something like this:
Q: Who is your teacher next year? A: Mrs. Smith.
C: I hear she’s really nice. C: She doesn’t give a lot of homework.
Q: Where is your homeroom? A: On the second floor.
C: That must mean you are in 5th grade.
Q: When does school start in your town? A: September 8th.
C: I start on the 16th. C: It will be two days in school and three days at home.
Q: How do you get to school? A: I ride the bus.
C: My mom drives me.
Q: What is your favorite subject? A: Math
C: You must be good at math. C: I like science the best.
If your child struggles with conversation skills, have them memorize the WH questions and think of them as a tool in their communication toolbox. If they are ever in doubt during a conversation, they can enter with a WH question on the topic being discussed.
Friendships don’t just happen. Well, maybe there is that occasional friendship at first sight. And even then, in order for that friendship to grow and continue, there has to be an effort. When kids are little, parents make the effort for them by scheduling playdates or befriending other moms. As kids grow, we should be teaching kids how to take over the reins of their friendships.
What should kids know about attaining, maintaining, and sustaining friendships?
- In order to have a friend, you need to be friendly. A person who seems unapproachable will seldom be approached.
- Make the first move. Throw out a non-commital friendship feeler. Something such as, “Hey, do you want to hang out sometime?” or “Do you like to swim? I’d like to have you over to my pool one of these days.” Gauge the reaction. A positive one means that the next step is to follow up with an actual invitation. A lukewarm or negative one means that they aren’t interested at this time and to throw that feeler out to someone else. Keep working. Keep throwing. It will eventually catch.
- Keep scheduled playdates as much as a priority as a doctor’s appointment.
- If a friend cancels plans, it is then up to them to re-schedule. You may want to make a 2-strike rule, but a friend who cancels more than twice without re-scheduling is not behaving like a friend.
- There should be a balance of power in friendships. Both kids should have a fair shake at playing what they want to play or creating a plan for a playdate. One child should not always be giving in to another just to keep a friend. Kids can nicely but assertively speak up and say something such as, “We did what you wanted to do, so now it’s my turn to pick.” Friends who do not participate in give-and-take in a relationship are not willing to do the work of having a friend.
- Friendship takes two, or three, or more. One person cannot be expected to carry the entire load of keeping the friendship going.
If you want something badly enough, such as having friends, you can make it happen. It doesn’t happen by sitting home and moping about not having friends. It doesn’t happen by not talking to anyone in your class. It doesn’t happen by magic. It takes work.
When I was 5-years-old, I got caught shoplifting. We were at a local vegetable and fruit stand and I saw one of those big carpenter pencils. I wanted it to draw with, and I took it. I knew what I was doing was wrong, because I hid it. Back in the car, I took it out to admire it and my mother saw me with it.
She immediately knew what I had done, and turned the car around. She walked me back into the store and, through my tears, had me confess, apologize, and promise to never to it again. And guess what? I haven’t. A life of crime was not for me.
Kids can be naughty. And they can be naughty on purpose. My mom made no excuses for my behavior and I felt ashamed that day. Not shamed in the way we use the term in the more current culture, but embarrassed by the knowledge that my own choices had caused that consequence that day.
There are two occasions that I remember working with kids that this concept of a healthy amount of shame came up, with different outcomes. In one instance, one of the kids had been targeting another during group with mean behavior. When the conflict escalated and the second child tried to defend themself, that first child tried to blame the second one. Since I had witnessed the entire situation, I wasn’t buying it and told the first child that I had seen it, I wanted it to stop, and that she had asked for and deserved the response she had received. I then left her to think about it, and you could see the struggle with a small dose of understanding that she had done wrong. After a time, she rejoined the session and we continued from where we had left off. The mean moments ended.
On another occasion, a child deliberately destroyed something in my office that was important to the people who were working on it. When I firmly called them to the carpet about that choice, there were tears. I explained that the feeling they were having was something called shame. It was okay to feel it, and should be felt when we do something that we know is wrong. Unfortunately, the story that the parent got about the incident was that it was an accident, and the parent took the child’s untruth as truth. What does that teach? That you can get away with things and people will make excuses for your choices.
I’m not talking at all about shaming children who struggle with symptoms of ADHD or have other challenges. I’m talking about the deliberate naughtiness that all children are capable of. Shame is an emotion that all humans feel. Negative emotions exist for a reason. A healthy dose of shame is part of our moral compass. When we do something we know is wrong, shame helps us find our way back to right.
Most adults would fill in that blank with “so.” “Because I said so” is a phrase that kids hear pretty frequently. In my experience, when I am in the “because I said so” mode with kids, they either ignore my request in its demand form or increase the times they push up against that “so” and behavior increases rather than decreases.
Children are a pretty savvy group of people these days. If you think about it, it’s a good thing not to be a blind follower of what someone tells you to do. But how are we, as parents or adults who work with kids, get them to follow the rules or do as we ask?
It occurred to me one day running a group that maybe kids would do better if I explained the reasoning behind the request or the demand I was making. As an example, my group room has a slippery laminate floor, so we have a rule about not running and sliding in stockinged feet. Over and over, my staff and I found ourselves being on kids for doing precisely what we asked them not to do. “Because I said so” wasn’t working. I sat them all down, and I said that I wanted to try something different. I explained that I realized that many times, grownups said, “because I said so” about something and never told kids why. I noted that grown-ups don’t make up rules to be mean or to stop kids from having fun. So I said from now on, I would tell them “why” I had a specific rule or made a particular request.
In the example above, I told the kids that the rule about not sliding around in their stockinged feet was first and foremost to keep them safe from falling and hurting themselves on a hard and unforgiving surface. The second was to keep the walls of our group room from getting damaged. It happened three times when sliding feet turned into knees through the wall. I keep one of those holes unrepaired and covered by a bookshelf as an example of the “why” I have that rule, and I show it to kids who need to see it to understand.
I promised the kids that from now on, I would work hard to say “because I said and why” instead of “because I said so” and that they were allowed to ask me “why” if I should forget. One of the boys breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Miss Donna, why can’t all adults do that?” Well, maybe this idea might catch on, and this guy’s wish will come true. It only takes a minute to give a child a “why.”
It’s a high-anxiety time of year for kids. Let’s think about it from their standpoint. Many of them are being watched by an Elf on the Shelf who reports back to Santa. Some kids may be receiving threats from parents that if they don’t behave, Santa won’t bring them anything but coal for their stocking. Santa’s naughty or nice list is VERY real for children whose families have Santa as part of their season.
Over the last two weeks, the kids in social groups have demonstrated that anxiety through INCREASED behavior manifestations, not less. Anxiety in children exacerbates irritability, moodiness, defiance, and the ability to self-regulate. Kids who already struggle with self-regulation are finding it nearly impossible. Besides excitement, there is a great deal of fear. The fear creates increased “naughtiness.” Kids become even more anxious that they won’t make the cut on Santa’s list, and their perceived misbehavior continues at a higher rate. It’s a vicious cycle.
What to do? I tell the kids that effort is all that Santa is really looking for. If you try your best and make mistakes, Santa understands that. You can help decrease a child’s anxiety around this by praising their efforts. Maybe have the Elf-on-the-Shelf leave stickers that say “great effort” or “I know that you are trying!” While I wish that Santa was unconditional, the story surrounding how he watches for naughty and nice is part of the picture. Let’s have Santa also watch for effort and give our little people a chance to relax a little more around this time of year.
This is a true story about flexible thinking, a skill that is one of the hardest ones for many of the kids at our center. It can be difficult for adults, too. Back on November 29th, the day after Thanksgiving, I and my significant other Mike had made some plans. The plan included dropping off a vehicle that we use as an extra family “rental” car because there were problems with the brakes, even after my son had replaced them. It also needed a safety inspection sticker, and the emergency brake wasn’t working either. We found a Midas Muffler near where we also wanted to go hiking that day while they were working on the car. We had, what we thought, as a solid plan for the day.
We picked up the vehicle as scheduled, and drove it around the corner to the car wash for a wash and a vacuum. The car had no gas in it, and we discovered four pretty much flat tires. We found that the air pump at the car wash had something jammed in it so that we couldn’t fill them there. I knew there was a gas station not that far away, so we went there to put fuel in the tank and air in the tires. Mike was driving the vehicle that needed repair, and I was following him around in our car. He was pushing the brake pedal to the floor and praying each time that he would be able to stop.
We got to Midas Muffler only to find that it closed. Now, that was disappointing, as their website had allowed me to schedule an appointment. There was a sign on the door saying they were closed for the holiday. We just looked at each other and said, okay, what do we do next? Mike wondered aloud if putting some brake fluid in might help and there was an Autozone right there. So we drove to that parking lot. Just for fun, Mike checked all the fluids to find that that the car was running on empty, everything empty. So we went into Autozone every kind of liquid the car could take. Still no luck with the brakes, and he was not wanting to keep driving it if we didn’t have to.
The next idea was a Chevy dealership that was close by. We pulled in there and asked if they could help. They said, sure. We can take it in next Wednesday. We were like, um, nope, but thanks anyway. So now what? By this time, we figured that our hiking plan was off the table.
Mike mentioned that we had passed a Munroe Muffler on our travels that were open, so we gingerly drove the vehicle there. They were very accommodating and happy to take a look at it. Even though it was 1:00 in the afternoon by then, we decided to go off and do the hike we had planned since were still weren’t that far away. It ended up being a beautiful day for it.
Once back at Munroe Muffler, we discovered they didn’t bleed the brake lines as planned as they were afraid it would cause to much pressure and other parts to break. We were told that the emergency brake system was non-existent. It is still a mystery as to what happened, and no one is talking. We thanked them and then decided that the ever-evolving plan now included taking the car home, having a nightcap, and dealing with it by taking it to the local mechanic up the street on Monday. On Monday, we had over 2 feet of snow here, so the car didn’t move until Wednesday, where it still sits as of this writing the mechanic’s shop, and I wait for word.
So why tell this story? Because over the course of the day, and many times in our day-to-day lives, Mike and I work with what we call the ever-evolving plan. It is what we call it when we need to use our most flexible thinking, but curveballs and roadblocks can somedays come non-stop. It also helps us shift our thinking from being stuck and frustrated to adapting and moving forward to another step. It is a lot better to laugh together over all the changes in plan than to get angry and upset, which solves nothing.
This type of flexible thinking is challenging for some people. Many of the children who come to our center struggle significantly in this area. Once the first need to adapt shows up, some people may give up and shut down. It is also a hard concept to teach, but stories like this can be a tool. You can also try books where kids need to make different choices along the way to adapt to the story and change the outcome. When kids can learn life itself is an ever-evolving plan, we can give them the tools they need to adapt and overcome those abrupt or frustrating changes of plans.
As a veteran of stressful family gatherings. I (Donna) can tell you that I never attended a family gathering that looked like the one in the picture. It was always a dream, but never the reality.
Relatives in large groups can be a lot of fun, but can also easily overwhelm your child’s social skills abilities. Kids who become stressed by changes in routine, noise, smells, and their emotions more easily overcome extra demands. They may implode and be clingy and shy, or they may explode, and behaviors may escalate.
Prior proper planning can help alleviate stress — preview with your child who will be there and what they may expect. In my family, one my side, we tend to do holidays in an express-like fashion. We eat, we visit, and we call it an early night. On my boys’ dad’s side, it was an event that extended long into the evening with board games. Neither of my ADHD/Anxious/Sensory sons did well with long family events. One way we helped them was for each of us to take a car. That way, when the boys had enough, the one who’s family it wasn’t could take them home. Fortunately, they are both in their 30’s now and can drive themselves home!
Another way you can plan is to remember to bring any specific food requirements your child may have. They may need particular snacks to help them on a long drive. Bring a bottle of ketchup if your kid puts it on their turkey with you just in case your host doesn’t have any or if the bottle that grandma has expired in 2016 (believe me, this ruined a Thanksgiving one year, and I felt so badly for my kid). Hey, and if your child only wants to eat the dinner rolls, relax, it’s just a holiday.
Now might be a good time to pack a calming kit (Nadine and I talk about this in our I Feel Worried book) with items that help soothe your child. A scented pillow, a favorite stuffy, coloring materials, gum, squeeze ball, are all ideas to add. You might also want to consider picking up a new toy (for example, a small Lego kit) as a different item to keep your child busy if there is a long wait for dinner. There is also nothing wrong with allowing a little screen time in a quiet area if your child needs it to regulate.
You might also consider positive behavior reinforcement with a small point system or token jar to help your child stay focused and on track — layout your expectations. For example, 1. Use your manners. 2. No going under the table, 3. Hands to yourself, 4. etc. I suggest no more than four. Then, tally up the points at the end of the day and have a small prize when they earn all the points. Please do not make hugging or kissing mostly-unknown relatives an expectation. Allow your child to wave or offer a high-five instead.
So what do you do if your child does lose it or starts to misbehave? Do what you would do at home. Take them to a quiet spot away from prying eyes. Allow a break in the action. We have to beware that we don’t behave more harshly towards our kids who struggle because we feel we are being watched and judged.
And sometimes, being judgy is the case with family members. I can’t tell you how many times we as parents of these guys hear, “if you would just ________” he wouldn’t behave that way anymore. Or, the other one, “if he were my kid, I would _________.” Well, he isn’t your kid. The best response that I have come up with for relatives who only see your child in snippets is to thank them for their experience and input, and then do what you know is right for your child. You are the expert on what your child needs. Stay true as their social coach during these significant social events, and you will both make it through the turkey dinner!