Parenting Blog: Media Marketing

A Parent’s Guide to Media-Marketing and the Thinness ‘Ideal’

How To Help Your Child Understand Media-Marketing, Advertising And Body Image

Have you ever wondered how to help your child navigate the media minefield of advertising and body image? Do you find it difficult to teach your daughter about self-acceptance when society appears to preach a different message? How do you teach your kids to critically appraise the marketing messages promised to them?

Children of all ages are presented with advertisements on a daily basis, produced by a billion dollar industry that is highly skilled at influencing the way we think and behave. It is impossible to raise our children in a protective ad-free bubble and, with the exception of the very young, perhaps we shouldn’t try – some of our kids may yet grow up to be top marketing executives! Rather, I think it is helpful to understand some of the strategies behind advertising and to teach our children to do the same.

My favourite example of a successful advertising strategy producing large-scale societal influence (albeit in adults) is the campaign launched by the Wilkinson Sword company in 1915. Up until that year, Wilkinson Sword had made razor blades for men but, wanting to increase sales, it launched a sustained marketing campaign targeting women. The aim of this advertising blitz was to convince women that underarm hair was both unhygienic and unfeminine – essentially to create a problem that women had previously been unaware of. Within two years, the sales of razor blades had doubled and before too long, the notion that women’s underarms ought to be hairless was accepted as ‘fact’.

This was a well executed example of the advertising strategy to:

  1. highlight a problem (or if necessary, create one),
  2. exacerbate anxiety about the problem in the target audience and
  3. offer (i.e. sell) the solution.

But this particular formula didn’t stop at razors. At some point, society started to be ‘sold’ the notion that beauty equated with extreme thinness. Unfortunately when you try to fit such a ‘problem’ into this three-step advertising strategy it gets a bit complicated. For while it has been easy to foster anxiety about our body shapes, the reality is that there is no readily available ‘solution’ and yet our society has accepted this thin beauty ideal as ‘fact’. And since so many different industries have bought into this impossible ideal (fashion, weight-loss, beauty, fitness…the list goes on…) it’s easy to see why many of us experience a state of constant body image anxiety. For advertisers, all that needs to be done is to tap into this anxiety to sell us their product, be it shoes, clothing or make-up, with the promise of looking a little bit more like their similarly attired waif-like models.

I believe, that akin to the razor blade campaign, we have been ‘sold’ a problem. A problem that is untrue and unsolvable. But while parents continue to model acceptance of this beauty ideal at home, it’s impossible for children to learn to do otherwise. Now I’m not trying to portray advertisers as the bad guys, nor do I believe that we are blameless victims. But just as it’s important for children to learn to appraise the claims of advertising companies with knowledge and objectivity, they also need to learn how to similarly consider the way that the media so often portrays beauty.

So how do we teach our kids to be media-savvy, particularly in relation to body-image?

Importantly, we need to consider the two ways that our children learn from us: by watching what we do and by listening to what we say. It sounds simple but for many of us, the messages that we wish to teach our children clash with our long-held beliefs about our own bodies.

  1. What we do…

Model Self-Acceptance: Your body is amazing so be thankful and celebrate it. Celebrate it’s function – it’s ability to run, jump, dance, sing, think, love and for many of us, to grow wonderful children. Celebrate it’s appearance. Perhaps you’ve got lines on your face from forty years of smiling. Or your skin on your belly stretched when it was making room for a growing person inside – that’s amazing; And beautiful. Say so out loud so that your children can hear you. Don’t be critical of your body or of those of others’. Remember, the words you use will be the same ones that your children will one day echo.

Adopt Healthy Eating and Exercise Habits: Eat healthily just as you encourage your children to do. Eat ‘sometimes’ food sometimes. Eat ‘always’ food always. Talk about energy intake, not calories. Look after your body because it looks after you. Move and exercise because it’s fun and makes you feel good. Avoid diets.

Expand your own ideas about beauty: Beauty isn’t just about body size. Beauty is also about internal qualities such as kindness, happiness, patience and joyfulness. And about external qualities such as strength, health and ability – qualities that we can all aspire to.

Don’t support the industries that try to sell us the thinness = beauty myth. If you don’t buy the glossy magazines with skeletal celebrity frames on the cover then they can’t be left lying around for little curious eyes to absorb. Be similarly mindful with toys. Children are naturally drawn to dolls of all colours, genders, sizes and occupations. They enjoy exposure to diversity, not unattainable sameness. We should not only support but celebrate that diversity.

  1. What we say…

When you think your child is old enough, teach them to look critically at advertising strategies. Psychologist Melissa Johnson suggests a great activity to do with your kids which she calls “What is the product? What is the promise?”. You and your children can do this together when watching ads on TV or when looking at printed advertising and the key is deciding together whether the promise matches the product.

This can be quite fun, especially when it goes something like this:

You: “Okay, let’s spot the promises…” You and your kids: “Friendship”,  “Fun”,  “Beauty”, “Love”, “Really shiny hair”; 

You: “What is this actually an ad for? What is the product? Oh, chewing gum. Well, what do you think? Does the promise match the product?” 

Of course, not all advertisements aim to sell ideals that their product cannot possibly deliver but we can certainly teach our kids how to assess this for themselves.

When your child is older you may be able to have frank discussions about body image and the “thinness ideal” but remember that your child learns far more from what you do than what you say, so unless self-acceptance has been modelled at home, then your child cannot be expected to adopt these beliefs based on your discussions alone.

More so than ever before, our children are growing up in an age of unavoidable media exposure. While there are certainly some advantages to this, there is also the never ending barrage of marketing spin, some of which is intentionally designed to induce self-doubt. And alarmingly, this starts in childhood. But consider it this way: What would you do if you bought something that was falsely portrayed and unworkable? You’d return it. So do it. Return the beauty myth that you’ve been ‘sold’ and exchange it for a more workable truth. And know that by modelling this for your children, you are giving them a far greater gift than anything money can buy.

Parenting Blog: Speech Development

Speech and Language Development and Delays in Young Children

Children are learning to communicate with us even from birth and their understanding of language begins soon after.

Speech and language development plays a critical role in children’s social development, their behaviour, their learning of early literacy skills and in the development of their self-esteem.

How you can encourage your childs speech and language development:

  • Start talking to your child at birth.Children start to understand the language we use long before they can use it themselves. We can talk to our children about what we’re doing and what our plans are for the day. The more children hear and see us speak with them, the quicker they will be able to learn how to talk themselves.
  • Respond to your baby’s coos and babbling as your baby’s attempts at conversation. Pause and take turns listening and talking – you are starting to teach your child important social skills.
  • Play simple games with your baby like peek-a-boo. Play is a great opportunity for face-to-face language based interaction with your child.
  • When your child is talking to you, make sure you listen patiently to what he is trying to say. Look at him and give him as long as he needs to respond. Make sure you acknowledge your child when he is talking and answer his questions to reinforce his efforts.
  • Read books out loud to your baby or young child. Make this part of your daily routine and encourage a love of reading.
  • Ask questions, tell stories and sing songs together
  • When your child is talking in single words or short sentences, repeat his comment or request as a full sentence, not to correct him but to model what you want him to learn, e.g. If your child says “milk” you can respond with, “Can I please have some milk? Yes of course.’’
  • Similarly when he is learning grammar and the correct use of pronouns, don’t criticise your child, but instead model the correct grammar or use of pronouns for him in your responses, e.g. if your child says, “me want food”, you can respond with, “Can I please have some food? Sure. What would you like?”

Normal developmental milestones for speech development:

By the age of 1: After many months of babbling and gesturing, a child will usually say his first words around the age of 1, e.g. “Dada”, “Mama”, “Hi”.

By 2 years of age: By the age of 2, children can usually string at least 2 words together and will be learning more and more words every week.

By 3 years of age: 3-year-old children will have a word for just about everything and will usually be understood by familiar listeners such as family members.

By 4 years of age: By 4, children are generally understood by unfamiliar people outside of the family too. They speak in sentences and have a good use of grammar and pronouns (e.g. adding ’s’ sounds to indicate plurals; using ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘we’, ‘they’ etc)

By 5 years of age: Children can often hold conversations and tell a story by this age. They may still make mistakes with some of the harder speech sounds, such as ‘r’ and ‘th’.

When to be concerned:

If your child is not talking by 18 months, or if you’re concerned any earlier, it’s a good idea to seek the advice of your family doctor or child health specialist.

Often your doctor will suggest a hearing test. Even if your child had a hearing test at birth, this is still a good idea to make sure that ear infections since birth haven’t affected your child’s ability to correctly hear speech sounds. Depending on the findings, your child may then be referred to a speech therapist. Speech therapists have wonderful skills and programs to assist even very young children to develop the communication skills that they need.

*For simplicity, children are referred to using masculine pronouns (‘he’/‘his’) in this article, although the information equally applies to girls.

Dr Kaylene Henderson is passionate about sharing practical, research based advice to help you feel more calm and confident while raising kind, resilient and socially and emotionally healthy children. 

Click here to find out more about her acclaimed, research based online course series for parents, Raising Good Kids: Managing Behaviour and Emotions that you can watch on your iPad, smart phone or computer from anywhere in the world.

And here for the corresponding course series for early childhood professionals, Raising Good Kids: Managing Behaviour and Emotions in Early Childhood Care and Education Settings.

Parenting Blog: Screen Time

Screen Time Recommendations for Infants and Young Children

Media use in preschoolers and school-aged children has been linked in studies to health problems, language delays, attention issues, aggressive behaviour and sleep difficulties. There have been fewer research studies in children under the age of two, but concerns exist about the potential for greater negative effects. Given there are no known benefits of media viewing in this younger age group, paediatricians recommend limiting media exposure, including exposure to background TV, in infants and very young children.

When we do allow children to watch TV or to use our iPads or hand-held devices, there are things we can do to limit the potential for negative effects:

  • Make it interactive: Stay with your children so that you can talk about the content and help them make sense of what they’re exposed to.
  • Extend their learning: Help your children make connections about what they’re seeing on-screen and what they can find or do in the real world. If they’re watching a show about animals, look for those animals in books afterwards or pretend to be those animals in your play together after the show.
  • Be careful with content: Young children are unable to distinguish between on-screen fantasy and reality, so they can easily become frightened by TV content. Turn off the TV if no-one is watching so that it doesn’t distract you or your child during the day and save your adult viewing until your children are in bed.

While it’s helpful to know how to limit the potential for negative effects, it’s also helpful to know of a healthier alternative to screen-time – play. Unstructured playtime is much more valuable for a young child’s developing brain than any electronic media exposure, including exposure to those programs or touchscreen games which are described as educational. It’s important that we set limits on how much and how often our children are allowed screen time, because play is simply better for them.

Dr Kaylene Henderson is passionate about sharing practical, research based advice to help you feel more calm and confident while raising kind, resilient and socially and emotionally healthy children. 

Click here to find out more about her acclaimed, research based online course series for parents, Raising Good Kids: Managing Behaviour and Emotions that you can watch on your iPad, smart phone or computer from anywhere in the world.

And here for the corresponding course series for early childhood professionals, Raising Good Kids: Managing Behaviour and Emotions in Early Childhood Care and Education Settings.

Parenting Blog: Body Safety

Talking With Children About Body Safety

Just as we teach children about road safety and ‘stranger danger’, it’s important to teach our children about body safety. Statistically, children are at greater risk of sexual abuse than being hit by a car or abducted by a stranger. Yet this is a subject which parents are often reluctant to approach with their children.

Here are some tips that you might find helpful when speaking with your young child about body safety:

  • Teach your children the correct anatomical names for their body parts.
  • Explain that there are parts of our bodies which are private, and just for us. These include our genitals, bottoms and mouths.
  • Educate your children to never let anyone touch these private parts of our body or to touch another person’s private parts, even if they ask him/her to. (There may be medical exceptions in which children need to let others touch certain parts of their bodies, but Mum or Dad will then be present).
  • Teach your children that their bodies belong to them. No-one can ever make them do something with their bodies that they don’t feel good about. This even applies to adults.
  • Explain to children what they can do if anyone ever tries to touch the parts of their bodies that are just for them: They can say no, shout out or run away if needed, then go straight to a trusted adult to tell them what happened.
  • Don’t encourage your children to keep secrets. Instead, teach them that the only secrets that we should keep are fun surprises, such as birthday gift purchases or upcoming surprise party details. Secrets which make a child feel bad or uncomfortable shouldn’t be secrets at all. Your child needs to know that they can tell you anything and you will always do your best to help.
  • Books: There are some great children’s book which have been written on the subject of body safety, including ‘Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept’, ‘My Body Belongs to Me’ and ‘Everyone’s Got a Bottom’. Books such as these can provide a great focus for these conversations.

Dr Kaylene Henderson is passionate about sharing practical, research based advice to help you feel more calm and confident while raising kind, resilient and socially and emotionally healthy children. 

Click here to find out more about her acclaimed, research based online course series for parents, Raising Good Kids: Managing Behaviour and Emotions that you can watch on your iPad, smart phone or computer from anywhere in the world.

And here for the corresponding course series for early childhood professionals, Raising Good Kids: Managing Behaviour and Emotions in Early Childhood Care and Education Settings.

Parenting Blog: Talking about Death

Talking With Young Children About Death

Has your child experienced the death of a loved one?

Helping a young child to understand and deal with death can be challenging for parents.

Here are some tips that you might find helpful when speaking with your young child about death:

  • It’s important to speak with your child honestly, using age-appropriate language.
  • Be careful of your wording. Saying that a loved one has ‘passed away’ or that you have ‘lost’ someone can be confusing for young
  • Death is a very difficult concept for children to understand so taking the time to answer all their questions is very important.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak about your loved one who has died. Frequent conversations about your relative’s death are more helpful for children than one long and detailed explanation.
  • Some families find it useful to make photo ‘memory books’, plant a special tree or to commemorate their relative in some other way – perhaps you could ask your child for his/her ideas about this?
  • Read books on this subject with your child which can help normalise this experience and bring comfort and understanding.
  • Don’t lean on your child for help or comfort. You may need your own support through this sad time and it’s important that you don’t add to the stress experienced by your child.

Children often find the death of a family member or friend difficult to adjust to. Sometimes this is reflected in children’s moods, sleep, appetite and behaviour. Children need our patience and understanding as they struggle to come to terms with the permanent nature of this sad loss.

If you or your child are struggling to cope with a death of a loved one, it’s best to seek professional help. When children learn early to cope with stressful situations such as grief, they can acquire helpful skills which will also serve them well all through their lives.

Dr Kaylene Henderson is passionate about sharing practical, research based advice to help you feel more calm and confident while raising kind, resilient and socially and emotionally healthy children. 
Click here to find out more about her acclaimed, research based online course series for parents, Raising Good Kids: Managing Behaviour and Emotions that you can watch on your iPad, smart phone or computer from anywhere in the world.
And here for the corresponding course series for early childhood professionals, Raising Good Kids: Managing Behaviour and Emotions in Early Childhood Care and Education Settings.
Parenting Blog: Toddlers and Siblings

Helping Toddlers Bond With New Baby Siblings

Siblings are such an incredible gift for young children yet strangely toddlers don’t always seem to appreciate these gifts as much as we think they should. In fact I’m sure many toddlers sometimes wish they could ‘re-gift’ their new baby siblings. Sometimes it’s difficult to have empathy for how massive this life change is, especially when we’re the ones who have been up all night. And at those times (if we’re not too sleep-deprived for imaginings), it can be useful to picture OUR lives and relationships being suddenly and dramatically changed…

Something a little like this perhaps…

You and your husband are completely in love.

Then, one day, quite unexpectedly, he sits down and excitedly announces that he will soon be bringing home another woman; To live with the two of you permanently; Whether you like it or not.

Sure enough, a few months later, a new woman arrives in your home. She is young and so gorgeous that random strangers in the shopping centre come over to ogle her. They seem not to notice you. When you’re back at home, she wants to spend much of her time physically attached to your husband. It seems that since she arrived, not only are you expected to share your husband, but everything else that used to be just yours too. She’s made no effort to be friendly or to contribute to the household since she arrived and yet, oddly, everyone assumes that you’re thrilled with this new arrangement!

Worst of all, your husband seems to be up all night, every night with his new love and is too tired to spend quality time with you during the day.

Forgive me for asking but at what point did this seem like a good idea??!

Now don’t get me wrong. The arrival of a new baby sibling can be wonderful for a family. It just doesn’t always seem like that at the start. Or at least not for the toddler. A baby’s arrival brings enormous changes for your child and it’s important not to lose sight of that in the sleep-deprived haze of newborn-parenthood.

So here are my tips for helping your toddler adapt to and bond with her new baby sibling. Some of these are drawn from my clinical experience and theoretical knowledge, but most come from my experience as a mother of three young and loving siblings:

BEFORE YOUR NEW BABY IS BORN:

  1. Encourage bonding with your ‘listening belly’: Just as you will start to bond with your baby even before his/her birth, so too can your toddler. Let your toddler know that her soon-to-arrive sibling can already hear her, even from inside your belly. This provides wonderful opportunities for interaction when you’re chatting, reading or listening to music with your toddler, e.g. “Your big sister and I are just about to read a book now baby. You’ll be able to listen to it from inside my tummy and when you come out, we’ll be able to show you the pictures too”, or, “I wonder if you like this song too – your big sister picked this one for us all to listen to”. You get the idea.
  2. Read stories about new baby siblings: There are quite a few books which have been written to help prepare toddlers for the birth of new baby siblings. We read “I’m a Big Sister” by Joanna Cole (who has also written a big brother version). I particularly liked this story because it explains that babies ask for what they need by crying. My empathic oldest child was very reassured that babies were simply communicating in this way and were not always sad. Once her baby sibling had arrived, I could then ask for her help to work out why her baby sister was crying – “I wonder if she’s trying to ask for a feed or a sleep, what do you think?”. Assisting in this way can bring a welcome sense of responsibility for your toddler.
  1. Look at your toddlers baby photos with them: Again, I made a little book for each of my daughters a few months before their next baby sibling was expected. In it, there were photos of their hospital stays, of being kissed and cuddled and of using all the baby equipment (e.g. baby capsule, sling, playmat, bassinet etc) so that they understood that they had enjoyed these when they were babies and it would soon be our new baby’s turn.

AFTER YOUR NEW BABY IS BORN:

  1. Your hospital stay: If you, like me, choose to have your babies in hospital, there are things you can do to make this separation from your toddler less distressing. Each morning and night my children and I video-called each other via mobile phone (my phone and my husband’s phone…not my toddler’s by the way), so that we were able to say our good-nights and good-mornings, despite being apart. I’m aware that this won’t be possible for everyone, but worth looking into if you can. (Kisses goodnight can get a little messy on the phone screen-cover). Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to be my usual physically interactive self after the birth, I also packed quiet activities that my young visitors would be easily able to do in my hospital room (puzzles, colouring in etc) and planted little treasure hunts around my room for their visits (which worked perfectly as I was able to stay comfortably still for the hunt while they ran around my room).
  1. Be prepared for newborn gifts: People are often incredibly generous when you have a baby but toddlers can often feel left out. Either stash the baby’s gifts away and open them after-hours or have a small supply of pre-wrapped gifts that you’re happy to bring out for your toddler if she seems to be struggling with this.
  1. Encourage your toddler to help: This doesn’t include running a bath or putting the baby to bed (tempting some days, I know) but your toddler can certainly be asked to help in other ways, e.g. “Which do you think would be a better outfit for your baby brother today – this one or that one? Thanks for helping”. And, if you have a particularly helpful toddler at home, she can certainly assist by passing you nappies, wipes, or joining you as you gently massage your baby together.
  1. Ensure life goes on as usual: Of course, everything isn’t normal (especially not your energy levels), but the birth of a new baby sibling shouldn’t mark the end of all fun activities if possible. If you can still manage to get to your toddler’s favourite playgroup sessions with a new baby in tow, then try your best to do so. Otherwise you risk your toddler making the association between ‘birth of sibling = end of fun stuff’ which isn’t the best for sibling bonding.
  1. Dont complain (within earshot of your toddler): This one’s pretty self-explanatory. This is a huge change and your toddler is monitoring everything you say and do to help her inform her own attitude towards this change. If you wake every morning complaining about how your new baby kept you awake all night (even if he did) and so it’s the baby’s fault that you’ve got no energy to jump on the trampoline, then your toddler will soon get a sense of a you versus baby dynamic and inevitably side with you. Instead, if you want your toddler to THINK positively about your baby, you’ll need to consciously SPEAK positively about your baby.
  1.  Spend time all together: It’s great if you and your partner can at times spend 1:1 time with each of your children (known in our house as ‘dividing and conquering’). But it’s also important that you spend quality time with your toddler and baby together. Our favourite activity during this early stage was ‘smiling practice’. I explained to my toddler that babies need to learn everything – they even need to learn how to smile. Then, when our baby was happily awake, my toddler and I would gaze at her and smile. My toddler was proud of her role in teaching her younger sibling the art of smiling and when our baby finally smiled back at her, she was completely delighted.
  1. Quality toddler time: Just as it’s important to spend time together it’s also important not to lose 1:1 time with your toddler. I would say to our baby as I was putting her to bed (ensuring that my toddler was within earshot) that it had been lovely spending time all together but that while she was asleep, her big sister and I would now be spending some special ‘big kid time’ together and that we would see her when she woke up. A great tip is to enjoy special time with your toddler but to ensure that you save her very favourite activities for when her baby sibling is with you both. The risk of doing your toddler’s favourite activities only when the baby is asleep is that your toddler might soon assume that life would resemble some sort of blissful nirvana full of loving attention and favourite things … if only the baby would sleep forever…
  1.  Managing feeding time: As you’d remember, newborn babies take a long time to feed in the early days to weeks. Often mothers find this to be a difficult time, attempting to engage their toddlers while remaining stationary enough to feed their infants at the same time. A helpful idea is creating a box of ‘special feeding activities’ that are only produced during the baby’s feed time. This can include some new books, little toys or puzzles. Again, it’s about creating that positive association about the baby in the mind of your toddler. If your toddler enjoys books, feeding time is the perfect time to have your child cuddle into your side while your baby feeds on the other, enjoying a book together.
  1.  Talk to your baby about your toddler: Before I’d had my second child, I’d heard mothers describe feeling guilty for gazing at their babies in front of their toddlers. Gazing at babies is incredibly important for bonding but it also plays a critical role in their brain development. A lovely easy way to have this time with your newborn is to gaze at your baby while you chat to him about his big sibling. Your new baby will only take in your eyes, your facial expression and your tone. Your toddler will notice your words. It’s hard to be resentful if what your toddler hears is, “Gosh, I bet you can’t wait to grow up and play hide and seek with your big sister. She’s lots of fun you know – I bet you’ve already worked that out though, haven’t you? You really love her.”
  1.  When youre out and about: New babies are people magnets when in public. People you know and often people you don’t know will often comment on how lovely your baby is while failing to notice your attentive toddler. Even if your toddler doesn’t appear to notice, she probably will if you reply, “Thank you. She is lovely. And lucky too to have such a wonderful big sister”.
  1.  A word about play: Two things are important to mention here. The first is that your toddler might well want to role play being either the parent or baby in her play. My children have all taken turns carrying around a toy baby in a capsule, worn baby slings fashioned out of scarves and sat beside me and breastfed their dolls. It’s all perfectly normal, for both genders. Aggressive play is also normal. If your toddler is hurting a baby in their play, it’s a good opportunity to acknowledge aloud that she seems to be feeling angry towards the baby. Play provides a wonderful opportunity for children to make senseof the changes in their life and communicate their difficulties with you. As long as it’s clearly understood that real aggression towards your real baby is not okay.
  1.  Understand the feelings behind your toddlers behaviours: Some toddlers are able to express their feelings in words. Others will communicate their distress through their behaviours. This is a challenging time for your toddler and while they need limits, they also need your understanding.
  1.  Enjoy this stage for what it is: Lastly, enjoy this life stage. There will be days when it will seem like a major achievement that you all survived. But I’m quite convinced that no-one ever lies on their death bed wishing that they’d had more sleep. Rather, it seems more likely that people reflect back on these years and wished that they had cherished them.

*For simplicity, children are referred to using feminine pronouns (she/her’) in this article, although the information equally applies to boys. 

Dr Kaylene Henderson is passionate about sharing practical, research based advice to help you feel more calm and confident while raising kind, resilient and socially and emotionally healthy children. 

Click here to find out more about her acclaimed, research based online course series for parents, Raising Good Kids: Managing Behaviour and Emotions that you can watch on your iPad, smart phone or computer from anywhere in the world.

And here for the corresponding course series for early childhood professionals, Raising Good Kids: Managing Behaviour and Emotions in Early Childhood Care and Education Settings.

Parenting Blog: Separation and Divorce

Talking With Children About Separation and Divorce

Parental separation and divorce is increasingly common and inevitably impacts on all family members. Children, particularly young ones, can become frightened, confused and worried that they are somehow responsible.

Talking to your child about divorce and separation can be very difficult.

Here are some tips that you might find helpful when speaking with your child about your separation or divorce:

  • Do not keep your impending separation a secret or let your child know just at the last minute.
  • Sit down with your child and, ideally, with your partner, to let your child know together and answer any questions she might have.
  • Keep the information simple and be sure to specifically tell your child that your relationship breakup is not her fault.
  • Do not blame your partner or discuss each other’s faults with your child.
  • Try to avoid arguments in front of your child. Research shows that children fare best in these challenging situations when their parents avoid conflict and commit to cooperating on behalf of their children.
  • Acknowledge that this will be a difficult and upsetting time for all of you. You all feel sad that you will no longer be together as a couple and your child can come to both of you with her feelings if she’s finding this new change hard to adjust to.
  • Reassure your child that even though you won’t be a couple, you and your partner will always be her parents. Your love for your child has not and will never change. Nor will your interest and involvement in your child’s life.
  • Don’t lean on your child for help or comfort. You will need your own support through this challenging time and it’s important that you don’t add to the stress experienced by your child.
  • Read books on this subject with your child which can help normalise her experience and bring comfort and understanding.

Children often find the separation of their parents difficult to adjust to. Sometimes this is reflected in children’s moods, sleep, appetite and behaviour.

If you or your child are struggling to cope with your separation or divorce, it’s best to seek professional help. When children learn early to cope with stressful situations, they can acquire helpful skills which will also serve them well in later life.

*For simplicity, children are referred to using feminine pronouns (‘she’/‘her’) in this article, although the information equally applies to boys.

Dr Kaylene Henderson is passionate about sharing practical, research based advice to help you feel more calm and confident while raising kind, resilient and socially and emotionally healthy children. 
Click here to find out more about her acclaimed, research based online course series for parents, Raising Good Kids: Managing Behaviour and Emotions that you can watch on your iPad, smart phone or computer from anywhere in the world.
And here for the corresponding course series for early childhood professionals, Raising Good Kids: Managing Behaviour and Emotions in Early Childhood Care and Education Settings.
Parenting Blog: Childhood Tics

Expert Tips for Childhood Tics

Child Psychiatrist Advice for Tics in Children

Does your child incessantly sniff? Have a cough with no cause? Blink or twitch for no reason? It might be that your child has a tic. But before you go checking his hairline for a small burrowing insect, read on for all you need to know about childhood tics.

Childhood tics are quick, repetitive movements or sounds that your child feels like they have no control over. Tics often appear suddenly, most often in young, school-aged boys. They are common, affecting up to 25% of children at some stage, although some kids appear to be unaware of them. Tics also seem to run in families along with ADHD and OCD, suggesting a genetic link between these conditions.

Tics in children are divided into four categories:

  1. Simple motor tics: These movements are the most common tics in kids. Examples include eye blinking, facial grimacing or jerking movements of the body.
  2. Simple vocal tics: These simple sounds can include sniffing, throat clearing, grunting or coughing.
  3. Complex motor tics: These complex movements (which can appear deliberate) include actions such as smelling objects, walking, twirling, jumping or mimicking the behaviour of others.
  4. Complex vocal tics: These are generally words or phrases although might be said out of context or in a way that echoes what has just been said.

Tics in kids can change over time. For example, a child who at first has an eye-blinking tic might have a facial grimacing tic instead a few weeks later. And while tics in children tend to occur many times each day, they can also come and go, disappearing for days or even weeks before returning.

While tics occur quite commonly in children, the percentage of kids who go on to have a chronic tic disorder is much lower. Diagnoses of Chronic Motor or Vocal Tic Disorder are made when children have had EITHER motor or vocal tics which have lasted for at least one year. Rarer still is Tourette’s Disorder in which children have had BOTH motor and vocal tics (although not necessarily at the same time) for at least one year. Compared with common childhood tics, only about 4-5 in 10,000 children will go on to develop Tourette’s Disorder.

How you can help with your child’s tics:

While most kids with tics report that they have no control over them, occasionally children can suppress their tics for a few seconds or even minutes. Sometimes parents mistake this to mean that their child can stop their tics if they try hard enough. Unfortunately the attention, stress and frustration which sometimes accompanies this belief tends to make the tic worse.

Instead, it’s more useful early on to draw as little attention as possible to a child’s tic. Tics usually occur less often when the child is relaxed, absorbed in an interesting activity or asleep. In contrast, stress, fatigue, illness and boredom seem to increase tics for many children.

Other useful strategies include educating a child about tics, reassuring him that tics are common and often short-lived and teaching relaxation strategies to lower baseline levels of stress. Sharing information about a child’s tics with his teachers and friends can also be useful.

For some children with persistent tics, a behavioural therapy technique known as ‘habit reversal therapy’ has been shown to be helpful. This involves teaching the child to become aware of the sensations that arise when a tic is imminent. Once the child has learnt to identify these warning signs, he is taught to deliberately perform an alternative sound or action which appears more socially appropriate and which interrupts and reduces the tic. These techniques are usually taught by a Psychologist or Psychiatrist and are then practised at home.

When to seek help for tics in children:

While most tics in children will disappear as suddenly as they appear, some will come back at times of stress. A small percentage of children with tics will go on to be diagnosed with a chronic tic disorder. Unfortunately there’s no way of predicting which of these future outcomes will eventuate.

If any of the following are present, seek the advice of your Family Doctor or Child Health Specialist:

  • if your child is particularly self-conscious, anxious, distressed or having difficulty
  • functioning as a result of his tics
  • if your child’s tic has been present for longer than 12 months
  • if other symptoms are present. Childhood tics can also occur in the context of a genetic or neurological condition, as a side-effect of medication or following an infection.
  • if you’re worried. After all, parents know their children best and if you’re concerned, this is reason enough to seek expert advice.

*For simplicity, children are referred to using masculine pronouns (‘he’/‘him’) in this article, although the information equally applies to girls.

Dr Kaylene Henderson is passionate about sharing practical, research based advice to help you feel more calm and confident while raising kind, resilient and socially and emotionally healthy children. 

Click here to find out more about her acclaimed, research based online course series for parents, Raising Good Kids: Managing Behaviour and Emotions that you can watch on your iPad, smart phone or computer from anywhere in the world.

And here for the corresponding course series for early childhood professionals, Raising Good Kids: Managing Behaviour and Emotions in Early Childhood Care and Education Settings.

Parenting Blog: Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety Disorder in Childhood

Separation Anxiety in Children

It’s normal for young children to not want to stray too far from us. We are animals after all and survival instincts tell our young that too much distance or time between them and us is a risky thing. For this reason, the developmentally normal ‘stranger anxiety’ and ‘separation anxiety’ that infants and young children experience is thought to be hard-wired. That said, the intensity of this ‘normal anxiety’ differs depending on the child’s temperament and on how responsive her caregivers have been to the child’s need for comfort and closeness.

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation Anxiety Disorder is different. It often occurs later, causes more upset and impacts upon the child’s functioning. The anxiety is simply too much, so that instead of serving to protect the child, it distresses and impairs and is therefore considered a disorder.

According to the DSMIV (one of the diagnostic classification systems used by Psychiatrists), Separation Anxiety Disorder is defined as developmentally inappropriate and excessive anxiety concerning separation from home or from main caregivers, with 3 or more of this list occurring:

  • recurrent excessive distress when separation from home or main caregivers is anticipated
  • persistent and excessive worry about losing, or about possible harm coming to, main caregivers
  • persistent and excessive worry that an untoward event will lead to separation from a main caregiver (eg getting lost or being kidnapped)
  • persistent reluctance or refusal to go to school or elsewhere because of these separation fears
  • persistently and excessively fearful or reluctant to be alone or without major caregivers at home or in other settings
  • persistent reluctance or refusal to go to sleep without being near a main caregiver or to sleep away from home
  • repeated nightmares involving separation themes
  • repeated complaints of physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, nausea, vomiting etc when separation from a main caregiver occurs or is anticipated

These symptoms need to last for at least 4 weeks in a child or young adolescent and cause significant distress and impairment of functioning to be considered a disorder.

Separation anxiety disorder is common, occurring in approximately 4% of children, affecting boys and girls equally. While it can have its onset earlier, it seems to be most common in 7-8-year-olds.

Why are some kids affected by Separation Anxiety Disorder?

Like most mental health issues, the causes are many and varied and often it’s the combination of several of these factors that’s responsible. Genetic vulnerability to anxiety, shy inhibited temperament, a recent death in the family, parental separation/divorce, or illness in either parent or child are all factors which might contribute. Children are also very good at picking up on their parent’s cues. As a result, sometimes a child perceives (rightly or wrongly) that her parent needs her to stay close. This might be due to her parent’s own anxiety, due to the parent’s desire for the child’s company or assistance, or due to a parent’s ‘need to be needed’.

Just as the causes vary, so too does the presentation of separation anxiety disorder. School refusal, reluctance to go to school camps or friend’s houses without a parent, nightmares, insisting on sharing their parent’s bed or following Mum or Dad around the house are all examples of how Separation Anxiety Disorder might present. Some children will become tearful when separated from their parent, others will tantrum, become distracted, nervous or aggressive. Parents can often feel frustrated and burnt out. It can feel hard to get the balance right between providing comfort and closeness while also encouraging bravery, independence and a sense of competence.

So what’s next? The good news is that treatment for Separation Anxiety Disorder is readily available. As with most mental health issues, the earlier that intervention is sought, the quicker recovery is likely to occur. In the first instance, seek an assessment from your child’s Family Doctor who can then refer your child to a Child Psychiatrist or Psychologist, depending on your child’s needs. Treatment will then depend on the age of your child and the severity of their symptoms. Education about anxiety and its contributors, relaxation strategies, cognitive behavioural therapy, liaison with school teachers / guidance officers are all considered useful treatment strategies. It’s important to make sure everyone in your family and treating team have the same goals in assisting your child overcome the anxiety. In some severe or prolonged cases, medication (often using a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor ‘SSRI’) in addition to the previously mentioned treatment approaches can also be useful.

*For simplicity, children are referred to using feminine pronouns (‘she’/‘her’) in this article, although the information equally applies to boys.

Dr Kaylene Henderson is passionate about sharing practical, research based advice to help you feel more calm and confident while raising kind, resilient and socially and emotionally healthy children. 
Click here to find out more about her acclaimed, research based online course series for parents, Raising Good Kids: Managing Behaviour and Emotions that you can watch on your iPad, smart phone or computer from anywhere in the world.
And here for the corresponding course series for early childhood professionals, Raising Good Kids: Managing Behaviour and Emotions in Early Childhood Care and Education Settings.

References:

American Psychiatric Association. DSM-IV-TR: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Text Revision. American Psychiatric Press; 2000
Kaplan BJ, Kaplan VA. Kaplan and Sadock’s Synopsis of Psychiatry: Behavioral Sciences/Clinical Psychiatry. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2003

Parenting Blog: Pica

When Children Eat Non-Foods – Otherwise Known as Pica

The word ‘pica’ comes from the latin word for ‘magpie’ since these birds are known to eat just about anything.

What is pica?

Very young children, under the age of 18 months, will put a range of things (other than food) in their mouths but repeatedly eating items which are considered ‘non-nutritive’ (ie not food) after that age is generally considered abnormal. These non-foods can include dirt, clothing, paper, toothpaste, hair, glass, paint, string, stones…the list goes on. It seems to depend largely on how mobile the child is as to what they can access.

The word ‘pica’ is defined differently depending on where you look but the DSM-IV (the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) calls for “persistent eating of non-nutritive substances for at least 1 month that’s developmentally inappropriate and not culturally sanctioned and severe enough to warrant clinical attention”. This therefore excludes some cultural practices such as the eating of clay or soil in various parts of the world.

How common is pica?

Because of the inconsistencies in the definition and due to the general under-reporting of these things, it’s difficult to know how prevalent pica is among children. That said, figures of between 10-30% of young children have been quoted. It seems to be most common amongst 2-3 year olds with the incidence reducing as they get older. It also seems to be much more often seen among children with an intellectual disability or an autistic spectrum disorder. Girls and boys are affected equally.

Why does pica happen?

Researchers haven’t found the answer to this yet and, as is often the case, it’s likely that pica happens in different children for different reasons. Some children with pica are found to be iron and/or zinc deficient. There’s also been a suggestion in some studies that pica might be a compulsion for some children, like those seen in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Some other kids seem simply to like the sensation of different objects and textures in their mouth.

Is pica dangerous?

This will depend on what items the child is ingesting. Worrying non-foods include faeces or soil which might expose the child to parasitic infections, lead-based paint, stones or gravel which might damage the child’s teeth and/or cause intestinal blockages etc.

What to do?

Even though pica in children with normal intelligence usually resolves without treatment by the time they’re teenagers, all kids with pica should be reviewed by their Family Doctor.

  1. What your Family Doctor will do:
    Your Doctor will want to consider what is causing the pica for your child and look for any evidence of harm caused. He/She might also ask questions about what access your child has to dangerous items and about signs of intellectual impairment and autism given that these conditions sometimes occur together. Your child might need a blood test to check for mineral deficiencies. Depending on the duration and severity of your child’s pica, your Doctor may suggest a referral to a Paediatrician, Child Psychiatrist or Psychologist.
  2. What you can do:
    Learn about pica and try to prevent your child’s exposure to dangerous items. Consider locking up things like cleaning liquids, bleach, paint etc. For those children who seem to seek the sensation of different textures in their mouths, popcorn is sometimes a useful alternative. If no other cause for your child’s pica is found, try to notice whether there are triggers for your child’s pica behaviour and discuss with your Family Doctor whether behavioural strategies might be useful.

Dr Kaylene Henderson is passionate about sharing practical, research based advice to help you feel more calm and confident while raising kind, resilient and socially and emotionally healthy children. 

Click here to find out more about her acclaimed, research based online course series for parents, Raising Good Kids: Managing Behaviour and Emotions that you can watch on your iPad, smart phone or computer from anywhere in the world.

And here for the corresponding course series for early childhood professionals, Raising Good Kids: Managing Behaviour and Emotions in Early Childhood Care and Education Settings.

References:

American Psychiatric Association. DSM-IV-TR: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Text Revision. American Psychiatric Press;2000:103-105.

Hergüner, S., Ozyildirim, I., & Tanidir, C. (2008). “Is Pica an eating disorder or an obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorder?”. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry 32 (8): 2010–1.

Kaplan BJ, Kaplan VA. Kaplan and Sadock’s Synopsis of Psychiatry: Behavioral Sciences/Clinical Psychiatry. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2003:775.

Thyer, Bruce A.; Wodarski, John S (2007). Social work in mental health: an evidence-based approach. John Wiley and Sons. pp. 133.