— 5 Simple Guiding Tips to Instill Gratitude —

By Stephanie Owen, LMFT

Teaching children to say “thank you” is often more simple than instilling gratitude, which is a lifelong process. Research has shown that gratitude is essential in one’s well-being and success because it increases overall happiness, optimism and satisfaction.

Fostering a sense of gratitude at an early age allows children to open their mind to other perspectives.  Appreciation allows children to acknowledge more about the world than only their own feelings and wishes at any given time. Even more, grateful children grow up to be more polite and kind to others, which in turn, breeds a culture of respect, sharing and giving. And the best part? Gratitude can be taught.

Here are five helpful strategies to raise a grateful child --- one who express appreciation when someone does something kind and acknowledges all they have and all those that have helped them along the way.

1.   Model through your behaviors.

The best way to teach values like gratitude is by example. Parents provide the blueprint for what to say and do. Showing kindness and appreciation through words and actions are one of the most effective ways to teach children how to feel more grateful. You can do this through respectful manners like “please” and “thank you” with your family and others as often as possible. You could also share your thoughts on what you’re grateful for throughout your day. For instance, while going out for a walk, you could share positive thoughts about the day or people you come across, even in your short interactions, which teaches gratitude for the simple and seemingly mundane events that are often ignored.

2.   Share empathy during the hardest times.

Empathy is a crucial emotion needed for developing gratitude and moral behavior. It will also give you a sense of appreciation for your child when it’s needed most. When your child tantrums or yells, remind yourself that they’re wounded inside and are showing their feelings the best they know how. I love Sandra Wilson’s quote, “Hurt people hurt people.” Kindness through empathy is taking a moment to step away from a problem you’re having and see it from their perspective. Instead of yelling back, take some deep breaths and say, “I can see you’re feeling angry… I feel that way sometimes, too.” By doing this you’re appreciating their feelings and acknowledging their desire to share them.

3.   Use strengths to promote gratitude.

Recognizing and identifying your child’s key strengths will reinforce their ability to help others and cooperate, which will ultimately help them feel more grateful for who they are and what they have to give. Inspire and encourage your children to use their strengths to help others. For instance, you can ask them to help make dinner because one of their strengths is prepping meals, or to help you clean out a closet because they’re great with organizing.

4.   Focus on intrinsic goals and efforts.

It’s easy for people to focus on material possessions that show off status and wealth, which ultimately hinders real connections and sincere gratitude. It’s your job as a parent to help children navigate away from extrinsic goals and bring them towards intrinsic  goals for the good of our community and internal growth. Encourage your child to acknowledge those who’ve helped them reach their goals, such as talking about their teachers, counselors, and family members who are continually contributing to their success. You might also take your child to visit less privileged conditions or donate old clothes and toys as a way to appreciate more of what they have.

5.   Be patient.

Gratitude has the foundation of genuine relationships and it cannot be learned overnight. It will take time before it becomes a habit. Keep in mind that a lot of ‘no’s’ while reinforcing acknowledgment of what they already have will bring lots of tears and yet what you’re instilling now will make an even bigger positive effect. Next time your child asks for something he wants, share that you understand his feelings and desires and then remind him about what he already has to help him understand if there’s a need for what he’s seeking. Helping your child to reflect on the demand that was expressed as a command will foster a stronger appreciation. Know this will help you raise your child with an appreciation for all the little and big things.

We must help kids grow into moral adults who will make a better world with compassion and care. Anything worthwhile takes a lot of time and effort!

What else would you add to this list? Share comments below, we’d love to learn how else you’re instilling a sense of gratitude in your family! Share with others and tag a friend who could use this, too!

4 Effective Strategies to Reduce Your Child’s Anxiety

Stephanie Owen, LMFT

Chloe, 2-years-old, constantly cries as her parents go out the door for work every day. Tristan, 7-years-old, is a straight A student, but destroys everything in the house and fights with his siblings almost everyday.  Martha, 10-years-old, often snaps and is easily irritated. These behaviors all show different behavioral challenges, except with one common denominator: anxiety.

Anxiety in children often appears in a variety of ways as it is a function of physiological triggers to a real or perceived threat. Common reactions are when our body shows signs of fight, flight or freeze, which is why some children withdraw from certain situations that trigger fears and others react with aggression or freeze with panic.

Even with the best of intentions, parents often make the mistake of enabling children’s anxiety. I’m here to help you be more informed of how to spot the signs of anxiety, children’s emotional triggers and teach them coping skills to manage their feelings and thrive independently.

Here are four useful strategies to learn and apply:  

1. Awareness of the common signs of child anxiety.

Childhood anxiety can be seen disguised in many different masks. Since most kids have a hard time expressing their feelings with words, their anxiety is expressed with emotional dysregulation. Other common red flags to recognize are if children have difficulty sleeping in their own room, being away from parents, psychosomatic complaints (frequent body aches and pains), and avoiding certain activities.

2. Identify the trigger points.

Children react differently to various scenarios and triggers. It is imperative for you to recognize your child’s baseline. It is normal for children to experience and feel anxious at times and yet it becomes worrisome when it hinders their daily life. While anxiety can be influenced by a genetic component, it can also be triggered by environmental factors, like academic achievement stress, social pressures, losses, transitions, abuse or violence.

3. Common anxiety and worries of children across ages.

Below is a list of common fears and worries children may express across different ages. Notice that most of these are related to developmental changes and levels of maturity.

  • Toddlers (1-2 years) – Separation anxiety is common typically until 2 years old and can last until 6 years old. A young child is generally dependent on adults for caretaking, so being away from them is a cause for alarm. These young children feel most safe with structure and routine as changes in the environment may cause concern.

  • Preschool aged (3-4 years) – With growth and an increase in brain development, their imagination and ability to foresee negative things happening to them or others increases. Their imagination becomes more vivid with monsters and animals appearing and other scary thoughts where you find them becoming afraid of the dark and seek comfort in the middle of the night. The level of separation anxiety from parents increases alongside their increasing independence.

  • School aged (5-9 years) – Children at this age feel anxious about being physically hurt and because of the idea of “bad people.” Notice that these are reflected as children begin to imagine negative events based not in reality. You will hear them share concerns about ghosts, witches and other supernatural characters.

  • Pre-teens (10-12 years) – Most are worried about school related concerns, like academic performance and fear of exams, as well as physical appearance and peer pressures. As they become more of a separate and unique individual, they learn to compare who they are from others which creates stress.

  • Teenagers (13-19 years) – Personal relationships can be a source of anxiety at this age. As they become their own person, they still need to be guided by adults to help with school and personal challenges, including with peers. Teens  may voice concerns over political matters as they become aware of the world and movement towards adulthood.

4. Coping mechanisms to help your anxious child.

There are a number of exercises and strategies that can be done at home and at school to help children manage and be in control of their anxious thought patterns:

  • Find out what their fears are - Ask open-ended questions about their fears to understand what they’re going through more clearly

  • Be honest and validate - Try to avoid saying, “It will be fine,” which shuts your child’s worries down and instead validate their feelings with, “I hear how nervous you feel and I feel that way sometimes, too”

  • Help them practice coping skills to tolerate anxiety - Make a worry jar can reduce their anxiety by having a place to put the worries, encourage journaling out their concerns, or trying progressive muscle relaxation together by squeezing a stress ball and releasing it to more distinctly feel the relaxation

  • Monitor and manage your own anxiety - This is a huge one because your kids anxiety is a mirror to yours and they are figuring out how to cope by following your lead. Explore what coping tool works best for you and broadcast them out loud when using it for your kids to learn how what do when they feel the same

Childhood anxiety can be all-consuming, but it doesn’t have to be. It is manageable with the awareness, understanding and coping tools to build resiliency. When kids know how to recognize symptoms of anxiety and break their emotional patterns they can cope independently to be more in control.

I’d love to know more from you! What another ways have you found that have helped you better manage your anxious child/ren? What other approaches would you add to this list?

The Modern Day Parents’ Guide to Defusing Power Struggles with Strong-Willed Children

Stephanie Owen, LMFT

If you’re reading this I’m fairly certain you know you have a strong-willed child. You likely feel like a “bad” parent more days than not. Or perhaps your child isn’t who you thought they would be. You’ve probably also felt judged by others who have said you need to be more disciplined. Either way, you’re working really hard at being a parent; something you thought should be easier.

Modern day parenting comes with many pressures and little support. Parents today fear children’s strong feelings more than ever while constantly putting their needs before your own, which ultimately creates power struggles anytime to try to regain control. On top of it all, strong-willed children are outspoken, self-motivated and determined, making it that much harder for you stay patient! The upside is these children become driven and determined teens and young adults. Parents who resist the impulse to “break their will” often make strong-willed children into leaders.

If you can avoid giving in to every argument you’re invited to, you can gain strength at decreasing power struggles. Studies have shown that parents can defuse power struggles by empathically setting limits, offering choices and showing respect. To raise strong-willed children effectively, it’s key to maintain cooperation while keeping their spirited nature intact.

Here are 5 everyday strategies to help you understand and encourage cooperation:

1. Connect and direct.

Never underestimate the power of connection, as it fuels cooperation. Positive Discipline, a model of discipline I teach that promotes kind and firm parenting at the same time, has a tool called “Connection Before Correction.” Research shows that you cannot influence children positively until you first connect. Here are some simple and powerful age-appropriate strategies to try:

  • Preschoolers - Before asking them to put their toys away, show appreciation and enthusiasm about the structure they built for them to feel confident and valued

  • School-aged - Driving your children to and from school is a great time to not ask a million questions, which can feel like an interrogation. Instead, try saying, “I missed you today” and sharing something you’re looking forward to doing with them, which models vulnerability and invites connection

  • Teens - Schedule a time together that you both can look forward to together, like cooking, playing board games or an outdoor activity. Ask them to teach you something when you’re together, which they will feel encouraged and excited to share a new skill

2. Let them be heard.

When strong-willed children feel interrupted during an activity, they have difficulty moving on until their feelings are recognized. It is important to allow them to feel their feelings without judgment or moving them quicker through their emotions. This does not change what is ultimately expected from them, it’s a matter of first acknowledging and respecting how they’re feeling. For instance, when your child is feeling frustrated, you can invite connection by saying, “I notice you’re feeling frustrated.” Naming the feeling will let their guard down to feel accepted. Also, often times, simply naming the feeling might be all they need.

3. Direct and don’t request.

When a strong-willed child is asked to follow directions and cooperate the answer is usually an emphatic, “NO!” Instead of yelling back, do our best to stay calm to prevent parenting burnout and then tell them exactly what to do. For instance, with young ones you might say, “It’s time to pack away, please” rather than “Can you pack away?” The first gives a polite direction, while the second asks a question, thus giving your child the chance to not follow your request. For school-age children, you can say, “Only gentle touches, please,” compared with, “Don’t hit!” Similarly, you’re succinctly telling them what to do, versus what not to do.

4. Stay away from negotiating when it’s non-negotiable.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that most times you negotiate you likely end up in a power struggle. A practical and highly effective tool you can use when power struggles come up is to provide your child with two choices that lead to the same outcome.

For instance, if your child wants to play on their tablet and it’s non-negotiable because it’s dinner time, then give them the power in the situation with two negotiable options instead that lead to the same non-negotiable outcome of having dinner. You could let them be heard (back to #2), “I hear you want to play on the iPad,” and state the non-negotiable, “and the iPad isn’t for playing right now because it’s dinnertime,” then share two other choices that are negotiable, “you can either sit next to me or next to your brother. Where would you like to sit?” This strategy gets your needs met with the same outcome of sitting as a family for dinner while also defusing the power struggle by giving the power back to your child in the form of two choices.

5. Avoid punishment.

One of the biggest ways to support strong-willed children to listen and cooperate is to establish their trust. You want them to do what you say because they trust you and know that you have their best interest at heart. Punishment may increase their obedience in the short-term, but decreases their desire to work together with you in the long run. Research has shown the effect of punishment on children results in lower levels of moral reasoning. This means they are dependent on external control to comply. Children who trust and feel respected by parents are more open to listen and cooperate because they want to. The alternative? Consequences.

A good rule of thumb in considering what’s a punishment versus consequence is asking yourself, “Does the punishment fit the ‘crime’?” Try using family meetings as a way to address a situation by brainstorming respectful, reasonable, and related solutions to the problem. Even more, schedule weekly family meetings to continue to repair your relationships.

Strong-willed children can be extremely challenging, as well as an amazing source of love, happiness and fulfillment. By trying these strategies, modern day parenting could be a little easier with more cooperative and happier children, too.

I’d love to know more from you! What another ways you’ve found that have helped you better manage your strong-willed children? What other approaches would you add to this list?

The Modern Day Parents’ Guide to Defusing Power Struggles with Strong-Willed Children

The Modern Day Parents’ Guide to Defusing Power Struggles with Strong-Willed Children

If you’re reading this I’m fairly certain you know you have a strong-willed child. You likely feel like a “bad” parent more days than not. Or perhaps your child isn’t who you thought they would be. You’ve probably also felt judged by others who have said you need to be more disciplined. Either way, you’re working really hard at being a parent; something you thought should be easier.

The Only 6 Back-to-School Tips You Will Ever Need

Stephanie Owen, LMFT

The beginning of a new school year brings a lot of challenges and adjustments --- new teachers, different class schedule, and new school demands. This can be one of the most stressful times of the year for parents, and even more so for your children.  Planning, preparing and patience are the keys to a better and more manageable back-to-school transition.

Here’s a quick round-up of effective tips for a smooth start to the school year:

1. Bedtime is quite a big deal.

Children thrive when they consistently get enough sleep. When children don’t sleep enough, it makes it harder for them to control their emotions. The problem most parents have is how to help them sleep. One way you can do this is to ensure a predictable bedtime routine by making it a priority. Preschool-aged children should be getting about 10-13 hours of sleep, school-aged children (6-13 years old), 9-11 hours, and teens, at least 8-10 hours. Regular activity every night signals their body to slow down and prepare for a restful sleep. Turn off all overly stimulating activities like gadgets and toys (tablets, smartphones, video games). Encourage quiet activities instead, such as books, calming music and podcasts: Storynory - stories, such as myths, original stories and poems, Bedtime History - inspirational and educational stories, and Peace Out - relaxation and mindfulness stories.

2.  Make a positive morning habit.

Creating a checklist of tasks with your children on what to do from the time they wake up time to the time they leave makes a big difference. Getting your children involved instills the value of responsibility for them early on AND reduces overall stress because you’re working together, instead of against each other. Most importantly, find a time to connect and bond each day. It takes as little as 10 minutes to make an impact. You can have a quick chat at breakfast reminiscing on a favorite time together or sharing excitement about what is coming up. For younger kids, a cuddle while dressing them up or ask them to help you prepare or make something will create connection, too. Turn off all sources of distraction (you will get to those emails as soon as you get to work, I promise!) and focus on your child knowing this will make a lasting change.

3.  Get organized ahead of chaos.

Plan ahead. Introduce a daily routine with as little as 15 minutes each night planning and preparing for the next day. A checklist will be helpful to begin with until the essential steps become a habit. For younger kids, you can create a visual board of the to-do’s with drawn pictures or photos from a magazine of each morning and afternoon task. A family calendar is helpful to track academic and extracurricular school activities, as well family plans. Downloadable apps, like My Study Life and Time Tree, have shareable access to make sure no one misses out.

4.  Watch out for back-to-school anxiety.

Most children are excited to start a new school year, while some can be nervous and dread it leading to draining energy and increasing anxiety. Reasons may vary from separation anxiety, bullying, and perfectionism, to name a few. Allow your children to talk about their anxiety -- and no, it will not get worse if you talk about it. Listen and normalize what they’re going through by sharing a time when you felt similarly. They will likely feel relieved and less alone. If they’re open to hearing solutions, give them the tool of square breathing, which is a helpful strategy to focus on their breath and stay grounded throughout the day. It’s easy to do: Make a square in the air or on paper. Trace one side of the box and breathe in for 4 seconds, continue to trace the other side of the box and breathe for 4 seconds, and continue again for the other two sides. Practice it with them, too!  

5.  After-school routines make a huge difference.

It is important to discuss after-school routines that work for your children. Ideally, it’s best to  have a quiet area at home with a comfortable study table and chair in a well-lit space that’s personalized and inviting for them to want to use. Bring in bright colors, pegboards for organizing, and all the supplies needed for them to feel equipped and look forward to their after school routine. What other ideas do your children have to create their space?

6.  Parent-Teacher relationship is crucial.

School is your child’s second home. It is crucial for parents to build strong relationships with teachers. Work with your teachers to help them understand your child’s unique personality, strengths, talents, and interests as their learning patterns emerge. Just like all relationships, they take time to build. Similarly, your parent-teacher relationship won’t happen overnight. It is built with constant communication, collaboration and shared goals.

What else would you add to this list? Share comments below, we’d love learn how else you’re creating a smooth and stress-free back-to-school transition. Share with others and tag a friend who could use this, too!

8 Simple Ways To Prevent Parenting Burnout

8 Simple Ways To Prevent Parenting Burnout

Parenting is one of the toughest jobs and if you don’t stop for a moment to catch your breath, your body will definitely let you know you need to! Here are some ways to prevent parenting burnout before it catches up to you. Which will you start to focus on a daily and weekly basis?

1. Know your stress signs. The only way to even prevent burnout is to recognize...