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Back To School Blues - By Chris Gearing

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Back To School Blues

August 20th, 2009

Dr. Sylvia Gearing, TXA 21 News

As North Texas children return to school next week, parents are hoping for a smooth transition from summer activities to a great school year. But instead of excitement and anticipation, many children are experiencing the “back to school blues” as summer transitions to fall.

Parents often ask me what factors help usher in a smooth transition from summer to the new school year. Here’s the truth:

In the mind of a child, summer should never end! The return of routine and responsibility will damper their moods temporarily but they must learn that school and hard work are a part of life. Here are the key factors to keep in mind as school begins.

  • New Experiences Create Anxiety: How your child handles change and the anxiety that comes with it determines how bumpy the reentry into school can be. A new teacher, new friends, a new classroom, and a new schedule all create anxiety because the child is confronted with novel circumstances that demand more of him. He’s got to think faster, better and more effectively as he navigates the new environment.
  • Temperament and Personality: Temperament (which is physiologically determined) has a lot to do with how kids handle change and stress. For example, children who have a shy, slow to warm up temperament are going to retreat the first few days of school making a quick adjustment more difficult. Extroverted kids are going to “dive” right in and won’t skip a beat. Effective parenting that “fits” your child’s temperament style is essential. Be more patient with the slow to warm up kid and coach your extroverted child to enjoy school but behave in the classroom.
  • Major Family Changes Predict School Transition: Major family changes are tough on kids. Events such as separation, divorce, financial setbacks or relocation can affect how a child handles the first days of school. If a lot of change has occurred in their lives recently, they may just be more distracted. Coping skills may be “maxed out” and they may have trouble calming down
  • Academic History: Last year’s academic history affects this year’s beginning beliefs about school. Returning to school can be daunting if your child had a hard time last year. Remind him that he can determine a better start during this new school year by trying harder and doing his best.

Rarely, children can turn school jitters into something more serious. If you’re concerned, here’s what to look for:

After a couple of weeks, if your child is continuing to resist attending school or has prolonged bouts of tears before or after school, he may have a problem that needs to be addressed. Remember that problems with kids are usually progressive and develop gradually over time. A bad day once in a while isn’t a big deal. However, we become concerned when there is a steady pattern of misbehavior, sadness and school resistance. Take behavior changes seriously since children are often unable to articulate what is bothering them. They rely on you to figure it out.

Here’s my advice for parents to help their kids enter the new school year:

  • Teach Calming and Soothing Skills: Parents are the most important teachers in the world and when school anxiety overwhelms your child, you must stand strong. Do not become irritable because your child is struggling. Your job as a parent is to coach your child by helping him to restore perspective and resist catastrophic thinking. Don’t dismiss his concern, but use logic to argue against his worst fears and restore a feeling of predictability and safety.
  • Rules are Vital--Be Clear and Concise: Many of us fail to communicate clear expectations and goals for our kids since we usually think those rules are obvious. Don’t assume anything! Discuss clear expectations regarding friends, grades, school behavior, homework and morning and bedtime rituals.
  • Focus and Organize: The new school year and the new challenges that come with it make most kids feel out of control. Organize your child to reduce his anxiety. Assemble his school supplies, clarify his schedule, find his locker and organize his first week of clothes. Eliminate the unknowns as much as you can.
  • Be a Participating Parent: Nothing helps a child to feel safer and more secure than to have a parent participate in getting the new year started. Remain upbeat during the morning rituals and talk about how great things will be in his new classroom. Walk through the halls to his new classroom, meet his teacher, greet his friends and their parents and assure him that all is well.
  • Resist Helicopter Parenting: Do not over parent. Helicopter parenting is becoming a national epidemic and this parenting style has disastrous effects for our kids. Frequent rescuing prevents the child from learning how to resolve adversity, accept consequences and navigate his failures. Setbacks are a necessary part of life and make us stronger. Please allow your child to experience frustration and the proud accomplishments that comes from self-discipline and persistence.

The Quarter-Life Crisis - By Chris Gearing

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Dealing With The 'Quarter' Life Crisis

August 13, 2009

Dr. Sylvia Gearing, TXA 21 News

The twenties have traditionally been a time of establishing careers, marriages and financial independence. But in the current economic climate, psychologists are now reporting that today’s 20’somethings are struggling with epidemic levels of anxiety and depression. You may be wondering why it is so difficult for twenty-somethings in today’s economy.

There are several reasons why it is so much more difficult.

  • Affected by Economy: Young people in their twenties are experiencing brutal disappointment as they encounter a job market that is challenging for even the veteran employee. The economy is denying them access to entry- level jobs filled by more senior workers. Credit card debt, low pay, college loans and lack of opportunity are all common challenges. Such a collision of expectation with reality can lead to depression and disappointment.
  • Treading Water: Ambitious 20’somethings expected that their education would count for something. Those doors to greater opportunity are now remaining shut. Their twenties are becoming a series of disappointments rather than achievements or enlightening experiences. They move from job to job hoping for something better.
  • Longer Dependence on Parents: Today’s young person experiences a much lengthier transition from college to full financial and logistical emancipation due to education and financial hurdles. College typically lasts more than four years and may extend into six to seven years with graduate education.
  • Lack of Success Leads to Hopelessness: Such experiences build a sense of hopelessness, helplessness and even irresponsibility that can severely affect both their sense of effectiveness and their ability to activate in the present to achieve.

Parents often ask me if their 20’somethings have entered the working world with unrealistic expectations of success and why has it occurred? Here’s my usual response:

They absolutely have grown up with loftier expectations for themselves and the current economic logjam is an unwelcome challenge. Here are the core values of many members of this generation:

  • Mandated Happiness: Reared in a culture that taught them to feel good about themselves regardless of effort, fault or outcome, 20’somethings do not deal well with emotional discomfort. As a result, they tend to vacillate between two extremes – blaming everyone else and blaming themselves unfairly. Neither extreme is an accurate reflection of reality. Worst of all, such thinking does not allow them to improve. They remain stuck and indecisive.
  • Focus on Individuality: Individuality at any cost is a core value. Tattoos, piercings, and flattering pictures of themselves on social networking sites constantly update their fascinating lives.
  • Focus on Self Admiration: 20’somethings love to admire themselves. Eighty percent of recent college students scored higher in self-esteem than the average 1960s student. Worst of all, narcissism has risen as much as obesity and both are now epidemic. According to research, 10% of 20’somethings have already experienced symptoms of extreme self-centeredness. This trend is especially true for girls.

Those same parents then ask me if they had anything to do with why their children turned out this way.

Boomers definitely overshot the mark in their attempts to rear high self-esteem kids. “Over-parenting” and “helicopter parenting” are pervasive and this new generation has been cultivated, protected and praised too much. Suffering the consequences of your own bad decisions teaches you to be disciplined and to work harder. When kids are not taught the value of failure, sacrifice and altruism, they can develop unrealistic views of what life has to offer them. When they encounter a tough economy or even lose a job, they lack the psychological resources to deal with the setbacks. No one taught them the art of self-recovery and resilience. They become depressed, anxious and angry.

If you’re a parent of a twenty-something, here are some things you can do to help them in their time of need:

  • Cultural Overload: Realize that your child is “swimming” upstream against a culture that emphasizes instant gratification, connection and celebrity! Body image, body hugging clothes and achievement without earning it are values of our culture. Have some compassion for your struggling child but emphasize the lack of reality in our narcissistic culture.
  • Lessons of Failure: Emphasize in your own life and in your conversations with your 20’something your values of perseverance, self-discipline and the lessons of failure. Don’t lecture but build a bridge of disclosure and mentoring. Most of all stop rescuing and let them learn consequence.
  • Hardship is Temporary: Remind your 20’something that setbacks are rarely permanent and always manageable. The worst outcomes occur when people descend into negativity or simply stop trying. The choice to move forward against adversity is ever present and life determining.

Sources:

The Washington Post

“Emerging Adulthood” by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett

“The Narcissism Epidemic” by Dr. Jean Twenge, Ph. D. and Dr. W. Keith Campbell, Ph. D.

“Generation Me” by Dr. Jean Twenge, Ph. D.

How Children Cope With Parental Death - By Chris Gearing

Thursday, July 09, 2009

How Children Cope With Parental Death

July 9, 2009

Dr. Sylvia Gearing, TXA 21 News

Millions of Americans were deeply saddened by the sudden death of pop icon, Michael Jackson. His daughter’s heartfelt words reminded us that such losses always involve two victims -- the parent and the child. Here’s the full story on childhood grief and what you can do to help a grieving child.

A loss of this kind can have many devastating effects including:

  • Safety and Security Threatened: There are few traumas as severe as losing a parent in childhood. We are at our most vulnerable as children and we rely on the stability of parents to guide us through a confusing and dangerous world. With parental death, the familiar guardian of safety, shelter and security has vanished exposing us to overwhelming anxiety. In some cases, that anxiety can transform into serious trauma conditions that last a lifetime.
  • Long Term Health Issues: Losing a parent in childhood causes a disruption in normal childhood development as the child grieves the parent and adjusts to a new normal. The long-term implications of parental loss are severe and include compromised mental and physical health, depression, substance abuse and even increased suicide risk.
  • Broken Hearts and Impaired Immunity: Cardiac issues in adulthood are correlated with the loss of a parent. In one study, a significant number of coronary patients had suffered the loss of a father between the ages of five and seventeen. Bereavement compromises the immune system and reduces resilience.

I am frequently asked if the age of the child is an important factor in their coping.

In reality, there is no good age to lose a parent but we know that the impact increases once the child really understands what they are facing -- a forever separation. Prior to age three, babies will miss a familiar presence but not understand the concept of permanent absence. A preschooler may talk about the death but expect the parent to return. By age 9 to 10, the child is completely aware. He has usually developed an understanding that death is permanent, irreversible and final.

Here are the differences between the types of grieving:

Normal Grief

  • Tearfulness: Tearfulness is common at first but dissipates after a few weeks. However, 13% of kids still cry daily or weekly after one year has passed.
  • Sadness, anger, guilt about the death
  • Appreciation and Identification with Parent
  • Sleep and Appetite Problems
  • Withdraw from Family/Friends
  • Physical Complaints (headache, stomach ache, etc.)
  • Return to Earlier Behaviors (Bedwetting, Clinging to Parents, School Refusal)
  • Acceptance of the Death: They accept the reality and permanence of death and adjust to their new identity of their life without their parent.
  • • Continuing with Normal Development

Traumatic Grief

  • Intrusive memories About the Death: Nightmares, guilt, and obsessive rumination about the events that are intrusive and disruptive.
  • Avoidance and Numbing: Withdrawal, denying turmoil, avoiding reminders of the person, the way he died, etc.
  • Physical or Emotional Symptoms of Increased Arousal: Irritability, anger, difficulty sleeping, decreased concentration, increased vigilance, grades dropping, fears about safety for oneself or others.

You may wonder what the child is supposed to do if the other parent is grieving.

It is vital to remember that the child often loses the emotional availability of the other parent and of the relatives who are similarly devastated. Emotional neglect, whether intentional or not, is common. The parent’s loss can inflict untold suffering on the child who is struggling to regain his psychological “footing” in a world that has been rearranged. The remaining parent may cycle in and out of depression remaining unaware of his child’s agony. The child may conclude that he has emotionally lost both parents. The most startling statistic involves the risk of suicide. It is seven times greater among children who have lost both parents than for those kids where there is no such disruption.

Here are some tips to help kids going through this kind of situation:

Educate Yourself: Be aware of the difference between normal and traumatic grief. The entire community needs to watch the child and remain vigilant about symptoms Remember that the child needs safety, information and guidance in creating a new identity without the parent.

Model Emotionally Intelligent Grief: The child will take his cue from you so make sure your words are measured, thoughtful and calm. Assure your child that the departed parent is fine, that life will go on and that you are not going anywhere.

Provide Children with Emotional Support: Children at different ages may need different types of support. Younger kids may need more cuddling, attention, patience and understanding. Older kids will need reassurance of your stability, of the continuity of home and hearth, and of your dedication to creating a new family.

Is Spanking A Good Decision? - By Chris Gearing

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Is Spanking An Healthy Parenting Choice?

June 18, 2009

Dr. Sylvia Gearing, TXA 21 News

Reality TV’s Kate Gosselin has made national news with the on-camera spanking of her daughter. Such behavior raises the question as to which was worse for the child—the spanking or the constant public exposure.

Spanking is not the first discipline choice I ask parents to make, since it is so unreliable in changing child behavior. All spanking does is to stop the immediate behavior. Judicious spanking in certain situations that are dangerous can be effective, but only if used very sparingly and only until the child is three to four years old.

The media over-exposure these kids have experienced from the reality show has far greater potential to harm them negatively.

This type of overexposure does the following:

  • It’s All About Me: Constant exposure to television cameras encourages exhibitionistic tendencies, especially at an early age. Belief systems are formed early in life, and such experiences can have a dramatic effect on a child’s evolving view of the world.
  • Risk of Becoming Entitled: Because such media emphasizes immediate and grandiose attention, kids are at risk of developing a sense of entitlement. The downside of entitlement is the accompanying rage that ensues when disappointment or frustration is introduced.
  • Performance Versus Learning: Effective discipline flourishes in a private environment in which the child is able to think about her actions and to integrate what the punishment means. With a camera positioned on her, it is doubtful that the five-year-old learned anything, or she may have misinterpreted the lesson.
  • Fuzzy Boundaries: Opening your home and life up to a camera crew for round-the-clock coverage is a serious interruption of family boundaries for a child. Things need to be simple and well-defined in a young child’s life. Cameras everywhere are deeply confusing.
  • Many parents really have a hard time controlling their kids, and spanking is frequently used by millions of parents.

    Ninety-four percent of American parents spank their kids between the ages of three and four. After that age, there is a sharp drop in spanking for one good reason—the kids can reason with parental coaching and input. We strongly discourage parents from a continued use of spanking.

    A comprehensive review of over 62 years of data found that corporal punishment is associated with ten negative childhood responses that include increased aggression. The single positive benefit was immediate behavioral compliance. However, it is doubtful that the child learns to reason better when they are spanked. As a result, I ask parents to choose other, less physical acts of discipline that emphasize self-control, logic and reasoning skills. The child will learn more with less effort from other disciplinary methods than he will learn from spanking.

    The best parenting choices for discipline include the following:

    • Never Dismiss Emotions: In general, parents must first be willing to deal with bad behavior and negative emotions when they occur. Ignoring or dismissing negativity prevents the child from learning how to handle himself effectively in the world around him.
    • Provide a Road Map: If kids grow up without a road map of good behavior, then they will have little idea of how to control their thinking and emotions effectively throughout their lives. Model the behavior you want to see in your child and do not deviate from being a consistent and compassionate example.
    • Set Limits and Don’t Feel Guilty: I prefer time out and other behavioral restrictions that emphasize emotional control over physical punishment. Remember that it is your job to teach your child the basic rules of socialization—verbal and behavioral controls. Do not feel guilty for doing your job.
    • Love Your Child to Better Behavior: Explain, coach and consequate your child when you are disciplining. Being emotionally close to your child gives you even greater influence on his thinking, his emotions, and his behavior.

    Sources include:

    The American Psychological Association files and journals

Teen Sleep Crisis - By Chris Gearing

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Teen Sleep Crisis: How Sleep Loss Causes Depression

June 11, 2009

Dr. Sylvia Gearing, TXA 21 News

Most of us as parents struggle with getting our teenagers to bed on time. Sports, school and socializing all postpone bedtime in a busy teen’s life but a major new study now reports that sleep loss can be dangerous. A new study of 15,000 teens sends some serious warnings to American parents.

This “just released” study from Columbia University is the first to examine the direct effect of sleep loss on the emotional health of an adolescent.

  • More Depression: Teens whose parents allow them to stay up past midnight on school nights are 42% more likely to be depressed than teens in bed by 10 P.M.
  • Suicidal Thinking: Less sleep can contribute to suicidal thinking. Kids who stay up late are 30% more likely to have suicidal thoughts in the past year.
  • Underestimates of Current Teen Distress: These statistics may underrate the severity of teen distress. With social networking sites and smart phones, kids are more active into the night and often refuse to comply with parental commands. It is easy to play on your iPhone into the next morning!

You may be wondering why lack of sleep is such a big deal for kids. There are a variety of problems when kids don’t get enough sleep:

  • Psychological Weakness: Kids who get less sleep are more impulsive, process their environment less accurately, become more helpless and descend into ineffectiveness.
  • Slippage of Grades: Academics are a huge problem for sleep-deprived kids — the less focus you have, the more distracted you are, and the less effectively you integrate new knowledge.
  • Loss of Emotional Stability: Even if they can tolerate sleep loss and still make grades, there is a psychological price that is paid in interpersonal diplomacy, regulation of emotions, and a general build up of frustration.
  • Obesity: Obesity is highly correlated with sleep loss. Teens are less likely to work out and eat moderately when they’re exhausted.
  • Driving Safety: Most fatal teen driving accidents involve sleep loss. Since kids need more sleep than adults, they are particularly vulnerable to carelessness on the road and falling asleep at the wheel.

There are a number of ways to get kids to go to sleep earlier. Here are a few ideas:

  • Eliminate Stimulants: Cut out the stimulants in kids’ lives, things like coffee, sodas and in some rare cases, amphetamines. They will go to bed earlier if they aren’t on a caffeine high!
  • Avoid Yo Yo Scheduling: Also, don’t allow your kids to do what is called “yo-yo scheduling” where they go to sleep late during the week and then go to sleep even later on the weekend! The lack of sleep on weekends has long standing effects on sleep patterns and melatonin levels, and kids often go back in to the work week more tired than they were on Friday!
  • Keep It Pleasant: Don’t engage in emotional conversations close to bedtime. Conflict interferes with regular sleep patterns and kids have a hard time settling down for the night.
  • If you want to know how to get your kids to sleep beyond these tips, the bad news is that there is no magic solution. There really is only one way to get your kids to bed:

    • Set Strong Limits: High school and college age kids average around 6.1 hours of sleep a night when they need 9.25 hours a night, on average. There is no way around it – parents must set stronger limits so their kids will sleep more! Your kids will have to experience that disappointment, but in the end you will also see improved performance both in the classroom and on the field.
    • Quick Emotional Benefits: Beyond the obvious benefits in school, adequate sleep can have a tremendous effect on your child’s mental health. Everything from mood to concentration to safety in the car can be improved. Even behavioral and academic problems can disappear with adequate amounts of sleep.

    Parenting In Tough Economic Times - By Chris Gearing

    Wednesday, February 11, 2009

    Parenting Tools In Tough Economic Times

    February 12, 2009

    Dr. Sylvia Gearing

    As Congress approves yet another stimulus package, North Texans continue to experience more layoffs, downsizing and financial shortfalls. And as we all know, as families struggle to stay afloat financially, tempers can flare and kids can suffer.

    What are the top challenges for parents during these difficult economic times?

    Your Own Fear: Parents are facing their own sense of powerlessness and loss of control in this economy. Even if your job is not in jeopardy, you are bound to know some one who faces a potential financial hurdle. As the recession continues, people are going to have increasing difficulty calming down and retaining perspective.

    Avoid Becoming the Super-Parent: Parents often try to overcompensate for their fear by becoming super-parents and hiding all negativity from the kids. As a result, they tend to dismiss their child’s pain. This avoidance prevents the child from learning how to handle adversity effectively. This dismissive style is disingenuous especially with kids since they generally sense what you feel anyway.

    Remind yourself that your child most likely knows that something is wrong especially if one of the parents has lost a job or money has become especially tight. The older the child, the greater the awareness but even very young children can sense tension in their parents. A child’s worry flourishes in an atmosphere of uncertainty and he begins to feel helpless. His uncertainty combined with a difficult outcome imposes definite health risks including infections, agitation, and aggression toward others.

    Anger and frustration are a part of life but remember that is okay to express displeasure with your child if he misbehaves. Avoid sarcasm, ridicule, and contempt and maintain an evenhanded approach even if you are angry.

    By appropriately expressing your anger, you are teaching your child two things:

    1.) Angry Emotions are a part of a close relationship and these emotions such as anger and frustration can be handled appropriately.

    2.) Kids need limits and they need to know that you care enough to be involved. The child is reassured that you are in control of the family and they will feel safer as a result.

    Emotional neglect is the biggest risk factor.

    Worried parents may be present in body, but not in mind -- unintentional emotional neglect can occur without parents realizing it. According to research, people who are prone to depression are at least twice as likely to have mental problems in the face of economic stressors. Emotional neglect is difficult to measure since there are no bruises or cuts. How can you definitively prove that a child is not being loved enough? But in certain extreme cases, neglect can be more harmful than outright acts of cruelty such as child physical and sexual abuse. We do know that the trauma of neglect can predispose a child to a host of emotional problems as he grows up.

    As families go through tough times, these behaviors may occur:

    Tensions Flare: Families often enter a complex, downward spiral as finances tighten and spirits fall. Increased irritability, anxiety and outright rage become more frequent as the parents become more helpless.

    Parents Become Emotionally Absent: Mothers become less patient and fathers become more withdrawn. Marital spats and bickering over money and daily living become commonplace and a tense silence often invades a once happy home.

    Lost Children: Kids begin to react negatively outside of the home. Socially, academically and psychologically, they begin to struggle and are marginalized to a lower social and academic achievement level. The lack of parental support leads to chronic academic underachievement. They are ill prepared to enter a competitive job market.

    Financial adversity offers a mother lode of teachable moments.

    In fact, the baby boomers have been remiss in not allowing their kids to experience enough negative events and consequences. We have spent too much effort sheltering our kids from the inevitable adversities of life. Now we have a twentysomething generation that is struggling with a sense of entitlement and confusion and lacking the necessary skills to deal with failure successfully. Adversity teaches coping skills as parents model effective reactions and then teach their kids how to deal directly with challenge. Such strategies literally inoculate your children against severe depression, which strikes a full decade earlier than it did a generation ago.

    The secrets to keeping families strong during these tough economic times?

    Family Team: When parents put family first and continue to communicate with the kids, everyone does better. Do not let the adversity define your parenting strategy. By fortifying your kids with activities, games and long talks, you are preventing a feeling of isolation and helplessness to grow. There is no substitute for the time you invest in a child.

    Avoid Dismissive Parenting: Many parents are concerned that negative emotions are unhealthy for their child. Some parents see their child’s distress as an impossible demand and they insist that the child “not feel unhappy.” Instead, they react with humor and reassurance without really hearing what the child is saying. Listen to your child and then help him deal with the anxiety.

    Loss of Parent’s Focus: Children are much less affected by the loss of possessions than they are by the loss of a parent’s focus. Don’t worry that your child lacks the latest fashions or toys. He needs your emotional presence more than a video game.

    Community Counts: Increase your attendance in religious, school and civic activities when times are tough. Being with other people reassures your child that the community is stable, predictable and supportive. Familiar faces of loving, concerned adults are the antidote to a family’s tough times.

    Resources for Readers:

    "Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child" by Dr. John Gottman

    "The Optimistic Child" by Martin Seligman, Ph.D.


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