Category Archive Parenting

ByStacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC

An Interactive Study Skills Activity for Teens with ADHD

I have worked with a lot of kids and teens with ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) who have a really hard time in school. Whether they have combination type (difficulty focusing/paying attention and hyperactivity/fidgeting) or inattentive type ADHD, I learned quickly that just reading over a list of study skills for these kids to try was hardly effective. Teaching study skills, especially to kids with ADHD, requires more than providing them with a list and reading over it with them, then hoping for the best. You have to get creative, and you have to make learning more interactive.

I came up with this activity for that very reason. When I would teach study skills to a teen sitting in my office who was struggling in school, I could literally see the boredom in their faces and the lack of focus in their eyes. I would lose them within mere minutes. It was hardly effective. Just as teachers often have to make learning more interactive for all their students, I had to come up with a way to make learning study skills interactive for kids who were already struggling with their schoolwork due to ADHD symptoms.

Let’s Get On to the Activity…

GOAL: Help students learn helpful study skill tips and choose which strategies would work best for them.

“PLAYERS”: Student + a counselor, teacher, or parent

AGES: Middle school through college aged students

ACTIVITY: You can actually divide this activity into three separate activities. This is what I frequently do, as let’s face it, giving anyone a whole bunch of any material to learn at once isn’t always effective. Click on the links for the printable pdf forms of the packets and cards.

Materials – Activity #1:

Materials – Activity #2:

Materials – Activity #3:

Materials – All Activities:

Before the activity, laminate (optional) and cut one copy of the Study Skill Cards for that particular activity. Cut apart each section/block on the Categories sheet; glue each block onto separate envelopes. Each block should be designated its own separate envelope:

  • “Tried it, but it’s not good for me”
  • “Already doing it, and it works”
  • “I’m interested in trying this”
  • “I’ll commit to trying it this week”


Both student and counselor (or teacher or parent) each get a packet for the particular activity you’ll be doing. Each person also receives an uncut copy of the Study Skill Cards page. Each player needs two highlighters of different colors. The laminated, cut study skill cards can be placed between the student and counselor.

The student draws a card form the pile in between them. They then read the study tip. The counselor can also choose to take turns drawing cards from the pile if she wants, but it’s important to keep the student as focused an involved as possible. Don’t “just read” to them.

Next to the study skill tip is a number in parentheses. This number corresponds to the number matching on the packet for the particular topic. For some cards, a more thorough explanation may be found in the packet whereas the card generally holds only a brief description of the strategy.

The student, upon reading the card, determines which envelope they want to place the card in. For example, they might place the “Copy the notes. (4)” card in the “I’m interested in trying this” envelope. The student and counselor then, using a designated color highlighter for this category, highlights the study skill tip on their Study Skills Card page so that they both can remember that the tip is something the student may be interested in trying. If the student chooses to place a card in the “I’ll commit to trying it this week” envelope, the student and counselor would use the other colored highlighter to mark those tips on their individual Study Skill Cards pages.

Encourage the student to commit to trying 1-3 skills in the upcoming week, particularly if they don’t already have very effective study habits. Take note that some strategies are better tried separately and not together with another skill tip (for example, “start with the hardest” and “start with the easiest” are probably best not tried during the same week).

After all (or a majority) of the cards are drawn and designated to their appropriate category, spend the remainder of the time discussing the week’s commitments and forming short-term goals. The student then can take their cards sheet and packet with them to help remind them of the skills and their commitment(s).

For the skills highlighted and designated into the category of “I’m interested in trying this,” keep the Study Skill Cards sheet handy for that student and refer back to it as necessary in the future.

The individually cut skill cards and envelopes can be saved to use with other students.

To all the students out there, happy studying!

ByStacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC

Separation & Loss Jenga for Kids (free printables included)

Losing a parent or caregiver is difficult for any child, whether the loss is through death, separation, or removal from their home. Working with these children, they are often found to be struggling with grief and adjustment issues that might show up as a significant change in mood or acting out behaviors. Working with children who have been temporarily separated or sometimes permanently removed from their home can sometimes prove particularly difficult when trying to find creative ways to help them work their way through the loss of their parent or caregiver who has been a significant part of their lives for some time, often since birth.

Losing someone is never easy. While I certainly am not wanting to downplay the loss any child feels when a parent or caregiver dies, children who are separated from their homes, whether temporarily or permanently, face a unique challenge in itself. The child knows their parent didn’t die, so why can’t they still be with them? In cases where there has been neglect or abuse, a child may especially have difficulty understanding an array of confusing feelings… “I love my mom, but I didn’t like how she hurt me. But I feel guilty for not being with her but it’s kind of nice that I don’t have to worry so much or be so scared.”

In some cases, children aren’t even particularly sure why they’ve been separated from their parents or caregivers at all. They may not be given much information or they may not even realize that their parent’s neglect or other inappropriate behavior was ever wrong in the first place. From these kids’ perspectives, they have a really hard time understanding why or even how their lives seemed to suddenly be turned upside down. And sometimes, depending on the age of the child, it isn’t appropriate to offer a lot of details; regardless, it still doesn’t make up for the intense hurt and pain they feel from being separated from the only home they ever knew.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Child-centered play therapy, I’ve found, is especially helpful for these children when they are particularly young, but I’ve found that a more directive approach is often needed for middle and older elementary children and pre-teens. Seeking out ideas for techniques to work with these children has continued to result in dead ends. With the exception of a few specific techniques out there on the internet and in books for children who have lost their parent or caregiver not by death but by separation, therapists frequently need to adapt general grief activities for these vulnerable children. While this is certainly not a major problem, I began creating some of my own games, art, and other play activities myself.

The Idea Behind Separation & Loss Jenga

I came up with the idea of creating a Jenga game to help kids who have been separated from their parents or caregivers not long ago. The Jenga game has been a popular therapy tool for many therapists for years, as it can be easily adapted for a multitude of therapeutic purposes just by gluing question strips onto the individual blocks or marking the blocks with various colors and creating corresponding card decks filled with questions to ask or prompts to give children for anything from identifying feelings to learning and practicing social skills.
Coming up with questions for the individual Jenga blocks came easier than I anticipated. There are so many thoughts and feelings in these children’s minds when they’ve been separated from someone they love; pulling these thoughts and feelings out by using traditional methods of talk therapy only tend to work well for some kids (and usually these are the older ones). But give kids an activity or game, and suddenly the same things that a therapist has been trying to help the child express becomes less threatening for that child. There is a lot of psychology behind why and how play (such as playing games or doing other activities) works in the healing of children. Play is a child’s language.  It helps them express what they cannot express in words, whether it be because they don’t yet have the language or because they have been more reluctant or it has been too difficult to talk about such painful feelings.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Though I created the game with the idea of being used in therapy between a child and therapist, it can also be played in the child’s new home with their current caregiver(s). Either way, when the therapist or caregiver chooses a question block, they can read the question out loud to the child for him or her to answer or if you feel comfortable in self-disclosing a separation or loss (even if it was through the death of someone you once knew), this can be done also. Regardless of how you adapt the game, just make sure the child you’re playing with knows the rules and what you’re doing before you play. The child may not respond well if they find out after you draw your first question block and direct the question to them if they didn’t know ahead of time that this was what you had planned to do.
It’s also important to validate the child’s answers when he responds to a question. If the child discloses that he feels sad, for example, that he is no longer living with his abusive mother, it will not help for you to say something like, “What do you mean you feel sad? She did nothing but hurt you!” Just. Don’t. Really, don’t.
Even if you think the child’s answer is “wrong” (which by the way, there are no “wrong” answers in this game), validate what they’re telling you because what they’re saying is very real to them. For the earlier example, you could say something like, “It can feel sad when you’re away from a person you love and care about.” Then. Stop. Really. Don’t try to put a “but” at the end of that sentence. Just leave it there. Trust me, not validating something like this isn’t going to help build your relationship with the child. At all. This isn’t the time to refute the child’s beliefs. Please leave that up to after you know more about the child and they are further along in their healing process and have built more trust in you.
(There are no “wrong” ways to feel anyway, regardless of how we might think they “should” be feeling; it’s not up to us to tell anyone how they should or shouldn’t feel. Don’t refute a feeling, even if you’ve known the child for a really long time and you have a good relationship. Give the child permission to feel the way they’re feeling and validate those feelings, even if you disagree or can’t totally understand why anyone could ever feel such a way. Empathize.)
By the way, it’s important to let the child know before you begin playing, that they should only share what they feel comfortable sharing. If they look like they’re struggling to answer a particular question, especially, give them a pass or allow them to answer another question instead. I don’t like forcing children to rush through any healing process. This will also help build your relationship with the child and plant the seed that you’re someone that isn’t going to push him any faster than he is able or willing to go, and that helps to build trust in your relationship.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Creating Your Own Separation & Loss Jenga Game

To create your own game, simply click below and print the Separation & Loss question strips. After you print the questions, I recommend laminating the page for durability. Then simply cut out your questions, and glue each individual question onto a Jenga block. The blocks that are left over can be used as “free pass” blocks, blocks that allow the player a turn without answering a question or they can be rapport (relationship) building blocks.

I find “free pass” blocks to be helpful over utilizing each and every block for a question, as it seems to make kids more comfortable and feel less overwhelmed. Rapport, or relationship, building blocks are ones in which you can use questions such as those found below, to lighten the mood and discuss something a little more fun and less heavy. The topic of losing or being separated from someone you love can be pretty sensitive, let’s cut the child a break! I personally use some of the rapport (relationship) building questions AND a few “free pass” blocks.”

In regards to the rapport building questions I have included in this post, you obviously wouldn’t use all of the strips for this particular game or you wouldn’t have many blocks left for the separation and loss questions. You can pick and choose which of both sets of questions you would like to use. Or you might also decide to glue two questions onto each Jenga block, with one side having a separation and loss question and the other side including a rapport building question. This is what I choose to do. This way, if a child does feel particularly uncomfortable about answering a separation and loss question, there’s a “back up” question they can choose to answer instead.

Separation & Loss Jenga Question Strips

Relationship Building Jenga Question Strips

Enjoy playing!

ByStacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC

78 Free and Low-Cost Reward Ideas for Kids!

Here are 78 of my favorite behavior rewards I’ve used with young children I work with, as well as with my own children. And the best part is that they are all low-cost or free!

  1. Take a walk or hike together
  2. Help a parent make dinner one night
  3. Decorate paper placemats for the kitchen table
  4. Assist mom or dad with a household chore
  5. Go swimming
  6. Have a special art session together
  7. Earn art stuff for creative fun
  8. Scavenger hunt
  9. Bake together
  10. A delicious milkshake
  11. A cup of hot cocoa
  12. Read a book together as a family
  13. Out for ice cream
  14. Get a new book
  15. Earn a printable certificate
  16. New toothbrush or toothpaste
  17. Package of stickers
  18. Choose a dessert to make for dinner one night
  19. 30 minutes of extra TV time
  20. Take a trip to the park
  21. Choose a favorite treat to eat
  22. Choose a game to play
  23. 30 minutes of one-on-one time with mom or dad (play a game, do a puzzle, draw, etc.)
  24. Choose what we will have for dinner one night this week
  25. Trip to the Dollar Tree to pick out a toy or something else of your choice
  26. Stay up 30 (or 15) minutes past your bedtime this weekend
  27. Play on the computer (or other electronic) for 30 (or 15) minutes
  28. Pick your favorite cereal on our next grocery trip
  29. Choose a movie to watch together
  30. No chores for a day
  31. Save the change (give your child your loose change every day for a week so they can save it for a rainy day)
  32. Camp out in the backyard with a parent
  33. Play on the playground
  34. Go with a parent to volunteer at a nursing home for an afternoon (or couple hours)
  35. Mystery grab bag
  36. A trip to the library to select a book
  37. Go fishing with a parent
  38. 30 minutes of special outdoor time with mom or dad
  39. Make a craft together
  40. Earn behavior bucks to save up for a special trip to the Dollar Store
  41. Jump on the bed for 5 minutes
  42. Plan one day’s activities
  43. Choose a special breakfast
  44. Sleep in a different place in the house for one night
  45. Make a fort together and play in it
  46. Go bowling
  47. Slumber party with mom or dad
  48. Play with bubbles
  49. Get out of school (or daycare) one hour (or 30 minutes) early for a special treat with mom or dad
  50. Captain for two hours (let your child be in charge for a set time; no bossiness allowed!)
  51. Help mom or dad clean _____
  52. Pick an activity for the family to do
  53. Make sidewalk chalk art
  54. Make slime together
  55. Make play dough together
  56. Buy new play dough
  57. Trip to the pet store to see the animals
  58. Put a model together with mom or dad (such as a model car)
  59. Feed the family pet
  60. Take pictures (then have mom or dad help you print them out)
  61. Color together
  62. Play a video game or computer game together
  63. Decorate your own room
  64. A special after-school snack
  65. Order a pizza
  66. Decorate a room for a holiday (it doesn’t necessarily have to be Christmastime)
  67. Go to a ballgame
  68. Go ice skating
  69. Go roller skating
  70. Chew bubble gum
  71. Set the table
  72. Go for a bike ride together
  73. Popcorn party
  74. Pajama day (wear pajamas all day)
  75. Outdoor water fun
  76. Have a water fight (with balloons or waterguns)
  77. Family kickball or baseball game (or other sport)
  78. Take a nap together
ByStacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC

Dinner Time Conversations with Kids

Dinner time conversations can be hard, especially when you have a child who doesn’t like to talk much when you ask things like, “How was school?” or “What did you do at school today?” This would be my child. The one who would rather eat brussel sprouts than to answer questions about his day at school. Now that my own child has been in school for several years, I’ve learned the trick to getting him to talk more about his day is to initiate a conversation about something else first – something they really don’t mind talking about. Even though my child doesn’t necessarily come right out and talk about his day after I do talk about something else, it does seem to increase the likelihood that at some point that day, I get some information about how his school day was.

Here are 39 of my favorite questions to ask my own children. Hope they help initiate more conversation in your home too!

Random Questions

  1. What is your favorite toy?
  2. Who is your favorite superhero?
  3. Who would you say is your best friend?
  4. Who do you not particularly like to play with?
  5. If you had to choose between reading, writing, or drawing, which would you choose, and why?
  6. Would you rather read a book or article from a tablet or from hard print (a hard copy of a book or newspaper)?
  7. Would you eat the gum from under a picnic table bench for $50.00? (Or How much money would it take for you to eat gum from under a picnic table bench?)
  8. What is your favorite thing to do at the park and/or on a playground?
  9. Would you rather go on a swing that does flips or a slide that never ends?
  10. If you could be granted three wishes and you could wish for anything that you want except for more wishes, what would you wish for?
  11. What is your idea of a “perfect day?”
  12. What is your most embarrassing moment?
  13. What is your favorite game/videogame? Why? (Bonus: Ask your child to show you how to play said game/videogame.)

Questions About School

  1. What is your favorite thing to eat for lunch at school?
  2. What is the worst lunch you’ve ever had at school?
  3. Who is your favorite teacher?
  4. What is your favorite subject?
  5. What is your least favorite subject?
  6. What do you think should happen to a kid that gets caught cheating in school?
  7. What is your favorite thing to do at recess, and why?
  8. What would you like to do or be when you get older? Why?
  9. What do you think is the most boring thing about school?
  10. What do you think is the best part about school?
  11. What is the worst part about school?
  12. What is the craziest or funniest thing your friend has ever done in school?
  13. What teacher seems to really “get you?” What teacher doesn’t?

Questions About the Home and/or Family

  1. What is the nicest thing your sibling has ever done for you?
  2. What is the nicest thing you have ever done for your sibling?
  3. What is the nicest thing your parents/caregivers have ever done for you, in your opinion?
  4. What is your favorite meal?
  5. What is your least favorite meal?
  6. What is your favorite thing to do at home?
  7. What is your favorite thing to do with your mom? Your dad?
  8. What is your favorite thing to do with your sibling?
  9. What do you think you most need from your parents?
  10. If you could go anywhere for a two-week vacation, where would you want to go? Why?
  11. What is the most embarrassing thing your parents have ever done in public in front of you?
  12. What is your least favorite chore and/or rule in this house?
  13. What is the most embarrassing thing your sibling has ever done in public with you there?
ByStacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC

How to Talk to Your Child About Death (with free printable)

The unfortunate truth is that if we live, we must also one day die. And death can be confusing, especially for children, who are constantly receiving confusing messages about the subject. Many parents have difficulty talking about death with children, particularly young children, and we frequently avoid the subject for as long as we can… usually until someone close to us or close to our child dies.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

My Own Experience

I remember years ago when an older sibling of a child around my son’s age suddenly and unexpectedly died. My son was six years old at the time, and it was his first experience with death. He of course had watched cartoons in which various characters would die, but they always came back to life, sometimes within minutes and in the same episode. He knew what death was in his young eyes: something that happened but then you get to come back to life and re-join all the loved ones and friends you knew when you were alive. Death was portrayed in his cartoons more as a time of sleep rather than something permanent and forever.
My son had played at his friend’s house plenty of times (nearly daily for at least over a year), and he knew his friend’s older sibling. They had even played together on occasion. My son was close to the whole family, so when his friend’s older sibling suddenly died, he was completely confused and I was dumbfounded as to how to explain his death. The older sibling was still school-age, which made it even more complicated – because “kids don’t die, right?”
For the first few days, grieving myself, I didn’t know what to say to my son, who had what seemed like a billion questions about death. “Why do people die?” “How did he die?” “What’s death like?” “Will he be back?” “Where did he go?” “Will I die?” “Kids don’t die, right?” “How come kids die?” “Does everyone die?” “I thought only bad kids die, don’t they?” He went on and on with the questions, and I tried to be as honest as possible, but I was truthfully at a loss. How do you talk to a six year old about something so hard?

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

What Do We Tell Our Children When Someone Dies?

That’s the question I kept asking myself. Since then, I’ve learned more and more about what to say and what to avoid saying. After taking an excellent online course, in addition to going to some face-to-face trainings, I finally learned how to really talk to kids about death. The online course “Using Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with Childhood Traumatic Grief” especially lays it out for us. The course is for clinicians, but it’s an excellent resource for anyone who works with kids or has children of their own. I highly recommend it.
Every course and training I’ve had on childhood grief tells us to begin by talking about the topic directly. This can be done in several different ways, such as by reading books with the child. Reading books about death and grief not only provides the child with information, it also speaks to our children in their own language. It lets the child know that it’s okay to talk about death and ask questions, and it also promotes more open discussion with family members. There are numerous appropriate books to choose from for all ages. Another strategy is to play grief-specific board games. While most of these are marketed toward clinicians to use in therapy with grieving children, parents can also purchase these games at specialty websites. You can google “grief games for children,” and you’ll find plenty of online stores to choose from.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Next, it’s important to focus on the child’s beliefs and own understanding about death. You can ask your child to draw or write what she thinks happens when someone dies; this is one good way to learn more about their personal thoughts and beliefs. This is also a point in which we as parents can correct inaccurate information or misconceptions.
Of course, we all have different beliefs about what happens after we die. It’s okay to incorporate these beliefs into your discussions with your child, just be careful about the way you word some of your information. More on that in a bit.
Finally, address your child’s feelings about the death. This provides your child the opportunity to identify his own grief response. It then gives you the opportunity to normalize your child’s feelings. Depending on your child’s developmental level and feelings vocabulary (e.g., the feelings they are able to identify), we can use tools like feelings faces charts (google this and I promise you’ll find a ton of them), journaling and writing, or simply drawing how they feel.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Consider Their Developmental Age

It’s no big secret that children’s knowledge about death and the way they respond to it vary by age and their developmental level. It’s important to keep this in mind when you’re listening to your child express their thoughts and feelings. Some thoughts that may sound unusual to us (as adults) are actually normal for a child at certain ages; there is generally no reason to be concerned about these kinds of thoughts. It’s a good idea to learn what responses are common at your child’s age.
Also, recognize that there is no grief “timeline.” There is no set order to what people feel; there is no “normal” amount of time to grieve. You might notice your child continuing to experience “pangs” of grief even after a period of time during which their grief has lessened. This is normal.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Make Sure Your Kids Feel a Sense of Safety

Depending on the circumstances of the death, help your child by reassuring them that you will do whatever is possible to keep them safe. Again, depending on the circumstances, children may benefit from learning how to stay safe themselves by developing a safety plan.

Common Terms to Use When Talking to Your Child About Death

Like I said earlier, kids receive a LOT of confusing messages about death. Most people typically don’t even like to use the words “death,” “dying,” or “dead;” instead we use words to disguise death. While these terms (such as “passed away”) are intended to protect our kids from the reality of death, they can contribute to children’s confusion. Younger kid in particular aren’t yet able to understand that when people die, it’s forever, that they can’t come back to life, and that everyone will eventually die someday.
The most important thing you can do for your child during difficult times like grieving is to be honest and direct. Use language that is accurate and of course, appropriate to the child’s age.
You can start by talking to your child about the actual physical process of death. The child needs to hear that the person who died is no longer physically present and that they can’t come back. What you say about the cause of death will vary according to the circumstances of the death, of course, but saying the words “death” or “died” is best. Religious explanations can be incorporated into any discussion that includes these main concepts. Again, books are an excellent way to help you and your child use the correct language.
Some examples of common phrases you might want to consider:
  • “Now that your grandpa died, he can’t breathe or eat anymore. We can’t see him, but we can remember him.”
  • “People die when they are very sick and there isn’t any more medicine to help them.”
  • “Daddy died and he is in heaven.”
It’s important to clarify, however, that people who are alive can’t get to heaven and that those who are dead can’t come back. You may need to balance the explanation based on your family’s beliefs with an understanding that there is a chance of possible misunderstood meanings when you talk to your kids. For example, if you say “Daddy is an angel now, and he’s watching over us from heaven,” you may need to elaborate more, as children may get the feeling that Daddy is still alive, that heaven is a place they can visit, and that he sees everything they do.

What to Avoid Saying to Your Child When Talking About Death

Slang and euphemisms should be avoided, as they can be confusing to young children. Be aware that kids may attach concrete or inaccurate meaning to different words and phrases. For instance, saying, “We lost Grandpa” can be upsetting, as it can imply that Grandpa was misplaced or that he could still be “found.” Telling a child that “Mommy is sleeping now” can also be quite confusing, as it can imply that Mommy can wake up; it could also potentially leave your child with a worry or fear about falling asleep himself.
Some common phrases to avoid:
  • “He went to sleep.”
  • “We lost your sister.”
  • “She went on a trip.”
  • “He croaked.”
  • “She kicked the bucket.”
  • “He went to the big ranch in the sky.”
As you can probably see, these phrases can only further confuse your child about a topic that he is not so sure about in the first place.

Free Printable Summary of This Article

Click on the link below to receive a free printable summary of this article, with suggestions of what to say and what to avoid saying to your grieving child.
Information for this article can be largely contributed to the online course “Using TF-CBT with Childhood Traumatic Grief” found at CTG Web ( and various other trainings offered to counselors and social workers.
ByStacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC

Good Behavior Jars

I have a confession. I’m human. I work with lots of kids and families, but I’ll be the first to admit that I am NOT a perfect parent. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed, sometimes I am too strict, sometimes I’m too lenient. Sometimes I even raise my voice (okay, sometimes I even yell). The truth is, some days I just don’t feel like being a parent, and that makes it awfully hard when you know that you still have to be, regardless of whether you feel like it or not.

Sometimes I get caught up in making sure my kids know what they “should” be doing or what they’re doing wrong, trying to make them responsible and raise them to be good, decent human beings. Sometimes I forget to tell them all the great things they’re doing right, because believe me, regardless of how tough the day’s been, they’re doing A LOT of stuff right too.

Realizing this, I came up with an idea (because I’m a problem solver). I needed something to help me remember to let them know that they’re doing some really great things, and I needed a reminder for myself to stop focusing on the misbehavior so much and start focusing on all the ways my kids are actually really awesome. By doing this, it’s actually a pretty neat strategy to get more positive behaviors from your children. It also helps your kids to start thinking more positively about themselves – and to realize that hey, you were paying attention after all.

Good Behavior Jars

In all my years of training and experience, I’ve learned to emphasize “Catch Them Being Good.” That’s the idea behind my idea: making Good Behavior Jars for my own children. I was afraid my own kids weren’t hearing enough of what they we’re doing “right,” and maybe too much more about what I thought they were doing “wrong.”

So I found two mason jars (because I have two children), and I labeled each with my children’s names. Each night (or early morning), I write them little notes about how proud I am of them or examples of things I caught them doing that I thought were really great that day (or the day before). Then I slip the notes in their own individual jars and let them open them in the morning so they can know that I really did see those good things! If you’re like me and have a child who can’t read yet, this is a great opportunity to sit and read the notes together. (Actually, it’s pretty cool to read the notes together with your older kids too!)

Sometimes when I sit down to start writing, I think I’ll only be writing a couple notes, particularly when we’ve had a particularly rough day, but more often than not, I find that once I start writing, I can’t stop remembering all the great things they did do! Some things I caught in the moment, and most things I didn’t realize in the midst of our rough day.

Here are some examples of the notes I’ve left my own kids:

The notes cheer me up, and more importantly, they help my kids know that they are doing some pretty amazing things (some that they themselves may not have even realized). The ten or fewer minutes I take to write these notes each day helps them think more positively about themselves and actually promotes an increase in positive behaviors throughout the day! Now I’m not saying that this is a miracle cure for those rough days. Rough days are normal. You’re going to have them. You’re human! Your kids are human! But if nothing else, the jars sure help me to remember to focus more on what they’re doing right and to help them know that I noticed. And ask any kid, that’s a pretty big thing in itself.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

ByStacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC

Hostile Aggressive Parenting

I don’t think it’s a big secret to most people that the type of discipline you use in your parenting can have a dramatic effect on your child’s development.

In general, most researchers recognize four main types of parenting styles, and each parenting style uses a different approach to discipline. These four primary styles include authoritarian parenting, authoritative parenting, permissive parenting, and uninvolved (or neglectful) parenting. There is another style of parenting, however, that many people aren’t aware of: Hostile Aggressive Parenting (HAP).

Have you ever heard of it? Most of those who do have knowledge of HAP will tell you that they wish they didn’t because it’s frequently deeply connected with parental alienation. Is it possible that you’re an offender and don’t realize it? Or maybe you know someone guilty of practicing this type of parenting. High conflict families come from ALL socio-economic statuses, as does HAP. Spousal conflict is normal and an expected part of divorce. However, when one or both parents allow the conflict to become excessive, the impact on the children is harmful and destructive.

The inabilty of the parents (or caregivers) to contain and manage their conflict, for the benefit of the children, is an expression of psychological immaturity on one or both parents and shows an inabiity to manage and regulate one’s own emotions. It also represents a profound failure of parental empathy for the kids’ experience.

So, what exactly is Hostile Aggressive Parenting (HAP)?

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Hostile Aggressive Parenting, which you’ll often find shortened to HAP, is most commonly defined as “a general pattern of behavior, manipulation, actions or decision-making of a person (usually a parent or guardian) that either directly or indirectly:
  1. Creates undue difficulties and interference in the relationship of a child with another person (usually a parent or guardian) involved with the parenting and/or rearing the child and/or,
  2. Promotes or maintains an unwarranted unfairness or inequality in the parenting arrangements between a child’s parents and/or guardians and/or,
  3. Promotes ongoing and unnecessary conflict between parents and/or guardians which adversely affects the parenting, well-being and rearing of a child.”
HAP is not limited to just biological parents. Grandparents, step-parents, and other child guardians can also exhibit this type of parenting style. Hostile Aggressive Parenting is considered to be a very serious and damaging form of abuse and maltreatment – contrary to what is in the best interest of any child. The overall goal of HAP is to SEVERELY DAMAGE a child’s relationship with his or her other parent of to GET THEM COMPLETELY OUT of the child’s life.

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Hostile Aggressive Parenting may be seen in cases of high-conflict custody; it is also frequently found in cases of parental alienation. Please note, however, the presence of HAP does not always mean that the existence of parental alienation exists in a case. While this type of parenting may present as a precursor to incidences of parental alienation, it’s incorrect to assume that HAP’s presence guarantees without a doubt that parental alienation is also occurring.
Before we continue, consider looking at the below symptoms as though they set on a continuum. Some things, by themselves anyway, may not seem so bad, while other symptoms are quite extreme. When you lump a number of these experiences together, however, there is most definitely a problem.
  • Badmouthing the other parent in front of the child
  • Interfering with phone communication between the child and the other parent (this can include saying things like, “My phone wasn’t charged when you called,” and other excuses)
  • Not letting the child speak for themselves, never actually hearing anything from the child, only from the “campaigning” parent
  • Undermining the other parent’s authority
  • Playing on the child’s feelings of guilt and sympathy
  • Being very uncooperative when making summer and holiday schedules (or any type of scheduling)
  • Intentionally not involving the other parent in school/daycare (such as not giving the other parent school information or signing the child up for something without telling the other parent)
  • Choosing a third party over the other parent to care for the child in instances where one cannot care for the child him or herself (e.g., refusing to let the other parent care for the child when you have to work and instead choosing to have a neighbor or babysitter care for them instead, even though the other parent is willing, capable, and available) – Please note that this situation does not necessarily apply so much to having willing extended relatives, such as grandparents, watch the child during such a time.
  • Refusing to be flexible (e.g., “I said 4:00, not 4:15!”)
  • Discarding or selling gifts given to the child by the other parent
  • Refusing to participate in activities that the other parent is attending
  • Refusing to meet with the other parent and other professionals
  • Threatening the child with the loss of their love (This may not be said out loud, but it is exhibited by the child getting rewarded for disdain shown toward the other parent.)
  • Having the child spy on the other parent
  • Creating conflict with the child once he returns to their home and then laying blame on the other parent (saying the child’s upset behavior is due to the visitation)
  • Openly violating court orders
  • Fabricating false physical or sexual abuse allegations
  • Not allowing the child communication with the other parent, even on special occasions
  • Speaking negatively about the other parent to the child’s friends, those parents, coaches, schools, etc.
  • Changing the child’s last name
  • Having the child call the other parent by their first name
  • Intense verbal/physical abuse toward the other parent, in front of the child
  • Abduction
  • Rejecting mail from the other parent
  • Interrogating the child after their time with the other parent
  • Encouraging the child to write a nasty letter to the other parent (or even to the judge)
  • Encouraging the child to engage in criminal activity (such as stealing something from the other parent)
  • Instigating and promoting a campaign of denigration against the other parent (“I’m going to destroy you at all costs.”)


And how does this affect the child victims?

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Possible Long-Term Effects of HAP on Children

  • Depression
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
  • Acting out
  • Manipulation
  • Grades decline
  • Physical/somatic complaints
  • Unable to resolve future conflict
  • Difficulties with future relationships
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Lying
  • Fear
  • Inattention
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Peer conflict
  • Truancy


Is there help for these parents and caregivers?

The good news? Yes. The bad news? It can be difficult to convince a parent or caregiver who exhibits this type of parenting style to engage in the help that’s out there.
One very helpful strategy to help these parents (or other caregivers) is to participate in what’s called “co-parenting sessions” with the other parent. In co-parenting sessions, a trained counselor can help the parents/caregivers resolve entrenched parental conflict. A skilled counselor will address and confront underlying issues such as grief, anger, revenge, and parental manipulation. They can teach self-care and resilience strategies to both parties, as well as non-hostile communication skills and conflict resolution strategies. In other words, they teach HEALTHY co-parenting techniques.
It’s important that parents and caregivers who are interested in co-parenting sessions find a trained and skilled Co-Parenting Counselor or a Parenting Coordinator. Often practicing something called family restructuring therapy or other family-focused interventions, these people are trained to best collaborate with caregivers as well as with outside systems such as attorneys, schools, social services, etc. Co-Parenting Counselors and Parent Coordinators are excellent alternative dispute resolution specialists who can help co-parents (and/or others) resolve conflict outside of courtroom. They are experienced in assisting with high conflict family cases. They also work directly with the children, to help identify what really is in their best interest.
Working with parents and caregivers who exhibit HAP requires patience. There are no quick fixes. Absent abuse or neglect or other extenuating factors, Co-Parenting Counselors and Parenting Coordinators assume that kids should have contact with BOTH PARENTS.
Want more information on HAP and parent coordination/co-parenting counseling?
Check these out; they’re amazing resources:
ByStacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC

What Happened to My Sweet Kid?! Little Monster Psychology

Take a minute and think about your child. Picture that excitement in their face right after they learn that their team won that first t-ball game. Can you see that surprised look on their face on Christmas morning when they get that much longed-for gift? Look at their face. Aren’t they the sweetest things ever? Their big round eyes, those long, beautiful eyelashes, that precious little nose, and those sweet lips that kiss your cheek every night before they fall fast asleep in their bed. Look at them. See how sweet they look while they’re fast asleep? And when they wake up so pleasant and well rested every morning and smile at you as they brush their teeth and get ready for school (without even having to be asked!), can you see them?

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Wait. What?

 Okay, so maybe you were able to visualize just how sweet they look once they’re asleep… assuming that you’re one of the lucky ones who has a child who sleeps. And I bet you can see how precious their face looks when they’re happy and content. But did I lose you at the end? Yeah, that may have been a little fiction I stuck in there. At least for many of us parents, that last part – the waking up so pleasant and smiling as they go about their morning routine – is a pretty rare scene.
My own kid is not quite so pleasant to wake up. He moans and groans and asks me for the billionth time why he has to go to school. Then he rolls over, pretending like this hasn’t been the routine for years now. He mumbles and grunts to himself as he gets dressed and eats his breakfast. And as far as brushing his teeth… Some days that takes some real work. He’ll do it, but he decided a long time ago that he doesn’t have to be happy about it. As for after school, some days are less than fun for either of us. There’s homework to be done, practice to go to, and there are baths to take. Some days he does all of this willingly and with little complaint. Then there are the days where he’s grumpy for one reason or another, and that’s when the fun begins. He wants something or he wants to go somewhere, and well, the answer just can’t always be yes. And then…
But wait, weren’t they just babies yesterday? They were so sweet. Remember when they wanted to cuddle with you? Remember those little kisses on your cheek and how innocent they seemed. And then you think about this day that you’re having now. The one where your child asked you to buy them something beyond expensive or wanted to hang out with that kid from down the street that likes to swear at everyone and smokes cigarettes when he thinks no one is looking. And you say no. Then all of a sudden, they don’t seem so pleasant and sweet. They seem… almost like a monster. WHY?!!

Little Monster Psychology

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In each developmental phase, kids wrestle with new skills and abilities, and these are some real struggles for them. Assuming the phase goes well, after a period of intense struggle and effort, finally a breakthrough occurs. A personal victory that changes everything. The child discards his old way of doing things and determines to keep moving forward.
Each time your child masters a new skill, be it learning how to use a spoon by himself or learning how to drive a car, he makes a leap in maturity. And he loves this feeling of mastery; it’s a rush of confidence in his own abilities. He is now stronger and more powerful. And we as parents are right there cheering them on, we’re so proud of them! This parental applause motivates them to keep striving for more mastery. To keep moving forward.
Here’s the thing though. That drive for independence, the one each and every child (and person, in general) holds within them… Well, it promotes conflict too. With mastery comes a yearning for more independence. In other words, kids will begin to reject their parent’s support. Imagine the baby who has just learned how to use the spoon by herself. Then you, the parent, try helping her use the spoon one day when you see that she could probably use a little assistance. The baby doesn’t want your help though and swats your hand away. And the more you try to help, the madder she gets.
To complicate all of this, inexperience and impulsivity play in to this drive for greater independence. Kids don’t know their limits. They don’t always know what’s good for them and what’s not. They aren’t sure when to stop and when to go. The thing they do know though is that they don’t want their parents hovering over them every step of the way. This means that eventually every parent has the unpopular job of going against their kid’s will.
Let me repeat that. EVERY PARENT has the unpopular job of going against their kid’s will, at least sometimes (and usually more often than that).
Here’s something else that’s pretty important. It’s IMPOSSIBLE to be a good parent without saying no from time to time.
So the battle of wills begins. You see, kids don’t really like hearing the word no. Do you? Kids are perplexed when they’re prevented from getting what they want. “What? Why are you doing this to me?! Can’t you see…?”
They don’t understand that we’re protecting them. To them, it feels like restraint, and they don’t like it. Not. One. Bit.
It’s actually human nature to rebel against restrictions, and no kid wants a parent standing between them and what they want. Yes, nature puts kids and their parents on a collision course. That’s why, eventually, all healthy kids must enter into battle with their parents. This fight is natural and necessary. It’s how kids can begin to define themselves as different from their parents.
That’s right. Kids have their own wants and needs, their own interests; if kids are too accommodating or compliant with their parents, they will grow to lack confidence and self-definition in life. In every developmental stage, kids instinctively battle against their parents’ restrictions. And as parents impose their will on their kids, sparks fly. These clashes are unavoidable and an IMPORTANT part of parenting.

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Now we as parents enter into a crucial moment after we set a restriction for our child. The child will see how far he can push his parents and give him what he wants. It’s his will against theirs. It’s up to us, the parent, to decide what we’re going to do at this point: stay firm and refuse to give in to demands, or concede to the child’s demands. Sometimes the choice is an easy one, such as one where we are trying to protect them from a potentially dangerous situation. Sometimes the choice is more difficult to make. Should we give in? Should we negotiate? Not all choices are black and white, but it’s up to us as parents to do our best to help our children and protect them. It’s up to us to help our “little monsters.”
ByStacy Garcia, MA, LPC, NCC

8 Parenting Resolutions for the New Year (with Free Printable)

One of my New Year’s resolutions this year was to “be a better parent.” Okay, so it’s one of my resolutions every year. Every. Single. Year. Yes, I strive for this every year because the truth is that I’m by far not a perfect parent. I sometimes lose my patience. Sometimes I get frustrated and raise my voice. Okay, honestly, sometimes I even yell. Yes, I know, this is what every single parenting book I’ve ever read says not to do. But I’m human. I have emotions. And some days are hard. Really hard. My mind is on something else, I’m overwhelmed, I’m stressed, I’m tired, I’m in a hurry. And on top of everything else we grown-ups have to do, we’re expected to be “perfect parents.” Our society tells us that anyway. But the truth is, there are no “perfect parents,” just parents who are, darn it, doing the best we can.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t strive to do “better” in my role as a parent. Even those that we perceive as excellent parents still aren’t sure they’re doing it right. We’re all just doing the best that we can, and honestly, that on top of loving and caring for your kids, is what I consider to be good parenting. We don’t have to be perfect for us to be good parents, so let’s first preface this article with a resolution to stop being so hard on ourselves!

Even though I know with one hundred percent certainty that I will never be a “perfect parent,” I still strive every day, moment by moment, to do the best I can. So I came up with eight parenting resolutions for us parents who made this one of our goals this year.

1. Recognize the Goals of Discipline

One of the most important things that we, as parents, can do is recognize the goals of discipline. Too often, we respond to our child’s misbehavior as though consequences are the ultimate goal. This isn’t true. According to Drs. Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, as they wrote in their book “No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind” there are two basic goals of why we discipline our kids:
  1. To attain cooperation in the short-term
  2. To instruct our kids in ways that help them develop the skills and resiliency to handle and cope with life’s challenging situations, frustrations, and emotional storms (in the long-term)

2. Be Responsive, Not Reactive

How do we typically try to accomplish these discipline goals? Threats and punishment. Our child misbehaves, and we dish out the consequence, right? So what’s really going on is that our kids ACT and in response, we REACT.
Well, you ask, what else are we supposed to do? Just let our child get away with their misbehavior? Absolutely not. To be more effective in accomplishing what we’re setting out to do (our goals of discipline), we should instead RESPOND to our child’s behavior. Instead of being REACTIVE, we want to strive to be RESPONSIVE to our children.

3. Be Intentional

So how do we become responsive? By being INTENTIONAL. By making CONSCIOUS DECISIONS based on principles that we’ve thought about and agreed on BEFORE a misbehavior even occurs. This means considering various options and then choosing the one that helps us achieve, or at least move toward, our intended outcome (the goals of discipline). What lesson do you want to teach? Are you wanting your child to learn self-control? Understand the importance of sharing? To act responsibly?
Whatever you’re trying to teach, your response should be directly related to your goal. Yelling and screaming demands at your child when he punches the wall in anger isn’t going to actually teach him how to handle his anger more appropriately. In fact, our reacting like that will only model for him the opposite of what you’re looking to teach.  Really, think about it. What are we really teaching him when we ourselves clench our teeth, spit out a rule, or spank them in reactive anger?
Using fear and punishment actually teaches our kids that POWER and CONTROL are the best tools to get others to do what we want them to do. I don’t know about you, but that’s definitely NOT what I want my child to learn from this kind of situation. Not only are our hair-trigger reactions generally not going to be very effective in getting our message across (especially when you consider the long-term), but this kind of reaction is also counterproductive in terms of building your child’s brain.

4. Connect and Redirect

What are we supposed to do? How do we teach our children to be more cooperative, to learn self-control, to become more responsible?
Dr. Siegel and Dr. Bryson encourage and teach us to CONNECT AND REDIRECT. When your child misbehaves, do you still love them? Sure, you might be angry with their actions at that moment, but you still love them, right? We want our kids to know that we love them. We may not like their particular choices or actions at certain moments, but even when we’re angry, we still love them. LET THEM KNOW that we love them not only during times when they’re making us proud, not only when they’re displaying kindness to others, and not only when they’re home playing quietly and showing cooperation. SHOW them you love them when you’re addressing their misbehavior too.
 Connection means giving our kiddos our attention and letting them know that we respect them enough to listen to them. It means letting them know that we value their contribution in working together to solve the problem at hand and communicating to them that WE’RE ON THEIR SIDE – whether we like the way they’re acting or not.
Make no mistake, connection is NOT the same thing as permissiveness. That connection should be COMBINED with clear and firm boundaries that create structure for our kids. That’s where the “redirection” comes in…
 Once you connect with your child and she is more calm, we can then redirect her toward more appropriate behavior and help her see that there IS a better way. Here’s something to remember. Until your child has calmed (or regulated) her emotions at least to a certain extent (reaching closer to her emotion equilibrium, as we psych folks call it), she isn’t going to hear a word you’re saying, regardless of how logical and rational your explanation might be.
 Not only is your child physiologically wired like that, that’s how ALL humans are wired. When we experience a stressful or threatening situation, our body reacts in ways to help us deal with the perceived danger. Our body shuts down its nonessential systems and begins to channel blood flow to our large muscles. Then it begins creating extra fuel for energy. It heightens our sensitivity to signs of danger, all the while releasing hormones that will help us deal with the stress. When all this occurs, it also impairs our ability to process information and to think clearly before we speak – exactly the abilities we need to have in order to work through difficult situations. This process is called flooding. And when we become flooded, we operate from a self-preservation mindset. We seek then to protect ourselves (think fight, flight, or freeze).
When our emotional arousal is really high like that, our thinking and reasoning abilities are overwhelmed. Consequently, we say and do things that reflect being overwhelmed. Once our emotional arousal goes up, our thinking abilities go down, and we start to lose the emotional balance we need to communicate effectively. Then we become reactive. Being upset and likely having a lot of negative thoughts in that moment, we start to say things that don’t always reflect what we really want (like attention, understanding, and so on). Instead, we just end up saying something bitter or nasty.
Now let’s apply this to our misbehaving child. She misbehaved, and now she knows that she’s in trouble. When we’re in trouble, our brains send signals to our body that we are in a dangerous or stressful situation, so just like every other human, her brain sends her body that same signal. Nonessential systems are shut down. Emotional arousal goes up. Thinking abilities? They’re likely out the window right now. Now start talking to her. Does she hear you? Probably not, remember that her body’s nonessential systems are shut down at the moment. She’s in survival mode now. You might be too. Best to connect and let her calm herself (you may need to help her do this, particularly if she’s very young) so she can reach equilibrium again so she can begin fully understanding what you’re saying.

5. Ask Yourself, “Why? What? How?”

While all of the above is going on, this is the perfect time to think about how to respond to your child’s misbehavior. Dr. Siegel and Dr. Bryson provide us with an excellent model in which we can take the time to ask ourselves three important questions. Remembering these questions (and answering them) is important and can help us respond to each and every misbehavior our kids is exhibiting.
 WHY did my child act this way?
Look at what your child is doing, and ask yourself why he might be acting the way he is. Look deep at what’s going on beneath his particular misbehavior. I personally recommend using Positive Discipline’s Mistaken Goal Chart for this (check out #6 below). When asking yourself this question, try not to approach it with assumptions; instead, approach it with curiosity. An assumption would be asking yourself this question and deciding right away that your kid’s just being a brat, plain and simple. Or he’s just being selfish or spoiled. Approaching this with curiosity, however, will help you recognize that there’s very likely something deeper going on (again, check out #6 where we’ll briefly look at “breaking the code”).
WHAT lesson do I want to teach in this moment?
The goal of discipline is not to dish out consequences. We want to teach our child some lesson. Maybe it’s learning how to control his emotions more appropriately. Maybe it’s for him to understand the value and importance of sharing, or perhaps you want him to start acting more responsibly. Whatever the lesson you want to teach, keep this in mind when choosing how you want to discipline his misbehavior.
HOW can I best teach this lesson?
Remember your answer from the previous question? Okay, now think about how you can most effectively communicate that message you want to get across. It’s important that when pondering this question, you also consider your child’s age, their developmental stage, and the context of the situation (did he realize the bullhorn was on before he raised it to the dog’s ear?).
Imagine that your four-year-old comes up and smacks you really hard while you’re emailing something important for work and can’t stop right away to play. This very act is likely enough to trigger your own emotion regulation system, so first it’s important to remember to take a moment for yourself to calm down so to avoid simply reacting. (I know, easy to say and harder to do, but you can do it!) This pause between reacting and responding is the beginning of choice and intention as a parent.
As soon as you’re able, you then want to pause and ask yourself the three questions:
  1.  Why did my child act this way? More than likely in this case, she hit you because she wanted your attention and wasn’t getting it. First consider her age. Is this behavior typical of a four-year-old who is wanting attention and can’t immediately get it? Definitely. Is the behavior pretty developmentally appropriate for a four-year-old in this situation? Absolutely. It’s hard for any child this age to wait. Add that to her big feelings of this moment, and you likely have a recipe for dysregulation and misbehavior. At four, she’s not old enough yet to be able to always be able to calm herself effectively or even quickly enough to prevent acting out. In that moment, hitting is her default strategy for expressing her big feelings of frustration and impatience. She still needs some time and skill-building practice to learn how to appropriately handle her anger and for delaying gratification. That’s why she hit you. She wasn’t just being a brat, I promise.
  2. What lesson do I want to teach in this moment? What do you want her to learn from this? Obviously, just because she’s four and not developmentally capable yet of always being able to handle her big emotions appropriately, we can’t just let her walk around hitting people. The lesson isn’t that hitting merits a consequence; the lesson is that there are better ways of getting your attention and handling her frustration than to resort to violence. You want her to learn that hitting isn’t okay, not that feeling frustrated or angry isn’t okay.
  3. How can I best teach this lesson? First, try connecting with her. Pull her to you, get on her eye level, and let her know that she has your full attention. Acknowledge (validate) her feelings and model how to communicate those emotions more appropriately: “It’s hard to wait. You really wanted me to play with you, and right now you’re mad that I’m busy. Is that right?” Now she knows that she has your attention, and you have hers too. Now talk with her, keeping in mind that as she becomes calmer, she’ll be better able to listen and actually hear what you’re saying. Explain that hitting isn’t alright, and talk about some other alternatives she can use in order to get your attention.

Click for your free poster to help remind you of the 3 questions!


6. Break the Code

In all likelihood, you’ve probably already figured out in your years as a parent that kids seem to speak a language of their own. The way kids “speak” is most often portrayed in play and behaviors. With children and adults alike, all behavior is purposeful. This is actually one of the major premises of Dr. William Glasser’s Choice Theory. Dr. Glasser, who is also the founder of Reality Therapy, notes that almost all behavior is chosen and that we’re driven to satisfy five basic needs: survival, love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun. In essence, behavior has a purpose. “All of our behavior is our best attempt at the time, given the resources at our disposal (knowledge, skills, etc.) to meet our needs.”

As I already noted, children and adolescents are no exception to this theory. In fact, it’s quite evident once you “break their code.” The behaviors they exhibit are done so in order to satisfy their needs, particularly their need for love and belonging.
Positive Discipline, a parenting program founded by Dr. Jane Nelsen that teaches young people to “become responsible, respectful, and resourceful members of their communities,” uses what I consider to be one of the best and most valuable resources to help us “break the code” of our child’s misbehavior: The Mistaken Goal Chart.
Seriously, you’ve got to get your hands on one of these. You can find an excellent PDF version of The Mistaken Goal Chart here, or if you have very young children (ages 0-3), here’s a great PDF version especially for parents of those kiddos. Really, print that out. I use it in parenting my own children, as well as in my own private practice when working with children and teens. And if you’re looking for an excellent parenting resource, check out Positive Discipline; it’s widely used and praised by many, many psychologists and therapists.
According to Dr. Nelsen, “‘Mistaken goals’ are called such because their behavior is based on mistaken beliefs about how to achieve the primary goals of belonging and significance.” There are four mistaken goals of behavior:
  1. Undue attention – to keep others busy or get special service
  2. Misguided power – to be boss
  3. Revenge – to get even
  4. Assumed inadequacy – to give up and be left alone

Let me briefly summarize.

  If your child’s goal is undue attention, then his mistaken belief is “I belong only when you pay constant attention to me, and/or give me special service.” But let’s look at the coded message; this is what he’s actually saying: “NOTICE ME. INVOLVE ME USEFULLY.”
 If your child’s goal is misguided power, his mistaken belief is “I belong only when I’m the boss, or at least when I don’t let you boss me around.” Coded message: “LET ME HELP.”
If the goal is for revenge, his belief is “I don’t belong, and that hurts, so I’ll get even by hurting others.” Code for: “I’M HURTING. VALIDATE MY FEELINGS.”
 And finally, if his goal is assumed inadequacy, his mistaken belief is “I give up. Leave me alone.” Again, the coded message: “DON’T GIVE UP ON ME. SHOW ME A SMALL STEP.”
Look again at coded messages. All of a sudden, instead of just anger, annoyance, irritation, and helplessness, you’re liable to also feel a little compassion for what the child must be going through. If a child could say “Don’t give up on me,” instead of portraying through their actions “I give up, leave me alone,” it helps us begin to answer that question from earlier: “WHY is my child acting this way?” Looking at it that way, from their core belief, helps us to better help them.
 Think about it this way: Imagine an iceberg. We only see the tip of the iceberg. The belief is hidden underneath. We just have to remember to look for it.

 7. Validate feelings

Imagine this common scene between a caring mother and her child (found in “Positive Discipline Parenting Tools” by Dr. Nelsen, Mary Nelsen Tamborski, and Brad Ainge):

Billy is sad because his friend doesn’t want to play with him.

Billy’s mom tries to comfort him by saying,

“Don’t feel sad, Billy. You have other friends, and I love you.”

Okay, raise your hand if you have been an actor yourself in this play. Don’t be shy, my hand’s raised too. Raise your hand again if you remember being the child actor in this scene when you were younger. My hand’s raised.

Let me first preface what I’m about to say with the fact that, maybe like your own parents or caregivers, Billy’s mother cares and loves him a lot. She’s in no way intentionally trying to do the opposite of what I’m getting ready to say here. Just like you and I are also not trying to purposely do the opposite when the same scene plays out with our own kids. Billy’s mom loves Billy and is sincerely trying to help him and comfort him. Unfortunately, she’s not validating her son’s feelings here.

As children, we’re often taught that we shouldn’t feel certain feelings. Not because of malicious parents and caregivers, but because of parents and caregivers who are actually trying to protect us and shield us from those negative feelings. Often we do the same with our own children. It’s important that we instead, validate our child’s feelings and experiences: “You‘re sad because your friend doesn’t want to play today. I know how much that hurts. I felt the same way when my friends didn’t want to play with me.”

Do you see the difference? It’s an important tweak to the wording. By validating our kids’ feelings we’re allowing them to discover that all feelings are normal and okay, that they can work through their feelings, and that they can even learn from them. Just something for us all to remember the next time we feel like fixing, squelching, or  denying our child’s feelings. If you’re not quite sure what to say in responding to your child when they’re feeling their big feelings, try something like “How are you feeling about that?” or “I can see that makes you very mad,” or “Little brothers can be so annoying.” Obviously you would want to substitute the appropriate words based on the situation. 😉

8. Empower

Finally, one more thing  for us parents and caregivers to aim for is to strive to empower our kids. Share control with your kids so they can develop the skills they need to have power over their own lives. Some suggestions for how to do this (Positive Discipline):

  • Teach life skills.
  • Focus on solutions together.
  • Have faith in your children.
  • Let go (in small steps).
  • Increase self-awareness: “How do you feel? What do you think? How does this affect what you want in your life?”

Alright, there you have it. Eight of my parenting resolutions for the new year. Wish me luck (and lots of patience)!

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