Parents – RU really OK?

Amanda Abel – Paediatric Psychologist & Founding Director

Earlier this week I received a late-night email from Madeline Sibbing – one of our Principal Psychologists. It was something along the lines of “I can’t (insert expletive!) believe I forgot to write a blog post about RU OK Day – it is this week”. She mentioned how angry she was with herself.

After reminding her not to beat herself up, it got me thinking about the situation we find ourselves in right now and that Madeline’s 2020 RUOK Day blog post would unfortunately still apply this year as we still find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic, juggling remote learning and working from home. But this time it is different. This year we are all exhausted. We’ve been playing this juggling game intermittently here in Melbourne for 18 months now – with little teasers of ‘freedom’ in between the 6 lockdowns we’ve had so far. And as for the rest of Australia and the world – everyone is struggling in some way or another as a result of COVID.

There’s no doubt that COVID and lockdowns have significantly impacted parents. In fact, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in June 2021 that 23% of women experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress due to the pandemic, compared with 17% of men. The same survey also found that more Victorians experienced psychological distress than the rest of Australia. And here we are again – locked down, working from home and remote learning. But this time, we are seeing the impact that 2020 – and the continuation of the pandemic, has had on our children. Hospitals are seeing a significant increase in child and youth mental health admissions, and our mental health system is overloaded with demand for services. Many of the parents I’ve spoken to clinically are experiencing stress about work, guilt about their children’s education and are mentally and physically exhausted.

I share this story with you because Madeline’s feelings of anger at herself might ring true to you. We need to accept that this is NOT a normal situation to be in. We can’t expect ourselves to perform to our usual high standard, remember everything, be the teacher to our kids, support our family and come out of the other side of this pandemic in one piece.

So please, have a read of last year’s RU OK Day blog post, where in 2020 Madeline reminded us to check in with our friends who are struggling. This is still applicable today unfortunately.

And if you need some ideas to keep going through the remainder of this lockdown take some simple steps to help your body’s natural response to stress kick in:

  • Slow your breathing down – inhale for a count of about 5, hold, then exhale for a count of 10. Ensure your ribcage and abdomen expand.
  • End your shower with cold water or immerse your face in cold water
  • Laugh
  • Engage in non-screen-based activities that you really enjoy

Some general ideas that can help parents who are working from home with little remote learners by their sides are:

  • Set aside time to play and connect meaningfully with your kids (make a list if you find it hard to think on the spot)
  • Get physical daily – even if it is dancing with the kids or playing chasey
  • Spend time in nature – which is known to reduce stress
  • Give yourself permission to say ‘no’ to extra work demands
  • Allow yourself dedicated ‘worry time’ – try not to think about work stress until your designated ‘worry time’ each day. This allows you to be more present with your kids and contain your stress so that your reactions to the kids can be focussed on their emotional needs rather than a response to your own stress.
  • Try mediating apps (Headspace is great, or even try YouTube for some freebies) – there are some super short 3-minute mediations that you’ll be able to fit in. You can even try embedding meditation into the daily routine with the kids so they can reap the benefits too.
  • Be flexible in your working habits, with later or earlier starts or day swaps if needed and if possible.
  • Increase structure into your workday by forming some WFH routines (coffee breaks, lunch with the kids etc.).
  • You can also increase structure into your kids’ lives which reduces anxiety and difficult behaviours – things like visual schedules, reward charts and house rules can work a treat if used consistently.
  • Try to embed fun into your lockdown life. Have a picnic in front of the TV for dinner or camp in the back garden. As important as structure is, we also need some variation to keep a sense of novelty in our lives!

Remember, this won’t be forever so it can help to find solutions that simply work for now. If you need to let things slip a bit with the kids, then that is absolutely what you should be doing. At the end of the day, the most important thing your family needs is to know that you’re all loved – and for your kids to understand that they are a priority in your life. If choosing not to argue over your child’s schoolwork means that you’ll all still be talking to each other by the end of the day, then that’s the option to take. Help is available at Parentline Victoria on 13 22 89, Kids Helpline 1800 551 800 or Lifeline 13 11 14. You can also speak to your GP about a referral to see a psychologist for ongoing support.

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development (HCCD). She consults monthly in Beechworth in North-East Victoria. Amanda frequently presents at both academic and parenting events, most recently at the 7th Learning Differences Convention in Melbourne and Sydney in 2019 as well as many other events hosted by PR companies in Melbourne. Amanda is media trained, appearing on Channel 7 and 9 News and regularly features in print media. As a contributor to Finch Publishing’s “Working Mums” book, Amanda shared her insights about juggling a business and parenting.

Keeping Kids Busy During The Weekly Supermarket Shop

Something I consistently come across in my work with parents of younger children is the dreaded trip to the supermarket. Whether it is refusal from the child to go, resistance during the shop or the unfortunate event of a meltdown in the middle of your supermarket, shopping can be an incredibly stressful experience for parents. In my practice I often refer to going to the supermarket as a ‘high-risk’ situation for parents, and as such it is important to come prepared.

One quick way to reduce resistance during the weekly supermarket shop is to establish a specific task for your child. Tasks can be adjusted to the age of your child and can be made as simple or complicated as need. Examples of tasks include preparing a shopping list for the child to check off during the shop, allocating specific items that the child is responsible for getting or assigning particular items that the child must work out the best bargain for. While adding more responsibilities to an already resistant child can seem counterproductive, providing them with a sense of purpose and achievement throughout the shop is a great way to keep a child engaged and out of mischief.

child in supermarket

If supermarket shopping is particularly difficult for your child, another helpful way to reduce the pressure on yourself and your child is to have a prepacked small bag of games or activities. These can include anything from activity books, playdoh, colouring sheets or action figures. It is essential that whatever items you pick, these are not something that the child regularly has access to at home. It is also recommended to pick toys that do not have small parts that can easily get left behind during a big shop. Having a prepacked bag that can be stored in the car and easily taken out at the shops is a great to reduce the pressure of a big shop.

Last but not least, if you are feeling particularly creative another great way to keep children entertained during your supermarket shop is to make a game out of your surroundings. Asking your child if they can guess what item is next in the trolley from your clues or to spot which of their snacks has a particular letter, number or colour in the packaging is a great way to entertain and teach at the same time.

Remember, whichever activity you choose, the more fun and inclusive you make it, the more likely your child is to stay engaged during your shop.

 

Laura Moresi is a psychologist at Northern and Hawthorn Centre for Child Developmentand is completing the Educational and Developmental registrar program. Laura is passionate about working collaboratively with families and other professionals to support children and adolescents to reach their best potential. Laura has experience working with a variety of development and mental health concerns.

How to teach your child to share

‘Sharing is caring’- how often do we say that to kids?! Parents often bemoan the fact that their child seems unwilling to share things with their siblings or their peers at playgroup or day care. Sharing is an important skill that we use throughout our lives- so how do we teach kids to do it with minimal fuss?

children playing chalk

The first thing to remember is that it is developmentally appropriate for children younger than 3 years old to be possessive of their things. They are still in what we term the ‘egocentric stage’- that is, the belief that the world revolves around them and everything belongs to them. It is unreasonable to expect very young children to share, and indeed their play at these ages tends to be ‘parallel’ in nature.

So, what about when they are older then? Here are some suggested tips:

  • Remember that sharing is a skill that is learnt like any other, so your child needs opportunities to practice it, as well as your praise and encouragement.
  • Model sharing and turn taking yourself (in your interactions with your child and with others)
  • Support them in play by talking them through the steps (e.g. “I’ll put the square in first, then you can do the circle”).
  • Before other children come over to play, talk about that they will need to share some things (and put away any very ‘special’ toys).
  • If two children are fighting over a toy, remove that specific toy for a short period of time.
  • Remind them how they would feel if they did not get to have a turn.
  • Use a timer (e.g. they can play with it for 2 minutes before it is the next child’s turn).
  • Use language around ‘turn taking’ rather than ‘sharing’. Also remember that a child may be confused when you say they are ‘sharing’, but then do not get that thing back (e.g. if you ‘share’ their biscuit!). Try to keep your language as clear as possible.
  • Sometimes take a step back and let them develop their negotiation skills- they will get there with practice!

 

Olivia Smith is an endorsed Educational and Developmental Psychologist at Northern & Hawthorn Centre for Child Development and is a strong believer in the importance of working collaboratively with families and other professionals to ensure a holistic approach to child wellbeing. She is passionate about advocating for and working with children presenting with anxiety and/or neurodiversity (e.g. ASD, ADHD and specific learning disorders) and their families. Olivia strives to make therapy sessions engaging, effective and applicable to everyday life, and views the relationship between child and therapist as key to success. She is also a certified SOS-feeding therapist.

 

Help! I think my child is entitled: Ways to keep your kids’ feet on the ground

Olivia Smith, educational and developmental psychologist at Northern & Hawthorn Centre for Child Development shares some insights for you…

It can be a confronting realisation for parents: you buy your child yet another toy, or clean up after them, and there is not one ounce of gratitude. You might reflect that your own childhood was completely different- why does your child not realise how lucky they are?

Changes over time mean that more children are (often inadvertently) spoilt than ever. Parents tend to be more time poor and lack the energy to ‘fight’ their kids; they want to give their child all the things they did not have as kids; and modern technology, in which everything is available at the click of the button, means this generation is not used to the idea of having to wait. And yet we know that children who are ‘entitled’ usually end up unsuccessful and unhappy as adults. So how do we address this?

 

child in tiara

 

  • First, remember that you are your child’s parent, and not their friend. Your job is to prepare them for life as an adult, which may result in disappointments along the way. It is okay for your child to not always ‘like you’. In the long-term, children feel more secure when clear limits are in place.
  • Be clear in your expectations of your child and stay firm. Do not engage in arguments with them, ignore ‘whining’ and stay calm.
  • It is okay to say ‘no’. Experiencing some adversity allows us to grow.
  • It is reasonable to expect your child to do things they can do themselves. If needed, you can put extra supports in place, such as helping them write a checklist or getting them to pack their schoolbag the night before.
  • Implement some natural consequences. For example, if your child is too rough with something and breaks it, do not replace it straight away.
  • Teach your child the life skill of delayed gratification (e.g. I must wait until Christmas for the toy that I want).
  • Completion of certain tasks should be expected as a ‘contribution to the family’. You can however offer pocket money for additional tasks that go above and beyond this, but this only works if the pocket money is contingent on completing the tasks. This teaches your child that they must ‘earn’ what they want. Older teenagers should be encouraged to engage in part-time work for similar reasons, needing to ‘save’ for big purchases such as a new phone or their first car.
  • Model expressing gratitude and encourage your child to engage in these practices, such as writing thank you notes for gifts. Regular giving to and participating in charity work as a family also teaches your child important life lessons.

 

Olivia Smith is an endorsed Educational and Developmental Psychologist and is a strong believer in the importance of working collaboratively with families and other professionals to ensure a holistic approach to child wellbeing. She is passionate about advocating for and working with children presenting with anxiety and/or neurodiversity (e.g. ASD, ADHD and specific learning disorders) and their families. Olivia strives to make therapy sessions engaging, effective and applicable to everyday life, and views the relationship between child and therapist as key to success. She is also a certified SOS-feeding therapist.

 

Getting your child to understand and express their emotions- what you should know

Olivia Smith – Educational and Developmental Psychologist atNorthern & Hawthorn Centre for Child Development

It goes without saying that for most kids, different events are a BIG DEAL. When it is their birthday, they are SO EXCITED. When they lose their favourite toy, they are SO SAD. And when you tell them they need to turn off the iPad now and go to bed… that is SO UNFAIR. Sometimes these emotional reactions seem totally out of proportion to what has occurred and can seem baffling and overwhelming to parents. How can we help our kids manage these big emotions?

It is important to remember that children’s brains are still developing, and this also applies to their ability (or inability) to manage strong emotions. Emotion regulation is not a skill we are born with, but something that grows as we mature over time. Importantly, it is largely a learnt skill, and something we must explicitly teach kids. What does this look like?

neon smiley face

 

Well, first of all, we need to help children identify what emotion they are feeling. Kids will often respond that they are feeling ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and lack the emotional vocabulary that adults have. As adults, they need us to label their emotional experience, e.g. “I can hear that you’re really disappointed that we can’t go to the playground today”. This act of naming an emotion is powerful for a child as it makes it a tangible thing they can manage. Acknowledging what your child is feeling does not mean you are necessarily agreeing that it is a justified response but shows your child that you are there for them.

Children often also have difficulty knowing what to do in each moment. It depends on the age of the child, but you directing them towards a calming activity- such as blowing bubbles to support slow breathing, receiving a firm hug, drawing or bouncing on the trampoline- teaches them strategies that they themselves can implement in the future. When your child is highly emotional, the rational part of their brain has gone ‘offline’. As most parents would know, trying to verbally reason with a child when they are escalated is a futile process. For this reason, wait until your child has ‘recovered’ before opening a problem-solving discussion about what they could do differently next time.

Remember, the more your child practices emotion regulation, the better they will get at it. It takes patience as a parent, but you play a vital role in your child developing emotional intelligence.

If you’re keen to learn more about how to respond to your child’s emotions, paediatric psychologist Amanda Abel (founder of Northern & Hawthorn Centre for Child Development) has created an online mini-course jam packed full of tips. It’s called Responding to your child’s BIG feelings and you can get it here!

Olivia Smith is an endorsed Educational and Developmental Psychologist and is a strong believer in the importance of working collaboratively with families and other professionals to ensure a holistic approach to child wellbeing. She is passionate about advocating for and working with children presenting with anxiety and/or neurodiversity (e.g. ASD, ADHD and specific learning disorders) and their families. Olivia strives to make therapy sessions engaging, effective and applicable to everyday life, and views the relationship between child and therapist as key to success. She is also a certified SOS-feeding therapist.

Have you used this method yet to teach your ASD child new skills?

As a psychologist working with young people with Autism Spectrum Disorder, I often find myself in awe of their many ‘superpowers’ – attention to detail, memory and creativity, to name a few. However, this difference in information processing can also lead to gaps in their understanding of other aspects of life. This is where Social StoriesTM can help.

A Social StoryTM is a social learning tool used by parents, carers or professionals to share information with people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It was developed in 1990 by a teacher named Carol Gray to describe the rules of a PE game to one of her students.  As the name suggests, Social StoriesTM are written like a story book with text and illustrations. They are tailored to the child’s skills, attention span and interests and can also be used with teenagers and adults!

Social stories describe a range of situations, skills, concepts or achievements, such as:

  • How to cope with strong emotions such as anger or fear
  • Situations such as getting a haircut at the hairdresser or starting a new grade at school
  • Self-care skills (e.g., getting dressed, brushing teeth)
  • Social skills (e.g., taking turns, greeting people, sharing)
  • Concepts like resilience or even understanding the person’s autism diagnosis

Social StoriesTM are developed with help from a psychologist or speech pathologist. The child’s support team can play a role in:

  • Reading the Social StoryTM to the child
  • Using the story to prepare for an event such as starting a new school year
  • Introducing the story when the child (and adult) are calm and content
  • Helping the child to understand the story. For example, by asking questions about the main points
  • Planning how often to read the story and when to review it
  • Reducing the frequency of reading, once the child has understood the concept or learned the skill
  • Finding a space to store the stories, for example in a document folder or electronically

Want to find out more? Carol Gray’s book, The New Social Story Book (2010) has some great examples. Or get in touch with us and learn more about how to teach your child with ASD new important life skills by working with one of our psychologists!

yvette edited

Yvette Zevon is a psychologist based at The Northern Centre for Child Development, who is completing the registrar program in Educational and Developmental Psychology. She is passionate about working with young people and families and is grateful for the daily opportunities to express her playful side.

Have you seen our founder Amanda Abel’s new online school for parents? It’s called The Psychology Room and her first course has been lauched – The Good Night Toolbox – with tools for parents to help their child get to sleep at night. Check it out here!

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9 ways to encourage your toddler to speak

As children grow older, language becomes a critical means of communication. If a toddler has difficulties communicating using words, they may resort to other behaviours, such as aggression, to express their frustration. It is therefore important that you foster language development in your child by encouraging it as much as possible, and by seeking support from a Speech Pathologist if your concerns persist. Some general strategies to keep in mind include:

  • Monitoring the presence of ear infections, as these can have a significant impact on language development. It is also strongly recommended to get your child’s hearing tested to eliminate this as a factor contributing to their difficulties.
  • When your child makes attempts to use language, always respond. If their pronunciation is incorrect, repeat what they said with correct pronunciation (e.g. “I see’d the shark”, “yes you saw a shark”). Avoid seeming overly critical of your child’s speech, as this will discourage their efforts.
  • Frequently using new words in front of your child and asking them questions.
  • When needed, helping ‘translate’ for your child during their interactions with others.
  • Encouraging your child to talk about things in the past and in the future.
  • Encouraging the use of non-verbal communication strategies, such as gestures and eye contact.
  • Pretending to be ‘forgetful’ (e.g. put their shoes on without their socks to prompt them to ‘remind’ you).
  • Creating opportunities for communication, such as putting a desired object just out of reach or by giving them some pieces of a puzzle (to encourage them to make requests).
  • Continuing to repeat and build on what your child says, to read to them, to engage in songs and social games and to minimise screen time.

As always, if you have any concerns or would like more specific advice, get in touch with us!

Olivia Smith is an endorsed Educational and Developmental Psychologist and is a strong believer in the importance of working collaboratively with families and other professionals to ensure a holistic approach to child wellbeing. She is passionate about advocating for and working with children presenting with anxiety and/or neurodiversity (e.g. ASD, ADHD and specific learning disorders) and their families. Olivia strives to make therapy sessions engaging, effective and applicable to everyday life, and views the relationship between child and therapist as key to success. She is also a certified SOS-feeding therapist.

Have you seen our founder Amanda Abel’s new online school for parents? It’s called The Psychology Room and her first course has been lauched – The Good Night Toolbox – with tools for parents to help their child get to sleep at night. Check it out here!

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How do I know if my child is anxious?

We have all experienced nervousness, worrying and fear. Anxiety is part of our human experience and plays an important evolutionary role in making us aware of risks and keeping us safe. Anxiety becomes problematic when it is out of proportion to the situation and has an impact on daily life. Children are not immune to anxiety; however, they often lack the awareness or vocabulary to express what is going on for them. Instead, they may communicate this through certain behaviours, which may include:

  • Finding it difficult to concentrate
  • Difficulty falling asleep or frequent waking during the night
  • Reduced appetite
  • Seeming more irritable than usual, fidgety or ‘on edge’
  • Complaining of stomach aches, diarrhoea, headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath or a racing heart
  • Crying often
  • Being extra ‘clingy’ and not wanting to separate from parents
  • Reporting being ‘worried’ or having ‘bad thoughts’
  • Avoiding certain situations or asking others to do things for them
  • Seeking excessive amounts of reassurance from parents
  • Not being willing to try new things

Certain factors can make children more vulnerable to anxiety. This can include their temperament, a family history of anxiety and the presence of a developmental difference, such as ASD or ADHD. Certain situations, such as parental separation, bereavement, moving schools, bullying or illness can also predispose children to anxiety.

The good news is that anxiety is manageable, and there are many strategies that parents and children can use to reduce the effect that anxiety is having on their life. This is a great time to explore meeting with a psychologist (someone who is experienced in working with children your child’s age) to learn some effective, evidence-based strategies for managing anxiety in kids.

Olivia Smith is a registered psychologist and is completing her registrar program in Educational and Developmental Psychology. Olivia is a strong believer in the importance of working collaboratively with families and other professionals to ensure a holistic approach to child wellbeing. She is passionate about advocating for and working with children presenting with anxiety and/or neurodiversity (e.g. ASD, ADHD and specific learning disorders) and their families. Olivia strives to make therapy sessions engaging, effective and applicable to everyday life, and views the relationship between child and therapist as key to success. Outside of her work at NCCD, Olivia works as a clinician in the area of early identification of autism in children (aged 12 to 36 months) at the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre at La Trobe University.

Have you seen our founder Amanda Abel’s new online school for parents? It’s called The Psychology Room and her first course has been lauched – The Good Night Toolbox – with tools for parents to help their child get to sleep at night. Check it out here!

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How do I talk to my child about their “private parts”?

Parents are often uncomfortable talking to their children about the ‘private’ parts of their body and may refer to them with different euphemisms. We have all heard endless varieties of these terms- ‘doodle’, ‘wee-wee’, ‘hoo-ha’, ‘fanny’… you don’t need me to continue! The problem with this roundabout way of talking to children about their private parts is that we are implicitly teaching them that these parts of the body are rude, shameful and something that should not be talked about. Unfortunately, when we do this, it means our kids are less likely to talk about any issues they may have with these areas (including the nightmarish situation that someone has done an indecent act to them or abused them). More broadly, it teaches your child that they can’t talk to their parents about some things, and hinders open communication, the effects of which can continue into adolescence.

So, what do we do? The first important thing is to call body parts by their proper, anatomical names. That’s right- penis, testicles, vulva, vagina, anus. By doing so we are teaching children that these are body parts- just like our tongue or our knee. We can then explain that these are parts of our body that are usually covered, and that only certain people (such as parents or a doctor) can see or touch these. By being willing to talk about things that make you uncomfortable, you are teaching your kids that they can talk about ANYTHING with you. Bath time or getting dressed can be natural opportunities to talk about these things, as can appearing at ease with your own body. Take cues from your kids regarding when to have these conversations- as they get older, this may include discussing names that other children may call these body parts (to reduce confusion). The more open and honest we are with our kids, the more likely they are to reciprocate and feel confident and knowledgeable about their own bodies.

Olivia Smith is an endorsed Educational and Developmental Psychologist and is a strong believer in the importance of working collaboratively with families and other professionals to ensure a holistic approach to child wellbeing. She is passionate about advocating for and working with children presenting with anxiety and/or neurodiversity (e.g. ASD, ADHD and specific learning disorders) and their families. Olivia strives to make therapy sessions engaging, effective and applicable to everyday life, and views the relationship between child and therapist as key to success. Olivia is also a trained and registered SOS Feeding Therapist.

Have you seen our founder Amanda Abel’s new online school for parents? It’s called The Psychology Room and her first course has been lauched – The Good Night Toolbox – with tools for parents to help their child get to sleep at night. Check it out here!

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Try these two ways to encourage eye contact in your toddler…

Although making eye contact when interacting with others comes naturally for most toddlers, some children need a bit more support in this area. Some children find eye contact uncomfortable, so it is important to work on this gradually and make doing so rewarding and fun. 2 tips to encourage eye contact include:

  • Holding a preferred item of your child’s in front of your nose and giving it to them when they request it by meeting your gaze. Ensure that you lower yourself to your child’s eye level (so that it is easier for them to look at you).
  • Regularly playing interactive social games like ‘Peekaboo’, which encourage close face-to-face interaction.

If you have tried these strategies and are still concerned about your child’s eye contact and social communication skills, please do not hesitate to seek professional support.

Olivia Smith is an endorsed Educational and Developmental Psychologist and is a strong believer in the importance of working collaboratively with families and other professionals to ensure a holistic approach to child wellbeing. She is passionate about advocating for and working with children presenting with anxiety and/or neurodiversity (e.g. ASD, ADHD and specific learning disorders) and their families. Olivia strives to make therapy sessions engaging, effective and applicable to everyday life, and views the relationship between child and therapist as key to success.

Have you seen our founder Amanda Abel’s new online school for parents? It’s called The Psychology Room and her first course has been lauched – The Good Night Toolbox – with tools for parents to help their child get to sleep at night. Check it out here!

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