Tag Archive for healthy development

Let the Adventures Begin…To Prevent Anxiety

We have witnessed a dramatic rise in children with depression and anxiety that began even before the COVID pandemic. In fact, anxiety among children increased 27% from 2016 to 2019. Depression increased 24% during the same time period. In 2020, about 9.7% of children carried a diagnosis of anxiety and 4% had a diagnosis of depression. (See Research Update: Children’s Anxiety and Depression on the Rise.) I don’t know about you, but I find this very disturbing. So, you can imagine how excited I get when I find research suggesting a simple way to potentially reverse this alarming trend.

A study led by the University of Exeter offers a perfect example. In this study, researcher surveyed nearly 2,500 parents of children 5- to 11-years-old. The surveys asked parents how often their children engaged in “thrilling and exciting” play that might arouse “some fear and uncertainty” as well as their child’s play in general and their general mental health and mood. They discovered that children who spent more time playing outside had fewer of the “internalizing problems” associated with depression and anxiety. In other words, they were less likely to have symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Playing outside provides greater opportunity for “thrilling, exciting” play. It gives children the opportunity to experiment with and safely test their limits. It is adventurous, rewarding… and free. Experimenting with their ability, experiencing adventure, and feeling rewarded combine to increase a child’s confidence, ability to plan, self-awareness, and positive sense of self. And, because it’s fun children will do it often.

So, if you want to decrease the chances of your child experiencing diagnosable symptoms of depression or anxiety, take them outside for some adventurous play. Give them the freedom to encounter challenges and risks in their daily play. If you’re looking for some adventurous activities to try…

  • Go for an overnight camping trip.
  • Go for a hike.
  • Go swimming, paddling, or rafting on a river or lake.
  • Create an obstacle course in your backyard…or living room.
  • Explore the woods with a friend.
  • Let your children walk to the store alone.
  • Try out new skills like skateboarding, jumping on a trampoline, or rock climbing.
  • Climb a tree.

What other adventurous activities have you engaged in with your children? Or allowed your children to engage in with other children?

My Teen Doesn’t Listen Anymore

Did you know that fetuses recognize their mother’s voice? That’s even before a child is born. It’s true. They do. And from birth, children prefer their mother’s voice. A study using MRI technology has even shown that the brains of 7- to 12-year-old children respond differently to their mother’s voice than to other women’s voices. In response to their mother’s voice [but not in response to another woman’s voice], the 7-12-year-old’s brain lights up in brain areas associated with emotional processing, reward processing, and the processing information about the self. In other words, a child’s brain is uniquely attuned to their mother’s voice even before birth.

But something happens around the age of 13 years. If you’re a parent, you probably noticed it. Our children turn 13-years-old and suddenly they become deaf to their mother’s voice. They appear to quit listening. A 2022 study published by the Stanford School of Medicine reveals that this change is not necessarily a willful choice to disregard their mother. The change is deeper than that. It’s a change reaching deep into the brain itself.

Researchers utilized data from teens who were 13 to 16. 5 years of age for this study. These teens listened to recordings of their mother and two unfamiliar women say 3 nonsense words. Researchers used nonsense words to avoid meaning or emotional content eliciting a response. They also listened to recordings of random household sounds. While listening to all of these voices and sounds, brain activity was recorded using MRI. Not surprisingly, teens easily distinguished their mother’s voice from the other women’s voices. All the voices elicited greater activity in several brain areas when compared to younger children. Interestingly, researchers could even predict the teen’s age based on this increased brain response.

But, and this is the kicker, unfamiliar voices created greater activity in the area of the teen’s brain associated with reward-processing and the area involved in determining the value of social information. In other words, our teens’ brains biologically responded differently to unfamiliar voices than they had prior to 13 years of age. For teens, the brain areas associated with reward processing and determining value light up for unfamiliar voices more than they do for their mother’s voice. All the voices were heard (even your voice, Mom) but the unfamiliar voices were more rewarding and valued.

What does all this mean for the parent of a teen? Teens are naturally moving toward individuation. They are preparing to move away from home and into the world. As a result, they are becoming more attuned to those voices outside of the family. Ironically, they still need a parent’s guidance and wisdom. So here are some tips to help you maintain effective communication with your teen, even has they become attuned to the “outside world.”

  • First, don’t take it personal. It’s not about you. Your teen is maturing and preparing to leave the home. As a result, they are becoming attuned to the world outside the home. Don’t take it personal.
  • Trust what they have learned from you and your home over the last 13 years. They have internalized a great deal of knowledge, values, and even a family identity. Trust the time and love you have invested in your teen over their childhood years. You would be amazed how many times a parent brings a child to therapy and says, “They just don’t seem to listen.” They explain things they have told their teen that they fear their teen has not hear. Then, I meet with their teen who tells me, many times word for word, what their parents have said. And the teen voices these statements as their beliefs, not their parents’ beliefs. Our teens are listening. Our children have learned. Trust the love you have invested in your teen already.
  • Remain involved. This begins with listening. Give your teen your full attention when they want to interact with you. Listen intently and deeply to your teen. Sometimes parents have a difficult time learning that the art of listening is more than simply responding. Your teen will more readily hear you when they know you consistently do your best to listen intently to them.
  • When you have something to tell your teen, make sure you get their attention first. Address them by name, with kindness. Look them in the eye. You might gently put a hand on their shoulder or their arm. Don’t interrupt them unnecessarily. And if you need to interrupt, do so politely and respectfully.
  • Involve your child in other community groups with like-minded adults. You might involve your teen in youth groups, drama groups, sports groups, dance groups, academic groups…whatever group might spark your teen’s interest. Meet the adults who manage these groups. Sometimes our teens will hear advice from a coach long before they hear the same advice from their parent. I used to laugh (or, more honestly, boil with frustration) when my daughter would come home and tell me this amazing piece of wisdom she had learned from a teacher or music instructor. Why? Because I knew I had told her the same thing many times over the last several years. But she needed to hear it from another adult.

Our teens are maturing. They are preparing to leave home and make their mark on the world. That’s what we have worked for…but it comes with some sorrow, doesn’t it? Part of that “letting go” involves realizing that our voices take on a different meaning to our teens. Don’t take it personal. Listen to them deeply. Love them with your presence. And watch them blossom into adulthood on the other side of the wilderness of adolescence.

You & Your Child’s Big Emotions

Toddlers have tantrum. Teens will sulk. In between…well, it could be almost anything.  Children respond to emotions in ways that frustrate their parents and even make them feel helpless at times. But if we, as parents and adults in their lives, learn these important facts about our children’s emotions we don’t have to feel frustrated and helpless. In fact, learning these important facts will empower us to parent more effectively. What facts am I talking about?

  1. Children experience the world differently than adults experience the world. They hear more and different sounds. They see things from a different vantage point, literally. For instance, since their eyes are two to three feet below most adults, a crowd becomes a sea of legs blocking their vision…and that could be frightening.  Our children also experience many sights and sounds as new and unknown, even though we consider them familiar and even mundane. So, a child may get upset by a sight or sound that an adult has not even noticed.
  2. Children also have a different sense of time than adults. Time moves more slowly with less rush for children. They get bored more easily as “time drags on” while we, as adults, feel pressured by too little time. What an adult may experience as a passing moment can seem like an unbearable eternity to a child whom we admonish to “sit still. It will only be a minute.” Remember how long those minutes seemed as a child…as the second hand on the clocked ticked…slowly…along? Overall, it may seem as though children get upset about the “silliest,” most mundane things. But when we begin to realize how different a child’s experience of the world is from our adult experience, their responses seem much more reasonable and even understandable.
  3. Children’s distress quickly goes from zero to sixty and spills over into everything. Their emotions often result in a meltdown that takes over the moment and everyone present. In fact, children experience difficulty managing strong emotions. Their emotional management skills are underdeveloped compared to adults. They have not learned and internalized the coping skills necessary to deal with the emotional struggles they encounter—like the fear of abandonment, frustrated desires, bullying, loss [even death], disappointment. They need us—the strong, healthy adults in their lives—to help them regulate their emotions in the moment and to teach them how to regulate their emotions in the future.
  4. Children engage in emotional outbursts and meltdowns at the worst possible moments. They meltdown when getting ready to leave the house or when preparing for bed; they become attention-seeking when you’re on the phone; they have the screaming match with their sister when you have a headache. It’s true, children have emotional outbursts at the most inconvenient times. And, in all reality, that makes sense. Children have a need for security and the adults who care for them provide that security.  When we, as caregivers, exhibit stress of some kind (trying to get everyone out the door on time, feeling exhausted yet trying to get our children ready for bed, irritated because we didn’t sleep well last night, etc.), our children feel our stress and become stressed themselves. Our stress creates a question in their lives about our availability to them and, as a result, their safety. When we, as caregivers, begin to focus elsewhere (like on our telephone or the meal we are preparing for dinner), our children want to make sure we are available to them. When we, as caregivers are tired, distracted, stressed, or rushed, our children respond with emotional outbursts that implicitly express their fear and need for security. In essence, their emotional outburst often implicitly asks, “Are you available to care for me? Or are you too tired, distracted, stressed, or busy to make sure I’m safe?”

These four factors about our children and their emotions opens the door for us to respond to difficult emotions with greater effectiveness. Watch for next week’s blog in which we will explore some ways we can help our children and teens manage their emotions and have fewer outbursts in the process.

Let Them Play for Academic Success

Did you know the United Nations has actually stated that “every child has the right to play”? I don’t disagree, but I would go a step further. More than simply a “right” to play, our children have a biological need to play; and parents have an intuitive desire of their children’s need to play.

Why do children “need” to play? Because play promotes healthy development. A review of the research suggests that play helps children develop knowledge and understanding through hands-on activities. It increases their attention span and their productivity, both of which benefit their academic success.

The same review revealed that play helps our children develop emotionally and socially as well. Play allows them to practice social skill like cooperation, communication, sharing, and problem-solving. It allows them to role-play, safely experimenting with their identity development. And it provides a safe and effective avenue for relieving and managing stress. One child development expert even said that play “makes a child a head taller than himself” in regard to maturity.

The researchers of this review also noted that play helps children develop movement and motor skills. Physical, social, emotional, and mental development—play helps in all these areas.

Another interesting study about play published in 2011 explored the impact of an afterschool physical activity program for 170 seven- to eleven-year-old children. They discovered that physical activity (AKA-play), improved the children’s “cognitive performance.” In other words, physical activity led to greater academic success. In addition, those who engaged in 40 minutes of activity did better than those engaged in only 20 minutes of activity.

What does this all mean for our families? Quite simply, if you want your children to achieve to their full potential in school, let them have time to play with other children. Sure, academics is important. But if you want your children to focus better during school, perform better in the classroom, and develop better thinking skills, encourage them to play. Let your children play so they can have greater academic success. And, as an added bonus, spend some time wisely playing with them. You’ll both love it!

Parenting: A Christ-Like Vocation

I read an interesting quote about parenting that made me to stop and ponder.

“There is no other thing you do in life only that the person you do it for can leave you. When they leave, that is success; when they do something because they want to do it and not because you want them to do it, then you have done your job. You succeed when you make yourself irrelevant, when you lose yourself.” (Keith Gessen in Raising Raffi)

It’s true. Raising a child is one of the most rewarding opportunities a person can ever experience. It is also a challenge. It’s bittersweet; and it’s beautiful. Becoming a parent compels us to become a better person. In fact, becoming a parent may well prove one of the most influential ways of shaping us in godly, Christ-like character.

If you’ve gone to Sunday School, I’m sure you heard that a “person who seeks to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will be saved.” Parents invest their time and energy into their children. Rather than invest solely in their own interests and pleasures, they invest in their children’s growth and enjoyment. In a sense, parents quit seeking to save their own life and start investing in their children’s lives. They focus on their children’s lives and, in so doing, find their own joy and happiness in watching their children become mature and responsible adults.

Parents serve their children with no expectation of being served in return. Sure, children contribute to the household in age determined ways. But parents encourage them to contribute to the household so they can mature and grow into responsible adults, not so they can serve their parents. In fact, most chores would likely go faster and more efficiently if a parent did them on their own rather than allow their 8-year-old to help. But we encourage the 8-year-old to help because we are in service to their development and maturation.  Parents serve their children by providing for their physical, emotional, and mental needs. It’s as if we came into parenthood to serve, not to be served.

Serving and investing in our children’s lives results in sacrifice. Not only do parents sacrifice time and energy, but they sacrifice a new set of clothes to get their children school clothes. They sacrifice the last piece of chicken so their child can have it. They sacrifice willingly and lovingly, out of a desire for their children’s best interest above their own. And they sacrifice without complaint. Many don’t even recognize their parents’ sacrifices for us until we are older and have a more mature perspective. But parents continue to sacrifice anyway.

Then, perhaps the greatest sacrifice of all, we let them go. They leave. They no longer need us. We have “made ourselves irrelevant.” As harsh as this sounds, isn’t it what Christ did when, “although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant”?  He emptied Himself, made Himself of no reputation, became “irrelevant” according to worldly standards. Yet, it was through that giving up of Himself that He brought us into His loving family as children of God. Perhaps it’s because parents give themselves up for their children that their children become mature and are then able to truly return a deeper, truer love to their parent.  

Investing in another more than myself. Serving another’s needs more than my own needs. Sacrificing for the good of another. Sounds like a parent. Sounds like growing in godly character. Sounds like love. If you will pardon my paraphrase: parents “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard their children as more important than themselves; [they] do not merely look out for their own personal interests, but also for the interests of their children” (adapted from Paul, Philippians 2:3-4).

Another Way to Beat Depression in Your Family

Depression is a growing problem in our country, especially among our teens and young adults. However, an interesting study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests a way to limit depression in your family. This study involved 72 males between 18- and 25-years-old who scored in the moderate to severe range of depression based on Beck’s Depression Inventory Scale. These young men were randomly assigned to one of two groups for twelve weeks. One group talked with a researcher about neutral topics like movies or hobbies. The other group received education and support to help them eat a Mediterranean Diet. Those who ate the Mediterranean Diet showed a significant decrease in depressive symptoms. Amazingly, 100% of them showed significant improvement in depressive symptoms and 36% dropped from moderate/severe depression to low/minimal depression on the Becks Depression Inventory Scale.

Why would a healthy diet like the Mediterranean Diet have such a profound effect on well-being and mood? Because it provides a person with the nutrients they need to act as the precursors and building blocks for the neurotransmitters that promote positive mental health.

For me, this information presents another way for us to limit depression in our families. Eat a healthy diet filled with the nutrients necessary to build the neurotransmitters we need for our physical health and our mental health. This study focused specifically on the Mediterranean diet, but I believe any healthy, well-balanced diet will help promote positive mental health. In fact, other studies have shown that eating vegetables improved mood (Read What? That Can Increase Happiness? and Diet, Fitness, & Sleep…Oh My for more.)  Proteins may also help manage anxiety over the long term. (See The Connection Between Protein and Your Mental Health – Mental Health Connecticut (mhconn.org))

Isn’t that great news? You can promote well-being and positive mental health in your family by encouraging a healthy diet. It’s a win-wind. Why not start today?

Mom’s Village & Your Child’s Cognitive Abilities

Several studies published in 2021 (reviewed in Small measures can be a big help for children of mothers with depression — ScienceDaily.) suggest the importance of a mother’s support in raising children. Specifically, these studies looked at 120 families with 9- to 10-month-old infants in Sweden and Bhutan and 100 refugee families in Turkey with children between 6- and 18-years-old. The common finding for the families in all three countries was that children’s attentiveness, social understanding, and ability to make decisions fell behind when their mothered suffered from mental health struggles like depression. That’s the bad news.

But there is good news. When a mother receives support from her partner or if she had a large family or a large social network that “rallied round and supported” her, the child’s development returned to the developmental norm. In other words, a mother’s strong, supportive “village” helps her become the best mother she can be and keeps her child on track developmentally.

Where does this strong, supportive “village” come from?

  • A supportive spouse who invests in the life of the mother and his family is part of a strong supportive village.
  • A healthy extended family is another crucial aspect of the supporting village. Extended family willing to support, assist, and help while maintaining healthy boundaries is priceless for any parent raising a child
  • Social groups like those found in religious life or an active community life rounds out a supportive village for mothers. These groups allow for regular times of meeting with other supportive people in a common phase of life or who share common interests. They allow for the development of relationships that support us in our life transitions, struggles, and celebrations. (For more ideas on building a village for your family see It Takes a Village…Yeah, But How?)

If we want strong, healthy families to support our children’s attentiveness, social understanding, and ability to make wise decisions, we need to build a village for every mother, parent, and family. If you’re a family, you can begin by reaching out to build that village today. If you are part of an extended family, strengthen your relationship with your family. If you are a church or other religious organization, intentionally work to create a supportive community for families within your community. Our families, our children…our future…depends on it.

Building Your Children’s Impulse Control for a Lifetime

We all want our children to develop the ability to control their impulses, to practice “response inhibition” at the appropriate times. After all, good impulse control contributes to better academic success, goal achievement, occupational success, and social relationships. A study published in 2021 suggests an interesting way to help children gain impulse control that will last a lifetime-participation in physical exercise. There is an age caveat though.

Exercise in childhood (between 7- and 12-years of age) resulted in growth and connectivity in brain areas associated with response inhibition. Those changes produced greater response inhibition throughout the life span. However, exercise during adolescent years (12- to 18-years-old) did NOT impact the brain in ways that enhanced impulse control.

The bottom line? Get your 2- to 7-year-old active. Involve them in an activity like swimming, dance, gymnastics, martial arts, or some other sport like soccer, basketball, or baseball. Pick an activity they enjoy. You might even participate with them to reap the relationship benefits. They may not be a star and they may not stay involved forever. But even a single year of involvement will promote an active lifestyle and nurture brain development that will promote a lifetime of healthy impulse control.

Improve Your Family’s Brain Health

I must be getting older because I’m drawn to a study when it says it there’s “growing evidence” that people can do things to “slow down cognitive aging.” That’s why I looked at this study. The authors looked at the data of 2,171 participants with an average age of 63 years and made an interesting observation about keeping the brain young and promoting brain health. Specifically, they were exploring the impact of having “supportive social interactions that included listening, good advice, love and affection, sufficient contact with people they’re close with, and emotional support” on brain health. They discovered that the greater the availability of one of these “supportive social supports” was associated with cognitive resilience. Cognitive resilience is a measure of the brain’s ability to function better than one would expect for a person’s chronological age. So, which social support helped keep the brain healthy and young? Having someone you can count on to listen when you need to talk. In other words, have a listen ear available is the one social support that helps keep the brain young and healthy. In fact, as early as a person’s 40’s and 50’s the lack of an available listener contributed to a cognitive age 4-years older than those with “high listener availability,” (AKA, an available listening ear).

Why do I bring this up in a blog about family functioning? Cuz family is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to listening. If you want your spouse and your parents to have better brain health-a younger, healthier brain in spite of aging-remain available to listen to them. The simple act of being available to listen can help your spouse and your parent have a healthier brain. Isn’t that a great way to honor your parent and spouse, a wonderful gift to share with them? Listening not only promotes their brain health, but it reveals your love and affection for them as well. As an added benefit, your children will model your behavior. As you listen to your spouse and your parents, they will learn to listen to their future spouse and their parent (YOU!). And, but listening to you, they will promote your brain health. Sounds like a “win-win” to me. The whole family benefits.

To help you give your spouse and parents the full benefit of your listening ear, check out the tips in The Gracious Art of Listening and The Art of Listening Is More Than Responding. Then, after you’ve read the tips, lean in a little, open your ears, open your heart, and listen to promote your family’s brain health.

Children Help Without Nagging? How Can It Be?

Can you imagine your child helping with the household tasks without even being asked? It can happen. But getting children to help without being asked is a process, a challenging process that many parents choose to forego or don’t want to accept.

This process begins when we, as parents, recognize and acknowledge our children’s desire to help. In fact, children do love to help their parents. Their desire to help may come at the most inopportune moments, like when we’re in a hurry or doing a more complex task. As a result, we are reluctant to acknowledge their desire to help and even more reluctant to invite them to participate in the task. But, if we want children who help without being asked, that is exactly what we need to do—recognize their desire to help and invite them to become involved in the task. If the task is too complex, let them work on an aspect of the task they can manage. Or, even better, do the task together, hand over hand, teaching them while giving give them a sense of involvement.

Yes, this may mean the task takes longer to accomplish. It may also mean a little more “mess” to clean up…but you can clean up together (AKA—spend more time together). Involving your child may require modifying tools and even the process of the task as well (You’ll find some great tips on modifications at How We Montessori.)

It will require some extra effort on your part, but involving your children is an investment in your children’s future and the future of your home.

  • They will remember the time they spent with you “getting things done,” adding to their sense of agency and their fond memories of family.
  • Your relationship will be strengthened by accomplishing tasks together and the conversations you share while doing so.
  • Moreover, as they practice the task, they will learn to do it more independently. They will master the task, giving them a sense of industry as well.
  • Involving your children in tasks also teaches them. It teaches them to identify themselves as a “helper” rather than an “entitled recipient.” It teaches them that they have a valued and significant role in keeping the household running smoothly. They are part of the family team.

When all is said and done, if you want your children to complete tasks around the house independently, you must answer a question and accept a challenge. 

  • The question: Are you willing to acknowledge your children’s desire to help and even involve them in household tasks even though it will initially slow you down and make more work?
  • The Challenge: How will you live out the answer to that question? How you choose to live out the answer to that question on a daily basis will ultimately determine how much your children help to complete household chores without even being asked.
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