A common question new parents ask us at The Quirky Kid Clinic is ‘What do we need to look out for in relation to an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?’. The following article will discuss what ASD is, the diagnosis of ASD, and what to look out for if you have developmental concerns for your child.
What is ASD?
ASD is a developmental disability characterised by marked differences in social interactions, deficits in verbal and nonverbal communication skills, restricted and repetitive interests/behaviours, and sensory sensitivities. It appears in infancy and the symptoms and severity differ from individual to individual.
The severity of an ASD presentation can range from ‘Level 1 requiring support’, through to ‘Level 3 requiring very substantial support’. When ASD is diagnosed it includes the inclusion or exclusion or an accompanying intellectual disability (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 52).
There is no known cure for ASD, and there is no current consensus amongst medical professionals on the precise cause of ASD. However what is clear is that quality individualised early intervention will support children to increase skill development, communication abilities and develop flexible adaptive behaviours (Dawson et al., 2010).
How is ASD diagnosed?
ASD has shown to be reliably diagnosed in a child as young as 18-24 months old (Charman et al., 2005). However, historically children have been more likely to have received a diagnosis closer to school age than during their toddler years (Mandell et al., 2005; Moore & Goodson, 2003).
Howlin & Moore (1997), who conducted a study of 1200 participants in the UK, reported that whilst the average age parents had any developmental concerns for their child was approximately 18 months old, for the majority of participants studied, the diagnosis did not actually occur until closer to the child turning 6 years old.
In response to ongoing research in the area of ASD diagnosis, in the United States, the American Academy of Pediatrics has now recommended that all children be screened for ASD at approximately 18-24 months old (Johnson & Myers, 2007).
In Australia, Williams et al. (2008) have concluded that currently, we have not matched initiatives occurring in other countries, such as the United States, in relation to early ASD diagnosis and early intervention support initiatives. However, the Autism CRC under the guidance of Professor Andrew Whitehouse and colleagues are currently developing a National ‘Best Practise’ Guideline document for the diagnosis of ASD within Australia. Whilst the document has not yet been finalised the draft submission cites the reliability of an ASD diagnosis for a child of 2 years old by a qualified professional. Although, it is still most common in Australia for children to receive a diagnosis between the ages of 3 and 5 years old (Whitehouse et al., 2017).
A reliable diagnostic process involves identifying the child’s strengths and weaknesses via a comprehensive formal assessment which includes a child observation, such as the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS-2), a parent interview, such as the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R), and cognitive / developmental testing such as an IQ test or a general developmental assessment, completed by an experienced practitioner (Charman, 2010; Whitehouse et al., 2017).
Following diagnosis, access to individualised early intervention with the aim of increasing developmental deficits, and decreasing challenging behaviours can make a huge difference in your ASD child’s developmental pathway.
Early Signs to look out for in infants
Identifying characteristics of ASD in a child younger than two years old can be difficult. Concerns may arise due to the ‘absence’ of behaviours considered to be ‘normal’ development and the ‘presence’ of behaviours considered to be ‘abnormal’ development.
Developmental milestones occur across age ranges so your child may be ahead or behind their peers with respect to milestones such as crawling, walking, and early verbal and nonverbal language development.
Listen to your ‘gut instinct’ as a parent. Consider seeking help from your Child Psychologist or Paediatrician if your 12-month-old infant is not demonstrating the following behaviours, either as an emerging skill that is continuing to progress, or once learnt, does not demonstrate these behaviours consistently across multiple environments (Boyd et al., 2010; Charman, 1998):
Responding to their name, or to the sound of a familiar voice, by turning their head and referencing the person who spoke or the direction from where the voice came from;
Referencing a familiar person with eye contact, such as smiling in reciprocation to being smiled at, at times such as feeding, and or when playing ‘peek a boo’ like games;
Demonstrating joint attention, such as referencing a favourite toy or food, then referencing a familiar person, then looking back towards the item of interest as if to say, “pass it to me”, or “can I have more”;
Babbling or making noises to get a familiar adults attention;
Developing an imitation repertoire such as waving and clapping, and or including the imitation of a familiar person’s facial expressions and movements;
Demonstrating reciprocal interest and enjoyment in play, such as tickles, ‘peek a boo’ like games and cause and effect toys, coordinating eye contact to indicate “more”;
Tracking objects or familiar people visually around the room and or following a familiar person’s gestures, such as pointing to an object;
Coordinating gestures in order to communicate, such as pointing at an object to initiate a communication, or waving goodbye;
Positively responding to cuddling, and or reaching out to be picked up.
Remember that your child may, like all individuals, experience good days and bad days. Your child’s development will occur in spurts and patterns, and it is best to evaluate your child’s development by considering the consistency and frequency of these emerging skills.
If you feel a particular skill is lacking spend the time to practise the behaviour with your child, ensuring that you are providing attention and praise for your child’s attempts at demonstrating the behaviour. If the skill does not start to develop or your child responds negatively to your attempts to model and teach the skill then seek help from your Child Psychologist or Paediatrician.
Commence an individualised early intervention program as soon as possible. Whether your child has a formal diagnosis or not it is advisable to start intervention as soon as you suspect that your child’s development is not progressing at the level expected for their age rather than following a wait and see approach.
Here at The Quirky Kid Psychology Clinic, our experienced team of Psychologists are more than happy to meet with you to discuss any concerns you have in relation to your child’s development and behaviour.
We always start with a parent only consultation to ensure that we get a thorough understanding of your child’s developmental history and a sense of your families identity, history and cultural dynamics. From here we provide an individualised case plan dependent on your child and families needs. Please don’t hesitate to contact our friendly reception on (02) 9362 9297.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Boyd, B. A., Odom, S. L., Humphreys, B. P., & Sam, A. M. (2010). Infants and toddlers with autism spectrum disorder: Early identification and early intervention. Journal of Early Intervention, 32, 75-98.
Charman, T. (1998). Specifying the nature and course of the joint attention impairment in autism in the preschool years: Implications for diagnosis and intervention. Autism, 2, 61-79.
Charman, T. (2010). Developmental approaches to understanding and treating autism. Folia Phoniatrica et Logopaedica, 62, 166-177.
Charman, T., Taylor, E., Drew, A., Cockerill, H., Brown, J. A., & Baird, G. (2005). Outcome at 7 years of children diagnosed with autism at age 2: Predictive validity of assessments conducted at 2 and 3 years of age and pattern of symptom change over time. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 46, 500-513.
Dawson, G., Rogers, S., Munson, J., Smith, M., Winter, J., Greenson, J., & Varley, J. (2010). Randomized, Controlled Trial of an Intervention for Toddlers With Autism: The Early Start Denver Model. Pediatrics, 125(1), e17–e23.
Howlin, P., & Moore, A. (1997). Diagnosis in autism: A survey of over 1200 patients in the UK. Autism, 1, 135-162.
Johnson, C., & Myers, S. (2007). Identification and evaluation of children with autism spectrum disorders. Pediatrics, 120, 1183–1215.
Mandell, D. S., Novak, M. M., & Zubritsky, C. D. (2005). Factors associated with age of diagnosis among children with autism spectrum disorders. Pediatrics, 116, 1480-1486.
Moore, V., & Goodson, S. (2003). How well does early diagnosis of autism stand the test of time? Follow-up study of children assessed for autism at age 2 and development of an early diagnostic service. Autism, 7, 47-63.
Whitehouse, A.J.O., Evans, K., Eapen, V., Prior, M., & Wray, J. (2017). The diagnostic process for children, adolescents and adults, referred for assessment of autism spectrum disorder in Australia: A national guideline (Draft version for community consultation). Autism CRC Ltd.
Williams, K., MacDermott, S., Ridley, G., Glasson, E. J., & Wray, J. A. (2008). The prevalence of autism in Australia. Can it be established from existing data?. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 44, 504-510.
The school holiday period can be a great time to reflect on the last term, prepare for upcoming changes and review skills that need to be improved.
Returning to school is typically experienced with mixed emotions. For some parents, it is a welcome relief after what feels like a very long holiday. For others, the return to school signals the end of a carefree, relaxing break and there can be feelings of sadness and/or anxiety associated with the return to routine and the academic and social demands associated with the school.
Children and young people equally experience a range of feelings about the return to school. For some, there is great excitement about starting a new school, seeing friends or perhaps finding out who their new teacher will be. For others, there may be sadness about the end of the holidays or anxiety about a raft of possible concerns such as making friends in their new class or coping with the work/homework requirements.
A tried and test way to prepare for changes and transitions is by focusing on your child’s social and emotional adjustment.
Tips to Help Your Child Settle Into Term 3
Whilst a lot of focus is placed on the academic tasks associated with school, paying particular attention to a child’s social and emotional adjustment over the coming weeks/months is also critical. Below are 3 tips to get you started:
Make time to check in with your child about how they are feeling and coping with the school year so far. It’s important to really listen to what your child is saying. To do this, begin by just repeating back or paraphrasing what your child is telling you. Where your child is experiencing uncertainty try to normalise this and remind your child that it can take a few weeks to really settle in. It is not uncommon for children (and parents) to express disappointment about a new teacher they may have been assigned or about the discovery that they don’t have as many close friends in their class. Rather than jumping to solve the problem for your child, build resilience by encouraging your child to come up with some ideas about ways to help themselves cope in such a situation.
It can often be a good idea to make time to check in with your child’s teacher as soon as terms resume. Whilst you will, of course, wish to discuss their educational strengths/weaknesses, also address how your child is feeling about their progress and to highlight anything (e.g. camp, homework) that may be worrying your child. Make sure you also discuss your child’s social skills with the teacher. If they are struggling with friends, ask your child’s teacher how the school can help in facilitating friendships. If your child has had any ongoing incidents of bullying/teasing it is critical to mention this again and ask how they can help to ensure that such incidents don’t occur again during the next terms. Equally, if your child has a history of seeking attention from others in a class by misbehaving, check on how this is been handled at school. Teachers will undoubtedly find your insights into what works and what doesn’t work at home very useful.
Encourage friendships and further consolidate social skills in by organising playdates or outings with any new classmates made throughout the term. Whilst children often request existing friends, it can be worthwhile trying to extend friendship networks by inviting new children over. This is not only good for your child but can also help to expand social support networks for you as a parent. In secondary school, it is equally important to encourage friendships by providing opportunities for your son/daughter to have friends over or by offering to drive them to a movie etc. This not only helps foster friendships but also gives parents valuable insights into the type of friendships that your child is building.
Why social-emotional learning is so important
The importance of focusing on the social and emotional well being of children is becoming increasingly acknowledged. In the current climate of increasing rates of mental illness in young people and concern over youth suicide rates, the NSW government has reportedly decided to tackle the problem more aggressively by proposing to adopt a more preventative approach in addressing such issues. The Government’s decision to begin at the grassroots level and start better-educating school-aged children (from Kindergarten) about mental health issues is welcome news to everyone here at Quirky Kid.
The changes to the Personal Development, Health, Physical Education (PDHPE) syllabus which are apparently due for implementation from 2020 include a more comprehensive effort to address social-emotional learning and mental health issues from primary school onwards. Beginning in Kindergarten, it is proposed that children will begin with simple social-emotional concepts such as feelings and building relationships with others, but as they progress to higher grades the aim will be to address important issues such as coping with success and failure, overcoming adversity, grief and death, coping with controlling behaviour in others, domestic violence, and substance abuse.
Helping Children to Build Important Social-Emotional Skills
Equipping children to cope with the social and emotional demands of school fosters increased coping and resilience skills. The evidence suggests that well developed social and emotional skills are both protective and helpful. Strong social and emotional skills in children not only predict fewer behavioural problems in the classroom but they are also related to positive academic outcomes and improved school performance (Myles-Pallister, Hassan, Rooney, & Kane, 2014; January, Casey & Paulson, 2011; Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011)
The government and other mental health agencies hope that by tackling such topics in school and by better-educating children about mental health, steps will be made to not only demystify such issues but will crucially equip children with a more effective toolkit for managing difficult feelings. It is further hoped that lessons learned at school will have a lasting impact as children become adults.
How Can Quirky Kid help develop your child’s social-emotional learning skills?
At The Quirky Kid Clinic, we are strong advocates for prevention and early intervention when it comes to children’s mental health issues. Prevention, is, of course, the preferred approach. In our experience, providing intervention to children and families before problems become too entrenched can often be the key to success. Where issues have been developing for some time, it can be much harder to address problems and for both the child and family such situations can feel insurmountable.
The Best of Friends® gives children the knowledge skills and confidence to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, develop and maintain friendships and make good decisions. Designed for children aged 7 to 11, the program teaches these critical skills to children in an age-appropriate and practical way.
So embrace this potentially challenging time with your son/daughter and remember children tend to take the lead from their parents. With this in mind, try to model calm, brave behaviour whilst at the same time keeping the doors of communication wide open. By adopting these strategies your child should feel a little braver about adapting to their new classroom, teacher and school expectations.
Term 3 Social and Emotional Learning Programs for Children
Durlak, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., & Schellinger, K.B. (2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432
January, A.M., Casey, R.J., & Paulson, D. (2011). A Meta-Analysis of Classroom-Wide Interventions to Build Social Skills: Do They Work?. School Psychology Review, 40(2), 242-256
Myles-Pallister, J.D., Hassan, S., Rooney, R.M. & Kane, R.T. (2014). The efficacy of the enhanced Aussie Optimum Positive Thinking Skills Program in improving social and emotional learning in middle childhood. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 909.
Allied health professionals, such as psychologists, can undergo years of training and practical experience to build their communication skills to deliver difficult news sensitively. They quickly learn that, when it comes to delivering bad news to children, it is essential to be prepared.
Parents, however, may need to learn as they go. At some point, all parents will have to communicate difficult or unpleasant situations to their children. Whether it’s the death of a family pet, moving away, separation/divorce, or harder still, the passing of a loved one – children and parents will need help navigating their emotional responses and behaviours through these tough times.
Clearly, this is a daunting task for anyone as we may feel inadequate to handle such situations. Research and experience tell us that the key is to let children know you are available to answer all questions and to provide as much support as needed.
Here are some other top tips for delivering – and dealing with the aftermath – of delivering bad news to your children.
1# Be honest
Lay out the facts at a level that is developmentally suited to the age of the child. Younger children may need help to understand the implications of the bad news and what it means for them. For example, approaching the topic of death or loss may result in a conversation about what death really means. Use words they understand and avoid saying things in such a way that might leave children confused about what you’re really saying. Speak clearly.
For teenagers, it is particularly important not to “sugarcoat” or limit details of the information, as this is often perceived to be dishonest or patronising. A study of young adults revealed that if they viewed their parents to be hiding something, or later found out that the parents had not been entirely truthful, the response was negative.
2# Be prepared to answer their questions
Children want their questions answered.
In fact, a survey of young adults revealed those who had access to the information they wanted from their parents in times of crisis were much more satisfied than those who were told to ask “no questions.” It is essential to schedule a time when there is enough opportunity for children to react and to think about what they want to ask, and for you to have time to respond calmly.
Avoid having difficult conversations immediately before school or work as this may be met with stress and anxiety without the chance to address these feelings appropriately.
Additionally, be prepared for awkward or tricky questions and be ready to answer them if you can. If you can’t answer a particular question, it is okay to admit you don’t know, rather than over-complicate an explanation.
3# Respect their ability to cope with the news, and their right to hear it
Respecting children’s developmental stage and maturity is essential. No one likes to be talked down to. Children whose parents speak to them as ‘equals’ feel respected and trusted, and are likely to respond with more maturity in a problematic situation.
In a research study by Donovan, Thompson, LeFebvre, and Tollison (2017) early adult respondents who perceived that their parents discussed tough issues with them more as peers, reported higher ratings of disclosure quality and in turn, greater relational closeness following the disclosure.
4# Provide reassurance
It is an essential role of parents to provide comfort and reassurance to children in stressful or distressing times. Let them it is ok to feel whatever they are feeling (e.g. sadness, anger). Confirm that these emotions are entirely valid responses to the situation.
Reassure them that you will be available to answer any questions or talk about this situation again at any time. Reassure them that they are loved.
5# Model good self-care
Share how you feel. Experiencing difficult situations, as well as talking about it with others, can be exhausting. Taking care of your own emotional well-being is essential and being honest is part of it.
Besides, it is perfectly okay to let your kids see that you are sad, angry, upset, etc. This gives them a chance to see how emotions affect other people and to learn how to regulate them effectively.
Parents are emotional role models, especially in times of crisis, and your children will inevitably look to you to assess what is an appropriate response in these times. Be natural and talk about it.
6# Seek help for yourself and your child(ren) if needed
This all being said, it is essential to reach out for help when needed; both for yourself, and for your child.
Calling on your support network and sharing how you feel or what do you need, can help everyone to cope better.
Additionally, if you’re feeling overwhelmed or the kids seem to be having an especially hard time coping, find a child psychologist who can work with your family. Child psychologists can assist you in developing an appropriate strategy for moving forward. You can contact the Quirky Kid.
Brott, A.(2014, September 29) 9 tips for breaking bad news to kids[Blog post]. Retrieved from: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/knowmore-tv/9-tips-for-breaking-bad-news-to-kids_b_5623488.html
Donovan, E. E., Thompson, C. M., LeFebvre, L., & Tollison, A. C. (2017). Emerging adult confidants’ judgments of parental openness: disclosure quality and post-disclosure relational closeness. Communication Monographs, 84(2), 179-199. doi:10.1080/03637751.2015.1119867
Levetown, M. (2008). Communicating With Children and Families: From Everyday Interactions to Skill in Conveying Distressing Information. Pediatrics, 121(5), e1441-e1460. doi:10.1542/peds.2008-0565
Livoti, N.(2013, June 30)Honesty and reassurance is key when talking to kids about bad news[Blog post]. Retrieved from: http://www.pennlive.com/bodyandmind/index.ssf/2013/06/honesty_and_reassurance_is_key.html
Marshall, L.B.(2016, July 8). How to break bad news to your teen. Retrieved from: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/business-career/communication/how-to-break-bad-news-to-your-teen
Long distance travel is often intimidating for parents. The combination of energetic kids, and prolonged periods of time in a confined space seems like a recipe for disaster. However, by preparing in advance, being flexible to change and following these tips compiled by the Quirky Kid team, your long distance travel experience can be more positive, rewarding, and fun for children and parents.
Tip #1 Let Kids Play a Role in Planning the Itinerary
Make the trip more inclusive and enjoyable for kids by letting them have a say in the kind of places they would like to visit, sites they would like to see, and activities they would like to do along the way. Letting them take part in family decision-making teaches children valuable skills as they learn to advocate for what they want, listen to others’ wishes and make compromises. It also keeps them excited and interested and gives them specific things to look forward to. Furthermore, acts as an incentive and a reward for sitting through the parts of the trip that less suit their preference.
It may not always be feasible, and children may not always come up with appropriate suggestions, but letting them select between a couple of alternatives that you deem acceptable and possible (e.g. stopping at a pool along the way, or, having a picnic at a roadside park/playground) is a great way to make the trip pleasant for all.
Tip #2 Avoid Relying on Screens to Keep Kids Busy
It is tempting to keep kids occupied with screens on long haul trips. Phones, Ipads, and laptops are easy time-fillers on the road. Dr. Kimberley O’Brien, principal Child Psychologist at the Quirky Kid Clinic, warns about the use of technology to keep kids preoccupied, particularly for long periods of time. While it may not always be avoidable, it is recommended to try all other entertainment avenues before turning on the screens, and ideally avoid using them at all when only travelling short distances.
An alternative strategy Dr. Kimberley suggests is planning for the trip well in advance, and packing a “kid-box” to keep kids entertained throughout the journey. The box can be filled with resources that are specific to each child, by asking them before you take to the road to “imagine they are on a long trip, and to think about the kind of things they would like to do”.
Here are some suggestions of fun activities for your long trip with kids:
Activity books (such as, colouring-in or dot-to-dot books) and story books/audiobooks
A great creative resource is the Tell Me A Story cards. These cards encourage kids to recall and retell some of their most extreme moments (“Bravest!” “Fastest!” “Highest!”), while uncovering a sense of pride in their past achievements and skills. Kids love hearing and telling stories, especially true stories, and it is an engaging and interactive way to pass the time together.
If you want to get more creative on the road, a few erasable whiteboard markers can turn the car windows into works of art, or a simple cooking tray can be turned into a magnetic play table using assorted fridge magnets (e.g. letters and numbers) or with a magnetic puzzle to keep all the pieces stuck in one place.
Tip #3 Take Frequent Breaks
A recent study (Morris & Guerra, 2015) examined 22 000 frequent travellers’ responses, in order to explore the link between trip duration and mood during travel. Not surprisingly, trip duration was found to negatively influence mood, primarily due to rising levels of stress and fatigue over the course of the journey. To combat this, consider frequent breaks where possible. Children have shorter attention spans than adults (Cowan, Fristoe, Elliott, Brunner, & Saults, 2006) and have not yet fully developed impulse control (Tarullo, Obradovic, & Gunnar, 2009). This means they will quickly become restless, fidgety, and uncomfortable if not given the opportunity to change environments and ideally, move around.
Taking breaks on family trips with kids where possible is important for drivers and passengers, both for safety and sanity. For kids, the opportunity to get out of the car should also involve some form of physical activity to let them burn off some steam. While this may mean allowing extra travel time to reach your destination, it makes the trip more bearable for all.
Tip #4 Plan Your Snacks (and take plenty of them)
Nutritionists admit that on the road with family it is often convenient to fall back on take-away foods and processed snacks from roadside stops. Sugary and highly-processed foods are not ideal and giving kids more energy that they are not likely to use up in the car is likely to backfire. Additionally, unhealthy snack options can deplete energy levels and leave you feeling drained over the course of a long drive. Nutritious treats can be prepared at home for easy on-the-go snacking and keep everyone feeling happy and healthy over the journey. Additionally, having access to plenty of snacks while travelling, giving kids a choice as to what they want to eat, sharing and divvying up snacks as the trip goes, is often a welcome distraction.
Tip #5 Use travel as a teaching/learning opportunity (for yourself & the kids)
Sometimes a change of mindset is needed. We often view travelling with kids as something impossible and difficult, or as the kind of trip you suffer through to get to your destination. In reality, travelling is a wonderful opportunity to share exciting, new experiences as a family and learn about other places, cultures, and ways-of-life. In fact, a study (2006) conducted by researchers at Clemson University (U.S.), used data compiled from the U.S. Department of Education, and found that kids who travel over their vacation/holiday period (no matter their destination) tended to perform better academically at school (indicated by better performance on standardised tests of reading, maths and general knowledge) than peers who didn’t travel.
To make the most of this learning opportunity, Quirky Kid recommends encouraging children to hit the books/computers to do some research and learn more about the trip and destination before you go, and encouraging kids to keep a travel journal. This could be in the form of drawings, photos, hand-written pieces, blogs, or whatever strikes their fancy. Not only does it keep them busy and help them remember the experience, it can be shared and enjoyed with friends and family on your return. The kids will love to show it off and tell everyone about how much fun they had on their family trip.
Butler, N (2016, June 3) Eight Kid-Pleasing, Healthy Road Trip Snacks. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health-slideshow/healthy-road-trip-snacks
Cowan, N., Fristoe, N. M., Elliott, E. M., Brunner, R. P., & Saults, J. S. (2006). Scope of Attention, Control of Attention, and Intelligence in Children and Adults. Memory & cognition, 34(8), 1754-1768
Denny, S. (2014, January 5). 25 healthy snacks for kids. Retrieved from http://www.eatright.org/resource/food/planning-and-prep/snack-and-meal-ideas/25-healthy-snacks-for-kids
Morris, E. A., & Guerra, E. (2015). Are we there yet? Trip duration and mood during travel. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, 33(Supplement C), 38-47. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trf.2015.06.003
O’Brien, Dr. K(Producer). (2017, August 31). Children and Technology (Audio Podcast). Retrieved from: https://childpsychologist.com.au/podcast-children-and-technology/
Pantley, E (2003). Taking a Road Trip with Your Babe. Retrieved from: https://childdevelopmentinfo.com/ages-stages/baby-infant-development-parenting/road-trip-with-babies/#.WcG_I9Og-8U
Parker, J. L. (2006). The Relationship of Family Summer Vacation Trips an Academic Achievement Among First Graders: A National Study.
Shellenbarger, S.(2017, May 17). Dare to let the Children Plan Your Vacation. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from: https://www.wsj.com/articles/dare-to-let-the-children-plan-your-vacation-1494947476
Tarullo, A. R., Obradovic, J., & Gunnar, M. R. (2009). Self-control and the developing brain. Zero to three, 29(3), 31. Retreived from: https://web.stanford.edu/group/sparklab/pdf/Tarullo,%20Obradovic,%20Gunnar%20(2009,%200-3)%20Self-Control%20and%20the%20Developing%20Brain.pdf
At it’s best, parenting can be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling jobs in the world. When children get dressed happily in the morning, express gratitude for their dinner, or get on with their homework without a fuss, parents can feel on cloud nine. Too often though children’s demanding, fussy, and oppositional behaviour can lead to arguments, tears and shouting on both sides.
It goes without saying that a calm, consistent approach where clear expectations regarding behaviour are communicated, and where encouragement is provided, works best. However, this can often be easier said than done. Whilst this work is in progress, don’t forget these other valuable strategies for promoting positive behaviour in your child:
Connect with your Child
The word ‘connect’ has become a catch cry in recent years. More and more research evidence points to the importance of feeling connected with others and associated behavioural and emotional wellbeing (Eime,Young, Harvey, Charity, & Payne, 2013; Seppala, Rossomando, & Doty, 2013; Whitlock, Wyman, & Moore, 2014).
Life, for many families, consists of the daily juggle to get out the door on time, get kids to and from activities/sports, and navigate homework demands whilst simultaneously providing balanced, healthy meals. Under this pressure, it’s easy to fall into the habit of simply getting through the day. However, finding time to truly connect with your child can be wonderfully rewarding for you both and can help to strengthen the parent-child bond.
Driving your child to activities, helping them with homework, or standing on the sidelines at sport are all important elements of being a supportive, involved parent. However, remembering to go that little bit extra can do wonders for a parent-child relationship. Setting aside some one-to-one time to connect, away from other family members, can be enormously bonding.
For preschool children, simply sitting down at their level and observing out loud what they are doing is a great way for you both to connect. It’s as simple as providing a running commentary about what they are doing. For example,“you are putting the blue block on top of the yellow one. Now you are making the tower taller by putting a green block on”. It may seem simplistic but most children will enjoy your presence, feel noticed and will respond positively to this interaction.
For primary school aged children, connecting can be as simple as playing a game of UNO, kicking a ball, or making paper planes together. It could also include cooking together, going for a bike ride, or even going away overnight.
As children become teenagers, they show increasingly greater interest in their peers and it’s easy for parents to feel that their opinions no longer matter. This change in parent-child relationship dynamics is not a negative sign, but a developmental progression and research show that adolescents continue to value their parents’ views over their peers, particularly when making serious decisions (Ackard, Neumark-Sztainer, Story & Perry, 2006; Brown & Bakken, 2011).
Here are some suggestions on connecting with your child:
Step 1: Decide on something you might both enjoy. Where children are old enough, agreeing on a plan is a great start.
Step 2: Put your phone/iPad/computer away. This demonstrates to your child that she/he is your number one priority. It also helps you to be mentally present.
Step 3: Make sure you join in with whatever activity you both choose (i.e., if you choose swimming, you ideally need to be prepared to get in the pool).
Step 4: Try to avoid too much ‘instruction-giving’ and do not use this one-to-one time as a chance to lecture about behaviour or past misdemeanours.
The only goal is to have fun together and to finish the activity on a positive note. It’s better to be brief but successful than go on for too long and end in an argument. Give it a try. You might be surprised by how much you learn about your child and how much fun you both have together!
Model How to Behave in Times of Stress
As a parent, you are your child’s first and most important teacher. Whilst you instil in them a rich factual knowledge of the world, it’s easy to forget how much they learn from watching you. Children are astute observers of behaviour and learn much about emotional expression and self-regulation by keenly observing your behaviour (Gerull & Rapee, 2002, Chambers, Craig & Bennett, 2002). We are often unaware of just how much they take in until we hear our children parrot something they have heard us say to them.
When we shout at children, lose our temper in frustration, or perhaps smack them, we are teaching them that this is the way to behave in times of frustration. Don’t be surprised if you then witness your child engage in similar behaviours. Similarly, if you have a tendency to become anxious or panicked in certain situations, don’t be too surprised if you start to see signs of anxiety in your child (Fisak & Grills-Taquechel, 2007).
By spending a few moments reflecting on your behaviour during times of intense stress (e.g. getting out the door in the mornings), you can take steps to try to regulate your own emotions. Often, the first step is to identify trigger points when you are likely to lose your cool. Don’t be afraid to change the family routine to find a better approach. You can include the children in finding alternative solutions. In doing so, you are demonstrating the skills of problem-solving for your child. Where frustration takes over, try to calm yourself by taking deep breaths or taking a few minutes away from your child to regain your self-control.
This is so much easier said than done, but where you are able to remain calm you are effectively modelling an adaptive way of coping in times of frustration. Don’t be afraid to seek support if you feel that your own anger, worries, or mood are negatively impacting on your parenting style.
As parents, we’ve heard the phrase ‘look after yourself’ on many occasions but the evidence is really there. Children of depressed and/or anxious parents or those living in an environment of constant conflict are more likely to experience emotional difficulties (Elgar, Mills, McGrath, Waschbusch & Brownridge, 2007; Kahn, Brandt & Whittaker, 2004). Find ways to gain social support from those around you or seek help from an experienced Psychologist at Quirky Kid or other qualified psychologists via www.psychology.org.au.
Be Emotionally Responsive
Emotional responsiveness is sometimes referred to as emotion coaching and involves empathically responding to another’s emotions. Put simply, it means giving a name to the emotion that you are seeing in your child. There is evidence to suggest that by labelling emotions, parents help to increase their child’s emotional language skills and, that by accepting and addressing negative feelings in children, parents can promote emotional regulation skills (Gottman, Katz & Hoover, 1997; Whittingham, 2015)
If your child is crying about homework, for example, you might say
“I can see that having to do this homework is upsetting/annoying you”, or “it’s really frustrating when you have to stop playing and and do homework, isn’t it?”.
It is as simple as putting yourself in your child’s shoes and seeing problems from their perspective. It is essential to avoid immediately suggesting solutions to the problem, and to avoid using phrases, such as,
“if you had done it when I told you to do it, you wouldn’t be feeling this way”.
Instead, continue to calmly report back to your child how you think they might be feeling.
As most parents will attest, getting annoyed with your child at such times or telling them to “just get on with it” simply fuels the fire, and everyone can end up angry and upset. By expressing empathy and putting yourself in your child’s shoes, you are helping your child to feel understood and you are promoting positive communication skills in your child. Often children express how they feel through their behavioural outbursts, but ideally, we want them to learn to express their feelings verbally. An emotionally responsive approach can often defuse the situation and help your child feel understood. Sometimes this simple technique is enough to calm the situation. It can also provide a springboard for helping your child to find a more appropriate solution to the problem.
Setting high standards for behaviour can be very beneficial for children. In doing so, however, it is vital to be accommodating of the fact that all children make mistakes and errors of judgement. Making mistakes is part of human nature, and it is one of the myriad of ways in which people learn. As parents, our instinct is to protect or prevent our children from making mistakes, or to be disappointed by some of our children’s mistakes when they occur.
There is concern among researchers that perfectionism in children is increasing (Marano, 2008). Perfectionism is characterised by a fear of making mistakes. Such fear can lead to rigidity of behaviour that stifles creativity and playfulness and can lead to excessive anxiety and avoidance. Marano (2008, p.82) surmises that part of the reason that perfectionism in children is becoming more of an issue is that some parents ‘seek much of their status from the performance of their kids and, as a result, are placing much more pressure on children to achieve than previously’.
As parents, it is important to embrace children’s mistakes, ask the child to reflect on where they went wrong, and then help the child to learn from that experience. Sometimes children are unaware that they have even done anything wrong. In such cases, it is often appropriate to explain the error and together think about how to behave differently next time. The point at which a firmer stance needs to be taken is where the child puts themselves or someone else in danger, or is engaging in a behaviour that may not have an immediate or logical consequence (e.g. bullying).
It helps if parents too can acknowledge their own mistakes (where appropriate) and take responsibility for them, model a calm approach, and verbalise how they will learn from that experience. For example,
“I got up too late this morning and I had to rush everyone out of the door. I apologise for getting angry, and tomorrow I will try not to make that mistake again by getting up earlier”.
Where children repeatedly make the same mistake, it’s important to consider why that is happening. From there, try to find ways to help them learn more appropriate behaviour effectively.
Engage in Positive Self-Talk
Self-talk is the internal voice in your head and, as parents, we have a constant and busy internal dialogue. Much of our self-talk is not done consciously, but from time to time we notice it when we are are trying to motivate ourselves, or perhaps when we are angry about something. Self-talk can be helpful or unhelpful, and it can have a significant impact on how people view themselves and how they cope in challenging situations. Children learn a lot of their self-talk from others around them. If children hear parents say negative things, such as “I’m hopeless at maths so I can’t help you with your homework’, they too can start to self-talk in similar ways. As parents, we need to model positive self-talk, for example,
“I had a really big project at work today. It was hard but I learned a lot from doing it” or “this lego model was hard, but we managed to do such a good job together. It reminds me that we are such good problem solvers!”.
If, as parents, we show our children that we believe in ourselves, then they too will start to behave in similar ways.
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