Thursday, April 21, 2016

Helping Kids Reinterpret a Problem Situation

In working with parents this is a chapter from my book that I often share and get consistent feedback that it has helped.  

Helping kids frame an experience

         One of the most powerful ways that a parent can help a child is by helping the child properly frame an experience, especially an unpleasant one. After 30 years of working with parents this has come to be one of the most useful concepts.  It allows a child to interpret an experience in a way that does not amplify the feeling of hurt, of being a victim or powerless.
         One common situation where this can apply is when a child is being bothered by another. We are sometimes too quick to label such behavior as bullying. If it is, we should address it fully, but it is often bothersome, teasing or annoying behavior.
         An example of this occurred when a friend’s first grade daughter reported that some of the girls in another first grade were making faces at her and making negative comments about the way she did the bars on the play structure. I urged the woman to speak with the teacher to simply make her aware so that she could remind all children of the unacceptable nature of such behavior.
In addition to that, the mother went to the playground with her daughter on the weekend. She was thinking the girl might benefit from a little practice, so she could feel more confident on the bars. What the mother actually discovered was that her daughter was able to do 2 rungs per swing, better than the other children.
This changed the way she helped her daughter. It was an opportunity to offer her daughter guidance on how to interpret the experience. She explained that sometimes, even if you do something well, it is different from another person and the only reaction they know how to have is to criticize your way. The girl was bright and able to understand that sometimes we have to be patient with others as they learn that to be different does not really warrant criticism. This understanding will serve her well as she navigates the complicated world of girldom.
         Whether we call it relabeling, reframing or reinterpreting it is a great habit and great gift to give a child, especially since so many social encounters can be vague or ambiguous.
Another situation where this approach can be helpful is where the child has a very strict or critical teacher. Often the teacher’s style is the issue rather than the content. This insight can be very helpful to the child. One such situation occurred with a sensitive little second grade boy. His mother made an appointment because he was, for the first time, feeling very discouraged and uneasy about school.
He was a good kid and a good student, but the teacher tended to be quite stern and her feedback was often very clipped. She didn’t offer a lot of smiles or encouragement.  I knew this woman to be an excellent teacher, serious and dedicated but a little harsh sometimes with the kids. 
Our work took a few sessions, both with Mom in attendance, and our approach was “it’s just information.” Through discussion and examples we helped him reframe her input in a less personally crushing way. The boy was eventually able to see that even though some people send a message in a gentle way and some in a stern way, neither is a judgment of us as a person. It’s just information.
Fortunately the school that I worked at then had teachers of all kinds. Some ebullient, some reserved and some in between. The boy was encouraged to observe the feedback he heard each week. For example, running in the hall, getting books out too slowly, not putting materials away. From these he was to extract “the information.”
This approach helped reduce the anxiety he was feeling in class. Additionally he learned that by seeing it as just information it was indeed important to extract the information and then adjust his behavior accordingly.
Another example of this occurred when a fourth grade girl Lilly, was feeling very rejected by her friend Bella. The girls often played together on the weekends, but at school Bella seldom played with her and was, to a great extent, taken over by another girl. Lilly’s mother was having a dilemma because she had often had Bella over and made many nice play dates for the girls with crafts, cooking and other creative activities.
    The mother was also feeling a little hurt, wondering if she should continue to provide such nice events when the daughter was often being left out by this friend at school. We spent just one session together and I suggested that she frame the situation as, “Some friends we spend a lot of time with at school and some people are more ‘weekend friends’ where there is not the distraction or pull by other friends or activities.” With the label “weekend friend” the girl was asked if she wanted to continue having Bella as a weekend friend even though she didn’t always treat her like a good friend at school. Lilly took just a minute to decide that the “weekend friend’ arrangement was preferable to punishing the friend by discontinuing the wonderful craft Saturdays.  It worked quite well because Lilly was able to frame it as just one of the ways friends can be rather than some big rejection.
I saw the mother many years later and she was eager to share that she was glad she had let Lilly decide. The arrangement made for very nice weekend activities even though the friendship at school had its ups and downs. 10 years later the girls were at different colleges, but hey were in constant communication and spent every vacation together. She was sure they’d be friends forever.

There are children who are natural “awfulizers” and tend to perceive in an unfavorable way. They may need a little more help with this tendency, but most kids need it at some time. It’s important to first acknowledge and not dismiss the emotion. Dismissing may simply cause the child to hold even more to their interpretation, so that the parent understands and responds to the emotions. Clever parents can also highlight the reframing skill by pointing it out in their own experience.  It’s a simple task to just point out to the child an event where they decided to perceive it in a positive or at least a not too negative way. Sometimes as we try to be good models for our children we even get the additional benefit of positive changes in our own outlook.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Protecting Childhood

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Recent conversations with parents prompted me to share this older piece, first published in the Christian Science Monitor. It seems even more relevant today (life is short -- childhood is shorter).

Childhood: the abridged version

By Susan DeMersseman / January 21, 2004
I love magazines, but before I read them I usually pull out dozens of postcards. Recently I was surprised to see how many offer tapes and information on medications that address Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) in children.
As a school psychologist often involved in the determination of who might have ADD, I have mixed feelings about this direct marketing to parents. I like to see parents well informed about all aspects of dealing with their children, but I worry that the ads might present a cure where in many cases no illness exists.
I have seen medication, properly used, improve the lives of some children. On the other hand, I have seen a drastic change in what people consider "normal." This trend to medicate children may be more a symptom of a societal ill than an indication of a childhood condition.
In my 25 years as a psychologist, I've seen the expectations for children rise unreasonably. I've seen the normal variations in temperament viewed as pathology. I have seen busy, energetic kids become a major nuisance to teachers who themselves are expected to do too much. And I've seen parents consider themselves failures because they haven't enrolled their children in SAT preparation classes by ninth grade.
My profession is to protect children; my passion is to protect childhood. I think so many young people in their early 20s have trouble transitioning to adulthood because they never fully experienced childhood. There has been no carefree place to run and play and get messy and make mistakes without dire consequences. So as they approach adulthood, they look back longingly at something they wish they'd had.
Ironically children are often given the "perks" of adulthood so the value of "when you're a grown-up" has diminished. I believe our society would be a healthier place if childhood were a marketing-free zone, where 7-year-olds weren't even aware of the brands of their clothing. I wish no child were used as the perfectly trained, dressed, and coifed accessory of his or her parent. But our children are consumers in training. To protect them we must be examples of knowing what is truly important, of making thoughtful use of our resources, whether large or small. We must help them become aware of and care about the needs of others.
Another major source of anxiety about our children's behavior is other parents. In this hypercompetitive society, parents can be so critical of each other's children - and so delighted when they see them err. In workshops, I remind parents that we all get our turn. We should be careful not to be too smug, for our little darling may someday surprise us with bad behavior, and then we will be grateful for the kind understanding of other parents.
There must be room in childhood - and adulthood - for variations in temperament and nature. For some kids in the classroom, it takes all the strength and courage they have to stand up and speak. For others, it takes all the strength they have to sit down and shut up. Yet we judge both with the same yardstick.
Children can be impulsive, naughty, and clueless. It takes endless perseverance and patience to keep them on track. We do them great harm, however, when we ascribe evil intent - and sometimes pathology - to this behavior. We're the mirrors they use to judge themselves by. If we reflect back an image of someone who is a work in progress and trying to do better, they will follow our lead.
It is heartbreaking to see the harsh judgments made of little children. I would like to see "zero tolerance" for adult stupidity in dealing with youngsters. It is quite possible to motivate and discipline in a kind way. These are the people who may someday be pushing our wheelchairs around. I'm more concerned with them being kindhearted than being No. 1 in their class.
This drug business is just a symptom, but the illness is in our hands to treat - in the way we treat children.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Weeding in the "zone."


This year we have had enough rain to allow me to "enjoy" my annual battle with oxalis and sour onions.

Weeding 'in the zone' is a pleasure like no other

There are many gardening chores that the average person might find unpleasant, but to a gardener they are part of the fun. Weeding is one of these -- but not just any weeding. The greatest pleasure is weeding "in the zone." That is a short but wonderful snippet of time that many gardeners recognize. These zones have a lot to do with the condition of the soil. In spring there are a few gentle days that occur between the rainy periods and the dry periods.
Or you can help nature along with a good soaking. The clay soil in my region goes from the texture of cream cheese to terra cotta in about three days. So in between those conditions there is a day when the soil is perfect, dry enough to be workable and moist enough to release the weed willingly -- roots and all. As much as I love plants, I'm equally fond of a freshly weeded and cultivated patch of dark, rich soil.
Even the smell of the earth changes as it opens up and releases the weeds. Pulling up the weed breaks the surface and lets it breathe again after a winter of being pounded by the rain. And almost as satisfying is watching the pile of oxalis and other undesirables fill the weed basket.
When my daughter was a toddler, one of her first words was "oxalis." I was so pleased, because I wanted to raise a gardener, or at least a weeder. She followed me around in the yard getting as muddy as I and asking, "Mommy, is this oxalis?" Tiny hands were good at fitting into the places where this sneaky weed hides, next to the stems of favorite flowers. And when, by the age of 4, my daughter was able to tell the difference between wild onions and emerging freesias, well, I couldn't have been more proud if she'd been giving violin recitals.
My equipment for these events is simple. Sometimes I start off with good intentions, with my foam knee pad, gardener's stool and heavy gloves. But usually it's just me and my trusty Japanese cultivating tool. It would probably be more sensible to use the substantial gardening gloves, but there's something more connected, more part of the process with bare hands. My compromise is often latex surgical gloves. I grab a pocketful of them as I go into the yard. I measure the accomplishments of the day not just by the volume of weeds but by how many gloves I wear out in the process. My other favorite tool is an old paring knife that digs up stubborn roots. Some roots elude me, but not many.
When the job is complete, the remaining plants look so beautiful against the dark, smooth soil. For several days the next pesky weeds in waiting do not emerge, so I can go back into the yard and feel again the satisfaction of hands in the dirt and of creating a little bit of order, where a little bit is just the right amount.
Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator in Berkeley. E-mail her
This article appeared on page HO - 9 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Sunday, April 3, 2016


In response to requests for information about my book, it can be ordered on Amazon. Some of the chapters are posted on this blog, and there are many new ones in the book. Please feel free to share the book and duplicate chapters as you like.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Elections and Children

Elections: A Teachable Moment

It’s hard to protect our children from the barrage of political ads and news stories. In some homes the interest of the parent is so great that the ads and the political talk shows fill the air. On the other hand, this situation can be an important teachable moment for our children. While we might like our children to share our values, it is wise to also help them understand why we hold these values and to understand that even people who disagree with us are not necessarily evil.
Depending upon the age of the child we can start with the idea that people have different ideas about how to create a good community or solve problems. Even little ones can understand that people choose others to make decisions about what is good for our community. They can understand that by our vote we try to choose people we think will make good decision. It’s important, in child terms, to communicate why we are choosing a certain candidate.  
Children already tend to see things in black and white, so a little effort at moderation may help them be aware of some of the shades of meaning in the political arena. We can help them see that people sometimes get angry and agitated, so much so that they don’t think about reasons, but that reasons for our choices are really important.
Since one of our children may choose another path or marry into a family with different political inclinations, it is good that they know how to respect the viewpoints of others and, when appropriate, to express their own viewpoints in a thoughtful and reasoned way.
Many of us have taken part in family events where our main challenge was biting our tongues.  I believe this is one of those born in temperamental qualities – the ability to listen to what we consider utter nonsense and not call the speaker out. Even those not so predisposed can learn to hold their tongue when a pointless argument would ruin a family event. And if that can’t be achieved then our goal might  be the ability to state a point and back it up with reasons -- reasons other than, “Your idea is utter nonsense.”
It is equally important to help our children understand that many worthwhile goals can be accomplished outside the political arena. If our values lead us to care for those who are poor or disadvantaged, we can show our children by our actions that we as individuals can make a difference. We can donate or work at a food bank. We can gather books or clothing for children in need. We can visit senior centers with flowers, goodies and the time to listen.
      Years ago there was a song from the musical  “Hair” that was a good reminder. The line was,   “Do you only care about the bleeding crowd? How about a needing friend?” Groups and movements do have power, but so do individuals in the many small steps that improve the lives of others near them. Most of us have a needing friend, and if our children see us care for that friend, they might learn as much as they could from any political conversation. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Sympathy Card for Republican Relatives

A Sympathy Card for My Republican Relatives.
I’m working on the design for a sympathy card. This design is somber but hopeful. My message is that I’m so sorry for what happened to their party and for what a hard choice is likely to face them in November. They are patriots so I know that they will vote, but for whom. They will have to choose someone who has been, for their party, one of the worst people in history. Or they will have to choose someone who will embarrass and tarnish the party image for years. (The damage to government and international respect must also be worrisome.)
I’ve been imagining the calculations that are going on now among my Republican family and friends,
“What if I choose the party nominee? Let’s see -- he could have a lucky few years with good advisors. If he can just stay out of sight and off twitter we might survive the four years to build a replacement.” With the nominee of the other party? “She might not look that good after four years. Maybe she will have tough times and unpredicted challenges. Maybe circumstances will beat her.”
But here’s the message inside the card, expressive of high hopes for another alternative.
“Dear Republican Family and Friends,
I’m honestly sorry for your situation. I promise not to question and not to gloat if you admit that you voted for Hilary. Maybe she will have some new strategies to create cooperation or she will inspire less indiscriminate opposition. And it doesn’t seem like the opposition approach has worked very well. So now what? Could WE be the answer? What might we create if we all insist that our leaders look for every possible way to work together for the country rather than the parties and lobbyists? Could a truly honest effort rebuild the physical, intellectual and spiritual infrastructure of this country? It is possible, but not without us—all of us from every part of the spectrum who find ways to get our voices heard as we shout in unison, ‘Cut the crap and do your dad gum jobs.’ Oh, yes, and, ‘God Bless America.‘”

Friday, March 18, 2016

College Admission Letters

This older piece published in the Christian Science Monitor is timely for kids awaiting the college admission letters. Maybe a bit of comfort or a bit of perspective.

Redefine Success for Kids

I will never forget the news about my friend's daughter: She was going to Stanford University – and felt devastated. Her friends were all going to prestigious Eastern schools, while she had "settled" for her second choice.
Just the week before, I had spoken with the father of three teenage boys – all great kids, but low-average students. And each felt like a failure.
Then, listening to the college counselor at my daughter's college prep night, I was struck by how high the bar has been set for youngsters: Average now equals failure. American society is so competitive that the pressure has filtered down to the youngest children.
Is there any place in childhood where you can just be where you are, not "getting ready for the next level?" My son's teachers in middle school pushed hard to get the kids ready for high school. I understand the pressure teachers feel, but I wonder if kids might not be better off if teachers just helped them do something well for the feeling of satisfaction in a job well done.

I do know of a fifth-grade teacher who doesn't always speed through assignments and grade kids on their first effort. Several times during the year, she works with each child until an assignment merits an "A." Each student gains the experience of producing fine work.
But she is an exception. When I mentioned my concern to fellow psychologists, each had examples. One woman's sister had gone to a very high-powered high school. Her teachers and classmates had made her feel like a failure, because she was only a C+ student. Though she went on to get a doctorate and now holds a prestigious job, she still sees herself as a failure.
In contrast, another psychologist described her sister, too, who had struggled through school. But their parents had encouraged her to find many sources of satisfaction and kept telling her she would find her niche. She did, and is now a happy, successful adult.
Maybe there is an underlying belief that, if we make satisfaction unattainable, children will be more motivated. But perhaps we will end up with highly motivated people who never experience satisfaction. Or youngsters like the teenagers who feel that only A's "count," so why bother if you can't achieve them.
Some of this pressure represents a misguided sense of what it takes to be successful in this world. In less pleasant cases, it is a sign of people who use their children for their own sense of status.
In parenting workshops, I often ask participants to consider the question: "Are the people I know who went to Stanford and Berkeley so much happier than those who went to other colleges?" If the answer is not a resounding yes, then what are we doing to our kids?
Society has put so many conditions on children's value, it's easy to see how they can end up feeling like nothing. Psychologists practicing in affluent communities are kept in business by this trend.
The pressure also seeps into activities out of school. One mother described her feeling of inadequacy at a young child's birthday party. One little guest came late because of chess lessons. Another left early because of violin lessons. The first mother was almost embarrassed that she wasn't in any hurry, and was just taking her child home to hang out in the backyard with the cat.
I tried to give her some perspective in seeing that overprogrammed children do not always benefit. A few excel, but many just wear out or don't develop the capacity to pursue self-initiated activities. I don't encourage parents to eliminate expectations, but instead to appreciate children and help them find skills that give them pleasure regardless of the grade, the money, or the status that goes with them.
After 12 years of college, what is my greatest source of satisfaction? A patch of ground well weeded. A friend well cared for. The ability to notice the wonderful things that happen when the autumn sunset puts a rosy filter in front of the fading hydrangeas.
I enjoy my work, but this is not because I have a PhD from Berkeley. It's from parents who loved me unconditionally and helped me, by their example and support, find many sources of satisfaction in life.
It is possible to motivate people without keeping satisfaction unattainable. In fact, what could be more motivating than the desire to reproduce the wonderful feeling of a job well done?
There are many routes to happiness that do not pass through the doors of Ivy League colleges.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Naughty children

Raising a naughty child
Susan DeMersseman, Ph.D.

My work and my life have given me a window into this worthy pursuit, doing a good job of raising a child who is naughty.  At the school where I’m the psychologist I’m sought out to help with naughty children and in some cases to be the advocate for them.
I use the term naughty for many reasons. It covers a multitude of behaviors, but I also like the “old fashioned” quality it imparts to behavior that was once described in less pathology laced terms.
Before we had initials that described all sorts of syndromes and diagnoses, kids were naughty or they had “ants in their pants” or they were quirky. Some were mischievous or clueless or immature. Back then they were kids, now, with the increase in “parenting” as an almost competitive or professional endeavor, they are sometimes viewed as our products. We feel, and often are, judged harshly for the imperfect products.
In this context I try to help people have a sense of proportion. Yes, there is ADD and ADHD and OCD and ODD and CAPD. I don’t disagree with this, but there is also naughty behavior in and out of the labels and we, as parents, need some understanding and support in trying to deal with it.
Years ago I attended a presentation by Dr. Stephen Hinshaw, one of the foremost national experts on ADD and ADHD. I asked him for both personal and professional reasons, “What variables are most likely to determine a ‘good outcome’ with ADHD kids?” I loved his response and have shared it often in my workshops and in my office. His answer, “A mother who is firm and affirming.”
A naughty kid often gets so much correction and criticism at school. Even if much of it is deserved, it can create its own problem. A colleague shared the research that ADD and naughty kids can become defiant, because they get so agitated by always being scolded and put down. I’ve seen that happen, and I have also seen kids become what they were blamed for. The busy kid can become the class pariah or the “usual suspect.” After the teacher calls a name a few hundred times, the classmates simply perceive that child as “the one”. I’ve seen these kids get blamed for things when they were absent on that day. A principal I worked with shared the story of once being called at home about her son’s misbehavior that day. She was delighted to share the fact that he was home sick, on the sofa beside her.
I don’t believe that we should ignore bad behavior, but we who work in schools must be careful, by our behavior not to create “the usual suspect.” I once worked with a teacher who would not allow her students to call out a complaint about another child. They had to come quietly and report. She tried not to correct in a public way. Her motto was “praise in public and correct in private.”
As parents of naughty kids, how do we convey our displeasure and still be positive with our children? It is indeed a balancing act --firm and affirming. That was my challenge for several years. I had to be firm, but when the school had been biased or overly harsh I had to be more affirming, even put the child back together at the end of a day when blame was not fairly assigned. My children often thought I was too firm and complained that if there was trouble, I always asked first thing what they did wrong. Sometimes they felt like I was not in their corner. They came to understand that I was trying to help them see their part in any problem and a route to a solution.
At times I coached, “Fly below the teacher’s radar.” Only to realize that the teacher’s radar was locked on a child. I could never dismiss or dilute the teacher’s authority, lest it be seen as license, but sometimes it was hard to find that perfect balance. Sometimes the only thing that helped was reassuring them and myself that the time with this teacher was temporary and that from the experience my child would find a challenge to grow from.
In my heart I brewed and stewed and swore that I would go ballistic if one of those teachers ever tried to take credit for my child’s eventual success. It did once occur in the form of a note in the mail, saying she knew he would someday turn out great. My ballistic response was quashed by my son’s gracious reaction, his forgiving nature and his good heart. I think firm and affirming might have worked.
More than once I’ve told my grown son that many other little kids have benefited from the struggles he dealt with when he was little. In workshops mothers often come up and thank me for the practical and reassuring outlook. Some appreciate “permission” to be very selective about attending certain social events with their hyper little child.  Missing an event will cause less regret than having to deal with the dessert table crashing down as your child hides beneath in a game of tag with other children. No, it never happened to me, but I could see it as possible. Parents have also been helped by the metaphor of horsepower. Rather than trying to reduce that, we might do better to help our busy child improve the transmission, steering and brakes
Sometimes other parents criticize the parents of the naughty child because they do not discipline the child strictly in public. It is often the case that the parents prefer to handle it in private rather than making an unpleasant scene for all present.  I encourage this. The opposite, making a show of how strict and firm you are in public, is not a good idea.
Be firm, set boundaries, have consequences, rehearse appropriate behavior, set up reward charts, choose social events carefully, and whenever you see the goodness that you know is in there notice it, pay attention to it, affirm it.

        When my role at school has included discipline, one of my most effective lines to a child in trouble is, “That’s not like you.” 90% of the time I’m telling the truth and even when it’s a stretch, it works much better than,  “There you go again.” Children rely upon us for their identity. To be viewed as a decent person who made a bad or thoughtless choice is a valuable gift to any child, naughty or not.