In It For Health

Where health and psychology intersect

A Teachable Moment: Summer structure is essential for kids and teens

Posted by Dr. Susan on June 4, 2012

For parents and kids alike, summer is associated with freedom from the hectic school year schedule and with the chance to take a deep breath and relax for a few weeks. Bed times are later, house rules become more flexible, and playtime stretches out into the evening hours. This change, as well as the chance to slow down, are great for everyone’s psychological well-being. That being said, even in the summer, it is important for kids to maintain a routine. In fact, too much ‘relaxing’ isn’t healthy for kids or teens.

To begin, excess screen time (TV, computer, video games, phones), is no better for kids in the summer than it is during the school year. Your child may not have homework, but the opportunity to be active outside, spend time with friends, and take advantage of experiences that are unique to summer, will all be diminished by spending too much time engaged with a screen—whether at home or on the go. Therefore, the summertime rules for screen time should not be very different from the school-year rules. The maximum recommended total screen time should not be more than two hours a day for kids and teens, no matter what time of year it is!

Next, it can be easy to allow your child to have a later bedtime in the summer. The sun sets at a later time, and there is no school the next day (although some kids must get up for summer camp). While it is tempting to allow kids and teens to stay up as late as they choose and then sleep as late as they desire the next morning, this is not in their best interest.  In order to grow healthily, feel happy and behave well, kids and teens need a minimum of eight hours of sleep, and most need nine or ten hours. In addition, the eight hours of sleep that begin earlier in the night, are much better quality than when these hours begin later at night. Finally, when you allow kids—and especially teens—to create their own sleep schedule, they will often stay up well past midnight, and then sleep away a good part of the day. This is not a healthy way to spend the summer, and it becomes more difficult for them to adjust back to a school year routine. Therefore, while it is fine to allow some flexibility in your child or teen’s summer bedtime routine, it is important to enforce a reasonable bedtime, ensuring that your child gets enough, good quality sleep.

Finally, while it is important to slow down in the summer, kids and teens function much more healthily, and are less likely to get in trouble, when they have structured, supervised activity. For example, did you know that the rate of marijuana use amongst teens is much higher in the summer months than at any other time of the year? This is because in the summer so many more teens are allowed to spend every day, for weeks, with little to do and barely any supervision. Even younger kids with little structure are more likely to get into fights and become cranky and hard to manage because they are bored. So, while it may be summertime, parenting must still include organizing a regular schedule of activities for your child, and supervising older kids and teens to ensure that they are doing more than just hanging out and sleeping the summer away.

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Mayor Bloomberg, banning sodas will only make the obesity problem worse!

Posted by Dr. Susan on May 31, 2012

Mayor Bloomberg of NYC wants to ban sugary soda larger than sixteen ounces…

Really! How about if Mayor Bloomberg and all the other local, state and national politicians focus their attention to issues that are actually their business. We do NOT live in a dictatorship, we are allowed to drink and eat whatever we want.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that we or our kids should be downing large quantitites of sugar (or fat), in fact I’ve written a bunch of books about being healthy.That being said, if the politicians stopped fighting with each other and spent their time focusing on education, real economic improvements and other issues that crucial to the welfare of the United States, maybe people–adults, teens kids–would be more likely to become healthy.

So you’re asking…how  exactly are politics and health related? Actually, very much so…

If you tell a child over and over again that he isn’t as smart or successful as the other kids, then you throw in a dysfunctional family life, with parents fighting all the time, and then you don’t even give him the tools to improve things, I guarantee you that this child is MUCH more likely to feel depressed, hopeless and worthless. As we all know, when someone feels really bad, he’s less likely to care about how he looks, he’s more likely to eat emotionally and he’s less likely to be motivatefd to make healthy changes.

Sound like anyone you know? Perhaps our WHOLE country!! Our education systems throughout the entire U.S. are embarassing compared to so many other countries, we are struggling economically, and our ‘parents’ (the politicians) are constantly bickering and outright fighting.

No wonder we are overeating sugar and fat–talk about needing to self-soothe!

So this brings me back to Bloomberg and his suggested ban on super-sized sodas….

Mr. Bloomberg and ALL the other politicians who think that controlling our calories is going to make a difference. The obesity rate in this country is a SYMPTOM, not the underlying problem. We need you to make changes that will actually make us feel valued, valuable, safe and secure. Then we’ll stop binge-eating junk food!

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Is TWhining the new whining?

Posted by Dr. Susan on May 25, 2012

I thought that once my kids were older I’d be done with having to listen to them whine, but I seem to have entered a new, unfortunate phase…TWHINING… whining via text.

Below, a few examples–my intention is to garner support of other parents experiencing this particular type of torture, and terrify those who are not there yet and were hoping a cell phone would free them of having to endure whining–because after all, preteens and teens don’t really talk to you anymore other than through texting…hah! behold…

“Mommmyyy, I reeeeellllly don’t want to…”

“Ik, ik, ik, oookkkkk I’ll dooo it…i proommiisse”

“Omg, I sooooo do not wnt to, plzzzz dnt make me!”

“I’m begggiiingg u, plzzz l promis, i will”

“heeelp me plzzz”

“noooooooooo”

 

It’s almost impossible to escape twhining because it can find you anywhere and if you ignore it, it simply ramps up, attacking your phone during meetings, lunches, phonecalls and even as you’re falling asleep at night (yes, I keep my phone next to my bed. I use the alarm to wake up…and I’m probably one of those addicted PDA users you keep hearing about–aren’t you!)

But, I digress…I’ve begun to twhine right back at my three teens, I find its the only way to survive!…

“Omg, really…noooooo u can’t stay out til midnight”

“Ik, ik, I’m THE wooorst mother EVER!!!”

I have to admit that twhining is a bit better than whining because I can put it on vibrate…or even, when I’m feeling really brave, on silent…aaahhh!

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A Teachable Moment: Make the most of moving up

Posted by Dr. Susan on May 6, 2012

The month of May is all about graduations, moving up ceremonies and commencements. It is a time to feel a little sad about “how fast they grow up”, and to feel joyous about the wonderful milestones and accomplishments. This year I have, a child graduating from high school, another from middle school, and two nieces leaving elementary school!

Whether your child is facing a significant graduation, or simply moving from one grade to the next, this time of year is filled with mixed feelings, not only for you, but for your child as well. You might be surprised to learn, that not all kids are excited or happy about leaving a school, grade or teacher. Many are sad to leave the classroom in which they have accomplished so much, or the routine to which they have become accustomed. They may miss a teacher with whom they have formed a strong relationship, and they often worry that they won’t have friends in their class next year. Of course, some kids make the transition easily and are excited to move on and up! Never the less, just about every child feels some small worry and ambivalence about transitioning. In order to help your child face the transition in a positive and optimistic manner, it is important to be aware of the feelings that he or she may be experiencing. Here are a few ideas that will help you and your child say goodbye to this school year in a positive and optimistic way:

Focus on facts: Remind your child about all that he learned during this school year, and point out that next year will be just as productive. For example, this year he may have read his first chapter book, but next year, he’ll read a whole series! This year he learned how to play basketball, but next year he’ll be a comfortable part of the team. The more you focus on positive milestones to reach in the upcoming year, the easier it will be for your child to be excited, rather than ambivalent.

Make memories: Saying goodbye to people and places is a natural part of life, and one that your child will confront many, many times over the course of a lifetime. It is important to validate your child’s sad feelings and help her cope with them. Give her a camera and encourage her to take it to school and take pictures and video that will document the building, classroom, teachers and classmates. Help her create an album or scrapbook with the pictures that she can keep as a positive reminder of this school year.

Encourage emotion: Most kids have been socialized (by the media and their peers) to believe that they should be thrilled that school is ending. However, many children and teens enjoy the learning, the structure, and the time with friends, much more than they value a long vacation. However, they keep these feelings hidden because they don’t think it is ‘normal’ or ‘cool’ to feel sad about school ending. You can help your child understand his feelings, but reminding him that all feelings are normal and that it is okay to be upset about school ending. The more opportunities your child has to talk about his feelings, the more easily he will make the transition.

You should not be embarrassed to talk about your feelings as your child grows up. It can be beneficial to talk to other parents in order to share feelings about your child (and you) reaching these milestones. Remember that all feelings are ‘normal’!

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A Teachable Moment: Have A Heart

Posted by Dr. Susan on February 3, 2012

February is the ‘heart’ month. It’s the home of Valentine’s Day, and it’s National Heart Health Month. But, having a healthy heart is so much more than cute cards and physical fitness. It is also about ‘having heart’, which means feeling and expressing love for others and for oneself.  As we travel through our hectic lives, it can be easy to forget the importance of love, but the truth is that during these uncertain times, kids need to be able to feel and express love more than ever before because it will keep them feeling safe and secure. Happily, it’s not too difficult to ensure that your child’s capacity for love continues to grow:

Teach by example. When you openly and frequently express love to your child and to other meaningful people in your life, it teaches your child that this is important and normal. Say the words “I love you”, give hugs and kisses, and snuggle on the couch as often as possible. Children continue to learn from their parents through their teen years and into early adulthood, so don’t stop loving and teaching. Your teenager is not too old to hug and kiss!

Encourage sharing (of feelings). When your child tells you about a friend who stuck up for her, didn’t leave her out, shared her lunch, gave her a hug or was a good friend in any other way, encourage your child to tell her friend how good that made her feel and how much she values the friendship.

Support sibling love. Siblings often spend at least some of their time arguing. However, when you look closely, there are probably also many sweet moments of sharing, helping and allegiance between them. You can encourage siblings to share positive feelings towards each other by pointing out these positive moments and telling them that these expressions of brotherly and sisterly support and love really make you feel proud of them. Then, during less pleasant sibling moments, you can remind them of the positive part of their relationship in order to lessen the momentary anger between them.

Support equal opportunity for boys. In many ways, boys have been socialized to keep their feelings to themselves, even though this is no healthier for them than it is for girls. In particular, many boys are afraid to express positive feelings for fear that it may make them seem to ‘girly’. We need to help boys shift from this old-fashioned way of thinking, and teach them that friends, siblings, parents and grandparents will feel good when they share positive feelings and behaviors. What’s more, expressing love, appreciation and other positive feelings will also help your son. He will feel positive knowing that his expressions of love have brought good feelings to his friends and family.

Self-love is most important. In order to have the emotional capacity to love others, you first need to love yourself. Every child, no matter how confident, can benefit from encouragement to be proud of her accomplishments and feel positive about her strengths. Your child may also need to be reminded that loving yourself means accepting that you are not perfect. When necessary, you remind your child that she is still lovable, even if she does not have the exact body, brain or lifestyle she desires. Help her focus on the positive aspects of herself, so that self-love is easy, rather than a burden. Also, remember to love yourself (despite your imperfections) so your child can see that you really mean it!

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Does your child have the mid-winter blues?

Posted by Dr. Susan on January 4, 2012

At this time of year kids and teens may be susceptible to the winter blues, which, in its more serious form, is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD usually occurs during the winter months, when it is colder and there is less sunlight, although, one does not have to live in a freezing, snowy climate to experience seasonal depression. Those living in milder climates may also experience the blues.

It is important to learn the symptoms of depression in children so you can recognize them, and if necessary, address them immediately. All types of depression are more common in older children and teens, but it is possible for a younger child to experience SAD, especially with a family history of depression. Therefore, if your child’s behavior seems to change with the season, it is time to take notice.

Childhood depression often looks different from the adult type. Even very sad kids will appear happy sometimes—during a funny movie, or playing with friends, but it doesn’t mean they are fine. Children typically have mood fluctuations, even if they are depressed.

The most common symptoms of SAD (and childhood depression) include:

  • Feeling sad, overly sensitive or      crying excessively
  • Anger, crankiness, moodiness
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping      more than usual
  • Eating much more or less than      usual (for an extended period of time, not just a day or two)
  • Low energy level, difficulty      concentrating
  • Reduced interest in normal activities      at home, in school and socially
  • Stomachaches, headaches or other      physical complaints that don’t respond to medical treatment
  • Thoughts of death or suicide      (not as common in young children)

 

Not every depressed or sad child will exhibit every symptom; some may have only two or three. If you think that your child has the winter blues, take these five steps:

  1. Continue to observe. Watch your child’s behavior for a week or so. Then,      if you still see symptoms and feel that he is emotionally under the weather,      move to step #2.
  2. Talk to your child. Ask how she is feeling. Inquire about possible      school and friend stressors. Don’t be afraid to ask questions—you won’t “give      your child ideas”  that she doesn’t      already have. If there is no significant stressor, but she still seems      unhappy, move to step #3.
  3. Talk to the teacher. In most cases, when a child has the blues, his      behavior will change everywhere, not just at home, so the teacher is sure      to notice any mood change too. If the teacher (and other significant adults      in your child’s life), confirms your concerns, move to step #4
  4. Meet with your child’s doctor. It is important to rule out      medical factors that may cause a child’s mood to change. For example,      either mononucleosis or hypothyroidism can cause low energy level or      trouble concentrating. After ruling out medical factors, you and the      doctor can decide the next step. If the doctor recommends that you speak      with a mental health professional, do so right away. See step #5.
  5. Seek expert help. If treatment is necessary, it will vary depending on      the severity of your child’s symptoms and her age. No one child is the      same and there are several treatment options, including light therapy,      increased natural light exposure, talk therapy or medication.

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Nurture yourself during the holiday rush…really!

Posted by Dr. Susan on December 4, 2011

Are you exhausted? I know that I am! After fighting crowds at the mall, baking mountains of cookies, and managing meltdowns by overtired kids, every parent is ready to drop! It’s difficult to avoid the insanity of the holidays, which is why it is so important for you to find a few moments to care for yourself. After all, if you feel cheerful and energized, rather than tired and stressed, you will be better able to juggle your way through the next few weeks. It doesn’t take much to get the relief that you so desperately need, so please enjoy these tips, as my holiday gift to you:

 

Turn up the tunes. Loud, fun music will lift your spirits and distract you. When you dance and sing along, it will definitely put a smile on your face. Soothing music will signal your body to relax and it will help you slow down.

Breathe in. Certain aromas have an instantly calming effect on your body. Lavender, rose, vanilla and many other scents will send signals to your brain to become calm and feel good. Carry an aroma that appeals to you in the form of a small container of balm, cream or essential oil. When you feel stressed, open the lid and inhale the soothing smell.

Breathe out. Stress can make your heart race. To slow it down, breathe in for a count of five, and breathe out for five. Repeat this another three or four times. You will be surprised at how this simple technique can calm you down. It is especially effective in traffic or while waiting on line. Practice this often to get better at it.

Indulge in a mini-massage. Use your favorite lotion (extra points if you use one with a soothing smell) to massage your hands together, or to rub your feet. It may not be quite as good as a professional massage, but your body will still thank you.

Limit caffeine. Too much caffeine amplifies stress. Although you may be exhausted, resist the urge to drink too much coffee. Don’t forget that there is also caffeine in some tea, soda, and chocolate.

Sip a cup of hot, herbal tea. The act of taking a moment to boil the water and brew the tea, will give you a time out. Then, since it’s hot, you will be forced to sit and sip it. Pick a flavor that feels calming (perhaps chamomile).

Stretch. The next time you watch TV with the kids, or chat on the phone, give your back, legs and neck a gentle stretch. You’ll feel your body instantly de-stress.

Exercise—even for a couple of minutes. Run upstairs or jog to meet the school bus. Your body will release feel-good endorphins that will keep you going for a while.

Take a hot shower or bath. The warm water will soothe your aching body and give you a few minutes of peace and quiet—if you’re lucky!

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Manners count during the holiday season.

Posted by Dr. Susan on November 4, 2011

The excitement of the holiday season can bring out the best in kids, but it often brings out their worst. Nagging, whining and a lack of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are not uncommon during this festive but frenetic time of year.

It can be easy to let these behaviors slide because you want your child to enjoy the holidays without reprimand or punishment. You also may not want to embarrass them at holiday gatherings by pointing out behavior flaws.

However, in truth, this is an excellent opportunity to teach your child about manners. If you emphasize appropriate behavior during the holidays, he will begin to realize that it is important all the time. The key is to teach with patience rather than anger, and use strategies that help him achieve success rather than highlighting failure.

These four techniques will help your child develop manners of which you can be proud:

  1. Quit while you’re ahead. Tired, cranky kids are more likely to be rude and impolite. If you finish shopping or leave a party before reaching this point, you will be able to praise your child for great manners at the end of the activity. Praise reinforces good behavior and motivates your child to want to continue it in the future.
  2. 2.      Pre-teach manners. Before heading out to a gathering or holiday activity remind your child how you expect her to behave. Emphasize that you want to hear ‘please’, and ‘thank you’; that she should look at people when they talk to her and respond to questions; and generally behave in a way that will make you proud. Subtle reminders may be necessary. For example, before leaving a party you could whisper to your child to remind her to thank the host.
  3. 3.      Don’t plead or punish. When your child doesn’t behave politely, respond firmly but not in anger. You don’t want your child to remember this holiday as one when he was embarrassed or punished. Resist the urge to yell in public, threaten, or mete out serious consequences. On the other hand, imploring him to behave, but issuing no consequences—or empty ones—will not change his behavior. If necessary, take him aside and quietly remind him of your expectations. Explain that if he continues to be impolite, there will be a consequence. Explain the consequence and, if necessary, follow through with it. You may not be happy to take your child home from a party, hold a gift for a couple of days, or send him to bed early, but the long-term impact will be worth it. Your child will develop manners, self-control and respectful behavior. This will be your favorite holiday gift!
  4. 4.      Review and reward. After every holiday activity compliment your child for positive behaviors. For example:
  •  “I loved how you held the door open for people in the stores”
  • “You played so patiently with your baby cousin”
  • “Thank you for helping set the table tonight—it saved me time”
  • “You said thank you to grandma for the gift without being reminded”
  • I noticed that even though you didn’t love the gift, you made your uncle feel like you did”

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Is your child enjoying school this year? It’s not to early to assess.

Posted by Dr. Susan on October 4, 2011

It may seem early, but October is a perfect point in the school year to assess your child’s progress. He has had enough time to become accustomed to his schedule, routine, and new classmates and the teacher has informally assessed kids to determine progress compared to grade-level expectations. Since it can take weeks or months to fix academic or social issues, it is important to assess early and often. In addition, waiting can cause some problems to become more difficult to fix, which could negatively impact your child’s self-confidence.

There are three main areas to evaluate at this point in the school year.  By asking yourself the following questions, and answering them honestly, you will recognize areas of weakness and then address them successfully.

 

#1: School

  • Does your      child enjoy school, speak positively about her teacher, and feel good      about her successes?
  • Does your      child complete class work successfully most of the time? Is homework      relatively stress-free, not resulting in delays and tantrums (him) or excessive      nagging and yelling (you)?

If you answered NO to any of these questions, begin by making an immediate appointment with your child’s teacher (don’t wait for ‘parent/teacher conferences’).  At this meeting, ask pointed questions and share examples of concerning behaviors. Agree on a concrete strategy to work towards a solution. Schedule another meeting to review your child’s progress. If necessary request that the school psychologist or counselor be present at the next meeting.

 

#2: Social life

  • Does your      child report feeling content with her social life? Does she have healthy      friendships (respect for each other)? Does she spend time with friends      outside of school?
  • Are you      confident that your child is not being bullied or that he doesn’t bully      other children? Bullying can be very difficult to see as an adult. It can      physical or verbal; in person, online or by cell phone.

If you answered NO to any of these questions, your child needs support to learn strategies that will improve her social life. The right strategies will vary depending upon your child’s personality and needs. Even if your child is a bully, she still needs your help, rather than punishment. If she is a target of bullying, you may need to intervene directly. Ask your child about her social life. Also, speak to your child’s teacher and to the school counselor. If necessary, seek private counseling to help you and your child.

 

#3: Daily Routine

  • Does your      child manage his daily routine—dressing, eating, bathing, activities,      bedtime—with no more than age-appropriate assistance?
  • Does your      child enjoy her extracurricular activities? Is she able to balance school      with additional activities?

If you answered NO to any of these questions, it is time to assess your child’s routine and schedule. Perhaps he needs a more or less structured routine. The adults must create the structure and then reinforce it consistently. If you are concerned that your child is lagging behind others in the activities of daily living, consult the pediatrician to determine whether an evaluation is recommended. Maybe your child has too many extracurricular activities which has caused him to become overwhelmed. You have time before the second semester or next sports season begins, to reassess and adjust accordingly.

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It may be time to find your child’s special talent…or not.

Posted by Dr. Susan on September 4, 2011

The start of the school year brings enthusiasm. A new class, friends and experiences are all exciting. Many kids can’t wait to try every activity introduced by teachers and peers. So, should you let your child try it all or is it better to encourage him to stick with one or two areas he already enjoys, and in which he may already show signs of excelling?

It can be tempting to let your child try every new activity. After all childhood is the best time to explore and grow—and there’s no way for her to discover a passion without trying many things. On the other hand, too much diversification can make it difficult for a child to immerse herself fully in a new experience and it can become confusing and stressful for her.

So, is it possible to encourage exploration and find your child’s passion, without her becoming overwhelmed and distracted?  Yes! Here are four simple steps that will give your child opportunities to explore, yet still build upon current passions, talents and interests:

  1. Nurture passion and interest. If your child shows an interest in, or talent for any given activity, support this by enrolling him in a class, after-school activity or school club that nurtures the interest. Pick one area of passion on which to focus. If an activity is seasonal (like a sport or a school play), you can have a replacement activity once the season is over. The replacement need not be another ‘passion’, but can be a new area that your child wants to explore (see #3 below). Stick to one area of passion at a time, or your child will become overwhelmed and lose interest in everything.
  2. Balance is essential. Kids younger than ten don’t usually need more than two days a week to work at their area of interest. More than this can cause burnout and possibly an eventual rejection of the activity. In addition, make sure there is time for homework, play and exploration of other areas. Older children may become more intensely involved in an activity they love or that requires greater commitment to be competitive. This type of commitment is admirable and should be encouraged—but not at the cost of eating, sleeping, school work or a social life. As the parent, you must make sure your child is physically and emotionally healthy—even if she is an Olympic athlete or superstar in the making!
  3. Encourage participation in a new activity. This can be a sport or creative art that your child has never tried, or even a less structured activity like baking or magic. Ask him to commit at least two or three months to the activity. This is enough time to achieve an initial level of mastery, so that the activity feels more like fun than work. After this period, he can decide whether he wants to continue or move on to something new.
  4. Resist the urge to jump on everyone else’s ‘activity bandwagon’. Your child may come home each week with something new to try. Make a list of these activities and explain that she can try one at a time, giving each one at least a couple of months to see if she likes it. You’ll likely find that she’ll lose interest in many of the ideas on the list after her initial ‘nagging’. If you stick to these four tips, your child is sure to become well-rounded while still discovering her passions and talents.

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