parent – child relationship

Beyond “Do your best”: Three Ways to Lessen Your Child’s Anxiety about School

Young girl holding a pencil at her desk
Young girl holding a pencil at her desk

Young girl holding a pencil at her desk

A Guest Post from Dr. Kevin L. Gyoerkoe — a licensed psychologist specializing in anxiety and OCD-related disorders at The Anxiety and OCD Treatment Center in Charlotte, NC.

When I first started working with 12 year-old Sarah*, she was the picture of anxiety. Sticking close to her mom, her hair covering her face, she sat in the waiting room as I came out to say hello. She muttered a “hi”, and we walked back to my office.

We talked for a few minutes about movies, then–knowing her parents had brought her to my office because of her anxiety about grades–I asked her about school.

Sarah burst into tears as she described just how anxious she felt.

“I feel like I have to be perfect; I have to make straight A’s”, she told me. “I don’t know when to stop, I study all the time. It takes me so much longer to finish my homework than my friends. And if I get a B or worse, I freak out.”

Toward the end of our meeting, I asked Sarah’s mom to come into my office. Her mom was calm and relaxed, the exact opposite of Sarah.

She smiled easily and sat comfortably on the couch. She seemed genuinely puzzled by Sarah’s worries about school and anxiety about her grades.

“We don’t know where she gets it”, Sarah’s mom explained. “We never put any pressure on her to get good grades. All that we ask is that she do her best.”

As a psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety, I’ve witnessed this scene play out many times over the past 13 years.

At first, when I met with patients like Sarah, I expected that their parents would be hard-driving, achievement-oriented moms and dads who demanded perfection and straight A’s.

The first few times parents like Sarah’s mom breezed into my office more relaxed and low-key than most, I thought it was a fluke.

Over time, however, a predictable pattern emerged. These relaxed parents, it seemed, often shared the same approach when parenting their children: all we ask is that you just do your best.

As this pattern appeared, I started to wonder: Could the innocent-sounding, low-key, “just do your best” approach actually make a child feel more anxious?

As I considered this paradox, it occurred to me that there were three key reasons why telling someone to do their best could actually increase anxiety.

3 Reasons Why “Do Your Best” Increases a Child’s Anxiety

  1. It creates uncertainty.

    One problem with the well-intentioned do your best is that it’s simply too vague. How do we know when we’ve done our best? There’s no way to measure that goal or track our progress, so we are left in a state of uncertainty.

  2. Uncertainty creates anxiety.

    Uncertainty is a common cause of anxiety. Often, the more unsure we are about something, the more anxious we feel about it.

  3. It can cause us to personalize negative events.

    When negative events occur, it’s natural to try to explain why. If we’re instructed to just do our best on a task, and we don’t do well, we are likely to blame ourselves and conclude that we are inadequate or incompetent in some way. This creates a sense of defeat and hopelessness, which could lead to less effort and resilience in the future.

So if “do your best” might not actually help our children do their best, what can we do instead? The next time your child feels anxious about school, try these three alternatives to “Do Your Best.”

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3 Ways to Help Reduce Your Child’s Anxiety about School

  1. Be specific.

    Instead of the vague “do your best”, help your child set clear, concrete goals to lessen anxiety and develop good work habits.

    For example, you might suggest that your child to take three mock spelling tests before her weekly spelling quiz. Or you could encourage her to practice multiplication flash cards until she can do them with 100% accuracy.

    Being specific on the steps required to do well allows our children to shift their focus away from the outcome and focus on the process instead.

  2. Focus on mastery.

    Paradoxically, you can lessen your child’s anxiety and improve school performance by encouraging focus on mastery of specific aspects of the material.

    For example, if your child struggles in math, it may take a few minutes of practice to master the multiplication tables for the week. If he needs additional support, break it down into even smaller chunks so “mastery” comes with even less effort and pressure.

    Once he’s achieved this goal–or at least made progress toward the goal–consider it mission accomplished and provide lots of encouragement on the effort he put forth to accomplish that goal.

  3. Problem-solve.

    If your child receives a low grade, instead of asking “Did you do your best?” ask “What do you need to do to do better next time?”

    Consider it a learning experience and review the material with your child.

    What does your child need to brush up on? Evaluate study habits as well. Did she practice regularly? Was all the homework complete? Look beyond just the grades themselves and evaluate your child’s work habits. Do they need to improve?

    Remember, all the effort in the world won’t overcome bad habits. By the same token, a few small shifts in work habits can make effort much more efficient.

The next time your child is struggling with anxiety about school, instead of offering a “just do your best” consider using the steps above to reduce anxiety, build self-confidence, and develop invaluable skills for the future. Your child will build concrete tools to ensure life-long success and feel less anxious in the process.

Final Thoughts from Amy

We are so grateful to learn from Dr. Goerkoe and know that anxiety plagues even the most devoted Positive Parenting Solutions homes.

One of the most important things families can do to ward off anxious feelings is to maintain a calm, consistent, and compassionate home.

But trust me, if you’re like the thousands of parents I’ve worked with, it’s incredibly difficult to create this type of environment when you’re inundated with sibling rivalry battles and other frustrating behaviors.

If you feel like you’ve exhausted all discipline options without much success, I’d love for you to JOIN ME FOR A FREE ONLINE CLASS.

In one hour, I’ll teach you how to get your kids to listen without nagging, yelling, or losing control.

Will you join me?!

 

*Sarah is a fictional patient created to represent a composite of many children with similar problems.

About the Author

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Dr. Kevin L. Gyoerkoe is a licensed psychologist specializing in anxiety and OCD-related disorders at the The Anxiety and OCD Treatment Center in Charlotte, NC. To learn more about helping your child overcome anxiety, visit www.anxietyandocdtreatmentcenter.com.

When Parents Disagree on Discipline: 8 Steps to Harmonious Parenting

Little Girl with Parents Fighting
Little Girl with Parents Fighting

Little Girl with Parents Fighting

You vowed to be together for better or for worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, but now you’re in a parenting standoff and can’t seem to agree on A.N.Y.T.H.I.N.G.

You’re tired of yelling at your kids. Your partner is tired of their disrespect. You try to implement consequences. Your partner insists on sending them to time out. You dread mealtime. Your partner dreads bathtime.

The tension is palpable and your kids notice. They know you’re the strict one and your partner is more lenient. They know who will cave under pressure and whose fuse will blow first.

If there is one thing you can ALL agree on, it’s this: Something has to change.

The standoff can’t continue.

Your kids are too important. Your marriage is too important. Your family is way too important to let discipline differences wear everyone down.

So what should you do about it?

First, take a deep breath. Like a REALLY deep breath.

There is hope for you and your family, my friend. Lots of hope.

I’m here to suggest there are 8 tangible steps you and your partner can take TODAY to set a new foundation in your home – a foundation that you can both feel comfortable standing on as you continue your parenting journey.


Step 1: Find (Any) Common Ground

Start by identifying the aspects of parenting and discipline in which you DO agree. You’ll be more successful by identifying areas you agree on rather than focusing energy on the many areas where you disagree.

Look for the positives. Identify the parenting strategies your partner uses that you appreciate.

Are they encouraging?

Do they use a respectful tone?

Do they play with the kids?

Are they consistent?

Do they have reasonable expectations of your kids?

Are they loving?

Even if all you can say with confidence is “I appreciate how much you love our children,” that is a positive foundation to build upon.

After all, your partner DOES love your kids.  And even though his/her parenting style may differ from yours, the discipline approach comes from a place of LOVE.

This is not a time for blame or rehashing – this is a fresh start for everyone involved, so build on your commonalities.


Step 2: Explore the Underlying Reasons why you Disagree on Discipline

The greatest influence on our discipline methods is undoubtedly our own parents. Whether you agree with your parents’ discipline-style or not, the choices you make today as a parent are due in part to how you were raised.

Without new knowledge and outside influences, parents are often predisposed to repeat the same patterns of behavior as their parents. Which is why you’ll hear moms all over the world catch themselves in a moment of shock and mutter, “Oh no! I sound just like my mom!”

For those with negative childhood discipline experiences, these parents often vow to not repeat the same discouraging  behaviors on their own children.

Or conversely, (and more frequently) those who agree with the discipline techniques used by their own parents will repeat the same strategies and use the same language they internalized as a child.

This scenario plays out when you hear a parent say, “My parents did _____ and I turned out ok!”

This justification for parenting choices is a slippery slope because you are taking your experience as a single person and applying it to an entire group of people.

For example, you might hear someone say, “I never wore a seatbelt growing up, and I turned out fine.” Chances are, if this were the case, the same person probably wasn’t in a messy car accident either.

This person’s one experience can’t be used to justify banning seatbelts because inevitably, someone is going to get into a car accident and need a seatbelt to save their life.

In parenting circles, you’ll often hear someone say, “I was spanked all the time, but I turned out ok.” But the truth is we can’t let a single person’s experience justify spanking ALL children who come from a plethora of different backgrounds and who have different predispositions. Or when multiple scientific studies tell us it has a negative effect on children.

And sure, this negative effect might be something as simple as a quick-temper or mild anxiety, but it could also create emotional trauma that is much deeper than you ever intended.

If you find yourself using the “I turned out fine” argument to justify your position, I’d encourage you to really dig deep and evaluate where these feelings are coming from.

To find common ground with your parenting partner it’s critical you each do a little soul-searching and discover WHY you disagree.

What parts of your childhood influence your perception of appropriate parenting techniques?

Additionally, what parts of your childhood influence how you feel about your partner’s parenting techniques?

With a little self-reflection from you and your partner, you’ll be well on your way to uncovering the surface of your deeply held parenting beliefs.


Step 3: Start Small

Begin with the non-negotiables for your family.

The non-negotiables are typically the health and safety rules (wearing bike helmets, driving before dark, etc.) and other areas your family values – education (homework before playtime) or respect (name calling will not be tolerated).

Agree on the limits and expectations for the non-negotiables and clearly communicate those to everyone. Be sure you both follow through each and every time on the non-negotiables so your kids see you are a unified front.


Step 4: Think Long-Term

Remember that parenting is a marathon, not a sprint – and that requires we think long-term.

Visualize your kids when they show up for their first day of work.  Imagine who they’ll be when they have children of their own.

What attributes do you hope your children will possess when they become adults?

Compassion? Work ethic? Thoughtfulness? Respect? Motivation? Resilience?

If you and your partner can agree on 3-4 words you hope describe your children as adults, you’ll be able to view parenting with a far-sighted lens.

Then, when tackling the day-to-day discipline dilemmas, ask yourselves the question:

“What do we want our child to LEARN from this experience or discipline opportunity?”

It’s not about winning. It’s not about proving “you’re the boss and they WILL OBEY!”

It’s about teaching your child to make the best possible choices in the future and learning from mistakes along the way so they can grow into well-adjusted adults.

When you and your partner have a long-term goal of raising responsible, compassionate, respectful children, you have a framework to make short-term decisions.

For example:

  • If you want your child to be responsible, should you drive his forgotten homework up to school for the third time this week or not?
  • If you want your child to be compassionate, how should you respond when she admits to cheating on a test?
  • If you want your child to be respectful, how can you model that for him on a daily basis?

If you and your partner can agree on some long-term parenting goals for your family, the short-term decisions will be easier to make.


Step 5: Select a Signal

It’s okay if you disagree on some discipline issues – but the key is not to argue about them in front of your children.  

Establish a non-verbal signal between you and your partner that indicates “we clearly don’t agree on this one, let’s discuss it away from the kids.”  

Since 95% of issues don’t need to be solved on the spot, this gives both parents a chance to take a breather and decide on a course of action later.


Step 6: Avoid Good Cop, Bad Cop

In the same way you shouldn’t disagree on discipline in front of your children, it’s vitally important you don’t pigeon-hole one another into good cop, bad cop roles.

Well-meaning parents do this all the time when you hear them say things like, “Just wait until Dad gets home,” or “Mom is going to be very upset about this.”

What message does a kid hear when mom says, “Just wait until Dad gets home?” A child hears that Daddy is the bad cop and is the only one capable of handling this situation.

Or if Dad says “Mom is going to be very upset about this broken vase!” The child assumes Mom cares more about the vase than Dad does.

Statements like these only reinforce a child’s feelings of viewing one parent as the “loving one” and one parent as the “strict one”.blank

In reality, if you’re trying to present yourselves as a unified front, you should both try to be consistent in your reactions. Each parent should feel equipped and empowered to handle any situation that arrives when the kids are in their care without threatening the other parent’s involvement.

In a similar vein, it’s important not to undermine your partner’s parenting decisions in front of the children. If your children see you have a lack of faith in the parenting decisions your partner made, they will undoubtedly share the same sentiments and behave accordingly.


Step 7: Commit to Consistent Communication

Set aside some time one night each week, after the kids go to bed, to discuss your progress.  

Take note of the issues that have come up most frequently and agree on a correction method to use from now on. Keep in mind that your goal is not to “win the battle” with your partner, but to find the most constructive plan to help your children make good choices–thereby reducing future misbehaviors and training them for adulthood.

Again, this is not a time for blaming or rehashing, but rather a time to come together and map out a plan for your current parenting struggles. Celebrate the little successes you’ve made and the changes you’ve seen in your children and each other.


Step 8: Seek Support

If after some focused effort, you and your spouse continue to disagree on parenting and discipline issues, consider taking a parenting class together or visiting with an objective, third party resource – such as a family therapist.

If you’re not sure whether an in-person parenting course or an online class is better for your family, you can learn more about the pros and cons of each type here.

No matter what route you take, just remember, you and your partner are on the same team!


Final Thoughts

While the task of solving discipline disagreements can seem daunting, these 8 strategies will put you and your spouse on the path to success. With these guidelines, time and effort, it won’t be too long before the big discipline debate is happily in the past.

If you would like to learn more parenting strategies to help you on this journey, I’d love to have you JOIN ME FOR A FREE ONLINE PARENTING CLASS!

5 Tips to Help Kids Develop The Kindness Advantage

blankA Guest Post from Amanda Salzhauer & Dr. Dale Atkins

Do you ever remember hearing a friend or relative complain that their kids are too kind? 

No, neither do we.

Kindness is one of those qualities that we can never have enough of.

There are so many reasons that kindness is important. At its essence, kindness allows us to develop awareness of and sensitivity to others. Having concern for others and being able to show that concern through our thoughts and actions helps us feel connected to the people and world around us.

When we use the word kindness, we are referring to several, specific behaviors. Let’s think of them as the “kindness-ecities”: 
Read More

Playing to Prevent Power Struggles

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Kids playing independently!  Parents celebrate when kids will finally play on their own or with a sibling.  Finally – a few minutes of breathing room for mom and dad to get some things done around the house! Independent play is important for your child’s development and should be encouraged, however, playing WITH your kids on a daily basis will do you and your kids a world of good.  It will even fend off some of the most frustrating power struggles.

Playing WITH your kids doesn’t have to be elaborate or take a lot of time. It can be as simple as throwing a ball or role-playing with dolls or action figures.  “Playing” with a teenager can be a game of backgammon, UNO, or a round of Wii Golf.  “Playing” is what ever your CHILD likes to do for fun. Read More

Kids Clamming Up? Try These 3 Strategies

girl in pink dress, clasping hand behind her.
girl in pink dress, clasping hand behind her.

girl in pink dress, clasping hand behind her.

Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth to get my kids to share ANYTHING! I’ll ask a question and get one word answers or their body language will tell me they’re not at all interested in discussing whatever I’m asking. Sometimes they’re tired or hungry or cranky and just don’t feel like talking. But there are other times when I recognize that my communication style is actually causing them to clam up.

I’ve found that I’m more successful in getting my kids to open up and have a real conversation if I use the following 3 strategies: 

 Read More

Simple Words to Avoid Power Struggles

avoid power strugglesDid you know the average child hears 432 negative comments or words per day versus 32 positive ones? (Source: K. Kvols, Redirecting Children’s Behavior)

If there were a hidden camera in your house, how many times per day would you catch yourself saying “No” or “Don’t” to your kids?

NO or DON’T commands create several problems, especially for young kids… Read More

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