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Archived Articles by Sara Dimerman

HelpMeSara on Mayor Rob Ford

BY Sara Dimerman

Over the past few weeks, I have spent some time responding to parents and the media about how to handle kid's questions fostered by the awareness that something not too good is happening with Toronto's Mayor.

I believe there's actually been quite a bit of good that's come out of Ford's bad behaviour. For one thing, I'm actually quite reassured and impressed at the wisdom and profundity from my fourteen year old and her friends. Aside from their liberal use of the word "crackhead," one friend said that she felt that Ford was putting his ego ahead of the needs of the City and that he should get help. Another said that she felt that his pride was getting in the way of stepping down. Since Ford's apparently stubborn behaviour has left many kids and adults wondering why he is acting this way, here's my perspective on why he refused to take a leave of absence:

Almost exactly a year ago, Ford talked to a CBC reporter about his childhood and how he had been teased a lot, mostly because of his weight. He was quoted in the article as saying "You have to stand up to bullies. If you keep it inside, it could mentally harm you." Well, it appears that he actually may have kept it inside.

Imagine how proud he must have been to have risen above the people who had tormented him to become the major of the great City of Toronto. No wonder he rallies to support the little guy or those that he perceives as victims. Despite how real he is and no matter how many can relate to his human, less than perfect admission, he seems to have forgotten that as the Mayor, the bar is set pretty high. So, after much bad behaviour and silly, impulsive decisions, he has been hounded by the media to come clean and has been poked fun of by citizens, his peers and the media for inappropriate conduct. It seems that he perceives the world as out to get him, that he is once again the victim and everyone else bullies. Imagine then if he were to have willingly stepped down from his position. My guess is that he would have felt that he had been toppled and that he had succumbed to the bullies. A discussion about how to respond and handle bullies, and how we can be affected later in life if we don't, can be an important parent to child conversation to arise out of Ford's refusal to step aside.

Other questions that have resulted from his behaviour and created lots of room for discussion include those about drugs and alcohol. I believe that it is our responsibility to answer our kid's questions honestly and age appropriately, even if talk of crack cocaine happens a little sooner than you'd hoped. For teens who have already had a foundation laid in health education class at school, the discussion may be even deeper. In our household, my daughter has been asking whether the concern around Ford's use of drugs and alcohol is a legal or moral issue.

If your children heard him using crude language and enquire about what the sometimes bleeped out word was or meant, again use this as an opportunity for talking about words that are disrespectful but more importantly, talk about thinking before you speak. During his apology, Ford admitted that he acted on "complete impulse”. Beyond the City not seeing this as a legitimate excuse for a Mayor who is expected to think clearly and not act on impulse, our children can see and learn from the consequences of speaking before thinking.

They can also see that too many apologies don't make a difference after a while. Just like children who become immune to and don't trust parents who often behave inappropriately and then apologize regularly, the same is true between Ford and the citizens of Toronto. We can also help children understand that an apology, in and of itself, does not mean that behaviour is automatically forgiven and forgotten. It was only after Ford was stripped of much of his power and admitted to getting some help, that he spoke of actions speaking louder than words. Perhaps he too has learnt an important life lesson.

Beyond what lessons Ford may have learnt as a result of the events that have unfolded over the past month, we too have been reminded that there are serious consequences for not telling the truth and that an apology is cheapened when evidence is produced and you are then forced into confession. By reassigning the majority of power to someone else, Councillors have shown the rest of the world the importance that they place on associating with and being represented by a leader who displays the attributes – such as responsibility, honesty and integrity - consistent with being a person with good character.

After all, it seems there is a silver lining in every dark cloud.

Sara Dimerman is a Psychologist, Author and mom to two daughters. For more advice, connect at www.helpmesara.com or on Twitter @helpmesara.

Driven to Distraction: Cell Phones in the High School Classroom

By Sara Dimerman

Eight years ago we purchased a cell phone for our now 22 year old daughter when she began grade nine. Our rationale was that being more independent at that time, a cell phone for communication (with us in particular) was warranted. Now, waiting until our children are high school age to purchase a cell phone for them is almost unheard of. When our younger daughter (now 14), was 12, she got her first cell phone.

No more are cell phones a coveted luxury item. They are as much a normal extension of a child’s life as their backpack and computer. Most kids have cell phones by the age of 11 or 12. And as much as parents are frustrated by their incessant texting, instagramming and internet exploring, we do like being able to reach them.

Aside from the obvious benefits of living in an era of technological advancement, I have yet to meet a parent who didn’t want to help their children manage time on their cell phones better. I know that I, along with many other parents, am not always the best role model. I also know that it’s hard to follow through with rules about where and when cell phones are to be used around the house. Like most other households, we have created rules around no screen time during certain hours of the day, no cell phones at the kitchen table and rules about putting away all other electronic devices when watching television or playing a board game as a family. As hard as we try, it seems that those pesky devices slowly creep back into our hands, living room and kitchen and that we often need to reconvene to re establish guidelines.

 When our younger daughter began high school this year, she was thrilled to learn that she didn’t have to leave her cell phone in her locker during class time, as required in elementary school.  When I attended the orientation session with the Principal on the first day of grade nine, she told us that cell phones in the classroom were at the discretion of the teacher and that they often incorporated them as  learning tools. Beyond that, I believe that most teachers don’t want to spend time arguing with their students about putting them away. During recent parent teacher interviews I asked some of our daughter’s teachers about their views. One said that she sometimes asks the students to look up information on their cell phones and that because of a shortage of photocopy paper, she gets kids to take photographs of handouts on their phone. She mentioned her concern about kids taking pictures of themselves and friends during class time and then instagramming or texting one another, but that she didn’t mind this if their work was complete. She also said that she wasn’t allowed to take cell phones from the students and that she preferred not to ask them to deposit them in a bin at the front of the classroom during class time (as I once heard a high school teacher at another school does) because she would be responsible for replacing the phone if it got taken by someone else. I was told that if a student is using and distracted by their cell phone excessively, that she sends him or her to the office where the phone is placed in a secure area.

Even though it sounded as if this particular teacher had established guidelines and consequences, my concern is that if cell phones are on students’ desks, how can we expect them to muster the willpower to not check for messages during class time or to send texts? I play my part by refusing to dialogue when texted during class time, but I can’t control my daughter’s electronic interaction with friends. I know that it’s harder for our generation of parents - who relied on doodling or looking out of the window to escape boredom -  to accept that cell phones are appropriate sources of distraction.

 I’m not convinced that most high school students have the maturity or discipline to choose learning over texting and not sure declining grades should be the consequence for not being able to manage what has become addictive behaviour for many. I worry that declining grades may lead to diminished motivation and big gaps in learning that may be hard to fill. I’m concerned that cell phones in the high school classroom may be setting our children up for failure.

What’s happening in your high school child’s classroom? Has cell phone distraction caused his or her marks to decline? Do you think that parents and teachers should be working together to help manage this concern? Let me know what you think at helpmesara@sympatico.ca 

Sara Dimerman is a Psychologist and Author of parenting and relationship books. She is a married mom to two daughters. For more advice check out www.helpmesara.com or twitter @helpmesara.

Hauntingly helpful hints for Halloween

BY Sara Dimerman
It's that time of year again – to plan ahead for Halloween. For some, this is greeted with excitement and for others, with dread. There are questions to be answered such as: Do we decorate the outside of our home, put on our scariest mask, buy lots of candy and welcome the neighbourhood kids or shut off all the lights and go out for the evening? At what age does it seem inappropriate for a child (more like a teen) to go trick or treating and the dreaded What do we do with all the candy when they come home?
So, I thought I would tackle these questions, plus more, and offer some suggestions:

BEFORE

Picking a costume. When my children were younger, I resented paying quite a chunk of change for a flimsy piece of material that would likely never be worn again. Nevertheless, I typically did because Halloween only comes once a year and I didn't want to be a kill joy. Now I'm thinking that it might have been a good idea (especially when the kids were younger and not as picky) to organize a Halloween costume exchange with friends and neighbours. If I was crafty, it would have been great to even create a costume from scratch with my child.
Consider the weather. It's not surprising that our kids prefer to display their costumes rather than hide them beneath a heavy jacket. How about purchasing a slightly larger costume than one your child would typically wear to make room for a warm sweater to be worn underneath?
Safety. Try to pick bright clothing or place neon strips on the clothing so that your child is more visible. Also, try not to allow masks or any face covering that makes seeing difficult. If your child insists, suggest that he wears the mask on top of his head and then lowers it only when he gets to the door of the house that he's trick or treating at.
Decorating the outside of your house can be fun. I found that doing so only hours before Halloween night was a better option than the day before. Done too much in advance, bad weather or wind would create havoc. Decorating doesn't have to be expensive unless you want it to be. Cobwebs with plastic spiders are not costly but make for a great effect, especially if you replace your regular outside bulb with an orange one, for example.

DURING

Who is staying at home? Although it's fun for the whole family to go trick or treating together – especially when the kids are young – I find that having one parent (if you're part of a two parent home) at home to give out candy and the other to go around the neighbourhood, is what typically works best. If you have an older teen at home who has outgrown trick or treating, then he or she might like to be the official giver outer. The other option is to just turn off your lights and go together, but somehow that has never seemed fair to me – imagine if everyone did that, there would be no homes for the kids to go to!
Walking in groups. This is more fun for the adults and safer for the kids. Organize with neighbourhood friends or parents of your children's school friends to spend the evening together. So that the adult who is left at home giving out candy doesn't feel left out, maybe alternate years.
When to head out. Start time for trick or treating is slightly different for each family depending on the age of your child. Parents with younger children tend to head out as soon as it is even a little bit dark – around 5:30, whereas older kids are often still ringing doorbells at 9pm. Speaking of which, there is no hard and fast rule as to a cut off age for trick or treating, but my personal preference was to suggest a cut off for my kids around the age of 13. Beyond that age, I'd prefer to see kids get together at one another's houses for a party, encourage my child to wear a costume (if that's part of the Halloween appeal) and give out candy or buy her a bunch of candy for them if that's the motivation for going out.
Collecting candy. One of the best ways we found was in a large canvas bag that can be decorated in advance or in a large pillow case – king sized perhaps, especially if there are a lot of homes in your neighbourhood. For really little kids, small pails that can regularly be emptied into that pillowcase, carried by a parent, may be easier on everyone.

AFTER

Sorting through their stash. When it comes to safety, sorting through candy is one of the most important parts of Halloween. We always created a few piles – to keep (their favourites), to give away or share(such as hard candy or bubble gum if the child is very young or gets candy they don't like) and to throw away (such as unwrapped candies or packets of candy that appear tampered with). We all know that it's not easy or even developmentally expected that children (especially young ones) will share their "keep" pile with anyone, but requesting one or two items at the time helps our children learn to share.
How much they get to eat from that pile on the actual night versus how much gets put aside for a later time is dependent on his or her age, how close it is to bedtime and your philosophy on eating candy in general. My personal bias in regards to eating candy on Halloween night is to be a little more liberal than usual, especially if it's not too close to bedtime.

I have also found that leaving the candy out on the table and letting my children reach in the bowl and take in the days to follow actually worked to my advantage. Rather than feeling that I was withholding something they had worked hard to earn, and therefore feeling more of an urge to fight me on it, my kids actually ignored most of the candy when it was lying around and within a month or so, I was able to throw the stale candy out.
Whatever you decide - before, during and after, I wish you a hauntingly good Halloween!

Sara Dimerman is a Psychologist, Author and mom to two daughters. For more advice, connect at www.helpmesara.com or on Twitter @helpmesara.

"YOU’RE SO ANNOYING!"

BY Sara Dimerman

When I think of annoying, I imagine a tiny mosquito hovering around my head in the dark, as I'm trying to sleep. Apparently, the drone of a mosquito doesn't even come close to how annoying I can be to my fourteen year old.

I know that I am not alone. Clients and friends with children around this age, give or take a few years, are clumped in the same category by their children too. Apparently it doesn't take much to be annoying. Some of us are annoying by just being parents. This means that any time we ask our kids to make their beds, what time they are getting together with their friends, enquire if they have homework or move the hair out of their eyes, we are downright annoying! Just like the pesky mosquito, our kids want us away from their space. They just want to be left alone.

Bottom line is that our kids are very comfortable at criticizing and expressing their displeasure to us. They're not afraid to let it all hang out, even though they'd be offended if we did the same.

Some might believe that a comment such as "you're so annoying" shows a lack of respect but I'm more concerned about helping children understand the impact of their words and being sensitive to our feelings rather than demanding respect. So, here are some ideas to turn your exchange into a learning opportunity about better communication:

  1. Tell your child how you feel by using an "I message." This is constructed by using the words, "when you...". "I feel....." and "because." For example, "when you tell me I am annoying, I feel hurt because I am trying to communicate with you about something I feel is important." An I message doesn't necessarily change anything in the short term, but it may in the long run.
  2. If the time is right and the situation calm, you can (at the risk of being even more annoying), ask what it is that annoys your child so much. For example, if he says that you are annoying when you come to wake him in the morning, discuss options such as an alarm clock waking him instead or your coming in only once and then letting the logical consequences kick in (such as a late slip at school).
  3. If your child says that she is annoyed when you ask her so many questions, for example, enquire how else you can find out about her day (genuinely, not sarcastically). Maybe she doesn't want to share the details of her day the minute she gets into the car after school but is more open to sharing in bed at night (when she will likely do anything to delay bedtime). There's no need to bend over backwards to accommodate your child's every wish, but be open to hearing what is irritating her so much and then think about whether and how you are willing to change.
  4. Suggest that instead of pointing a finger at you, that he take responsibility for his feelings. Perhaps he can say "I feel annoyed when you ask me if I'm hungry all the time. I'd prefer to let you know when I need something to eat" rather than "you're so annoying."
  5. Humour is a great way of diffusing tension. When I do something that I know my daughter has found annoying, I look right at her, smile and say "I know, you're so annoying! Right?". She smiles back, nods her head and we move on.

There's no harm in sharing how you feel, hearing how your child feels, and trying to make changes. However, keep in mind that no matter how much you change, some of your behaviour may still be seen as annoying because in order not to be annoying at all, you'd never be able to do or say anything parental. As parents we have the right and responsibility to keep informed as to our children's whereabouts and what's going on in their lives, even if that's horribly annoying to them. So keep talking, validating and considering changes, when appropriate, and don't give up hope that this phase too shall pass.

Sara Dimerman, Dip.C.S., Psychologist & Author , has been an individual, couple and family therapist for over twenty years. She is one of North America’s most trusted parenting and relationship experts and the author of three books - 'Am I A Normal Parent?', 'Character Is the Key' and a book for couples – ‘How can I be your Lover when I’m too Busy Being your Mother?’ Learn more or listen to advice from Sara and her colleagues by searching for ‘helpmesara’ podcasts on iTunes or by visiting www.helpmesara.com. Check out her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/saradimermanhelpmesara or follow Sara on Twitter @helpmesara.

Spender or Saver? – what this reveals about you...

 

BY Sara Dimerman

Gila Martow, host of "Trending in York Region" on Rogers TV, invited me to be a guest on her show. The topic: personal debt and how it affects us and our relationships. The more I prepared for the interview, the more I realized how deep rooted this topic is and how it branches out in so many directions.

It's interesting to consider our spending habits, how they evolve and what they reveal about us. A couple of years ago I was quoted in a Globe and Mail article 'Is your kid money smart?' in which I spoke about parent's modelling being key. Upon further reflection, I think that what makes you a spender or a saver is really a combination of what you see and what you're born with. One's temperament, personality or inborn disposition may affect whether one is more one way than another. For example, from a very young age you can predict how a child will handle money by the way he manages Halloween candy when left on his own. For example, if your child hoards candy for so long that by the time he retrieves it, it's too stale to eat, he may be more inclined towards being a saver. In extreme cases, a child who hoards may grow into an adult who stashes every penny away in the bank or in mattresses, often denying him or herself indulgences. Conversely, the child who devours his candy very quickly, not able to deny the beckoning of its sweetness, may spend in a similar fashion. That child may grow into an adult who has a difficult time saving.

In regards to modelling, what one has seen growing up can either encourage or discourage him from behaving the same way. So, for example, if you were raised in a home where your dad gambled often, but then complained that he had no money to fix the roof or take you on vacation, then you may be more inclined to save so that you can afford time away with your family or to fix leaks. Or you may become a gambler yourself. On the other hand, if you were raised by a parent who barely spent a dime on herself and denied herself any kind of indulgence, you may be inclined to do just the opposite - or you may repeat this behaviour, even without meaning to. You may especially be inclined to move in the opposite direction if your parent saved compulsively but then died prematurely without enjoying any of the nuts she had hoarded for so long. Of course, neither extreme is wise – finding the right balance between saving and spending is both an art and a science.

Money issues often create friction between couples for a variety of reasons. If you were the child of the gambler who complained about having no money then you will understandably be triggered if you feel that your spouse is throwing money at reckless indulgences. If you manage the family finances and believe that your spouse is either not on side or sabotaging your attempts to keep the budget balanced, then this can create a problem too. Sometimes the spouse who is perceived as not being on side is actually rebelling against who he or she believes is a controlling controller. Other times, he or she doesn't see the financial picture fully because it is only being managed by one person. Even though it's typical for one spouse to be financial manager, it's wise to include your partner if you want him or her to be on your team. The way a couple handles money is often reflective of their relationship in general. When partners keep their finances separate, this often means that they are not connected in other ways too. If one person allocates a weekly allowance to the other, then there may be issues around control in other parts of their relationship too.

A huge part of what creates friction in a relationship is debt. If one person brings large personal debt into the relationship, there may be resentment from the partner who is helping to pay it off. If one partner purchases many or high priced items behind the others back or pays by credit card, even though they have agreed not to, this is sure to create problems too. Coming together as a couple to communicate, share and work towards common financial goals is very important – not just for the partners but for the health of the entire family.

Sara Dimerman has been an individual, couple and family therapist for over twenty years. She is one of North America’s most trusted parenting and relationship experts and the author of three books - 'Am I A Normal Parent?', 'Character Is the Key' and a book for couples – ‘How can I be your Lover when I’m too Busy Being your Mother?’ Learn more or listen to advice from Sara and her colleagues by searching for ‘helpmesara’ podcasts on iTunes or by visiting www.helpmesara.com. Check out her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/saradimermanhelpmesara or follow Sara on Twitter @helpmesara.

School's Out Forever

 

BY Sara Dimerman

As a child, I remember belting out the lyrics from Alice Cooper's School's Out Forever - "no more pencils, no more books, no more teachers dirty looks” - on the last day of each school year. I haven't heard those words for a long time, but they come to mind now as I gaze nostalgically at the graduation pictures of both of our daughters – one who has just completed four years of University and the other who is only months away from completing grade 8.

And while there's some excitement about having completed one more chapter of their lives and moving towards the next, I believe that for Chloe especially, the loss of what she's leaving behind overshadows the excitement of what's to come. Her apprehension about her segue into High School along with her sadness at leaving her familiar and safe school environment behind are reflected in her words: "Mom, after ten years at the same school, I feel like I'm leaving home and all my siblings behind.” Her words reminded me that transitions like the one from grade eight into High School can be challenging, difficult, frightening and sad.

For Chloe, there's worry about her very closely knit group of friends becoming unravelled as they integrate into a much larger school environment with students from many other schools coming together. She knows it's going to be different going from one new class to another, uncertain about which familiar faces she will see. In part she looks forward to increased independence but a bigger part of her wants to hold onto the familiarity of old friends and teachers who have become like extended family.

Along with thousands of other graduates, as Chloe prepares to make this bold leap into the world of High School, she is engaged in lots of closing rituals and preparations such as joining her friends for a tour of the new school and meeting new teachers to help bridge the gap. Graduation ceremonies and parties, signing year books, taking pictures of one another and taping a picture of the graduating class to her wall – all ways of saying goodbye and beginning to accept what is just around the corner.

The leap from grade eight into High School is perhaps one of the most dramatic. Perhaps because of the number of years that the children – now teenagers - have been in the same place and the relationships that they have developed as each child has undergone many changes. Graduating from senior kindergarten, while not as dramatic, may still be anxiety provoking for many. For some children, it means going from a half to a full day program, less play time and more structured work activities. Transitioning from High School to College or University requires great adjustment too. Then, it's not just about one's group of friends being diluted, but dealing with the loss of friendships as many journey to different cities and towns to pursue higher education. Suddenly, friends your children may have spent their entire growing up years with, are scattered. This again can certainly create feelings of loss, sadness and uncertainty.

So, if your child is a senior kindergartner, in grade eight, twelve or about to complete college or university, don't be surprised to see changes in his or her behaviour or emotional tone around now. Normalize his or her mixed emotions and recognize that even during transitional celebrations, there are pangs of longing for what one has held so close and dear for so many years.

Sara Dimerman has been an individual, couple and family therapist for over twenty years. She is one of North America’s most trusted parenting and relationship experts and the author of three books - 'Am I A Normal Parent?', 'Character Is the Key' and a book for couples – ‘How can I be your Lover when I’m too Busy Being your Mother?’ Learn more or listen to advice from Sara and her colleagues by searching for ‘helpmesara’ podcasts on iTunes or by visiting www.helpmesara.com. Check out her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/saradimermanhelpmesara or follow Sara on Twitter @helpmesara.

Beating the Winter Blues

February blahs. Winter blues. For those of us living in Canada, this time of year can leave even the happiest among us feeling a little on the sad side. It’s not just that we’re sick of having to pull on or zipper up boots, or put on coats, scarves and  gloves every time we leave the house. We are also experiencing the accumulative result of too many long dark nights and short gloomy days. The good news is that we are apparently over the bluest day of the year and can now look forward to sunnier days ahead as we spring towards a few more minutes of daylight every day until the time at which we have more light than dark over a 24 hour period.

What else makes us feel so blue? Well, December is typically a month for over spending and over eating and so in January, we are literally and figuratively (pun intended) paying for it. In our excitement to give, most people spend more than what they have put aside when buying holiday gifts and so, credit card debt is at an all time high come January. As the reality of this hits hard, so does the realization that a gift that cost a couple of hundred dollars, will quickly (as a result of interest charges) cost a lot more if not paid off quickly. This can add to our stress and deflated mood. In addition, many people throw caution to the wind during December as they over indulge at parties and get togethers. No wonder that registration at fitness and diet centres is at its peak come January 1st.

Unfortunately, by the end of January, many of us have slid back into old habits. The gym that we were so keen to join is causing us to feel more guilt than pleasure and we’ve given up assigning points for every morsel we consume. So, this is yet another reason to feel down. When we feel that we have not been successful at sticking to our resolutions, we are bound to feel angry or frustrated at ourselves – which sometimes leads to more eating and spending.

For some, not being exposed to enough sunlight can lead to sadness – even depression. If you’re feeling blue and think that this may be a contributing factor, you might consider looking into a special light – the SADelite, distributed by Northern Light Technologies, apparently works wonders.

Other ways to rejuvenate and energize oneself over the next couple of months includes being more active – even if not at the gym. Going for a brisk walk when the weather permits, or even rigorous house cleaning makes our bodies release endorphins which promotes a feeling of well being.

Other ways to feel better include:

- reminding yourself that spring is not too far away as you notice Winter items on clearance in stores and see Spring items take their place.

- making every effort to appreciate what Winter has to offer including skiing, tubing, tobogganing, making snow angels or even enjoying the beauty of a snowflake.

- cuddling with someone you love in front of a fire place or under a cozy blanket. Or enjoying hot chocolate and marshmallows or a cup of soup together.

- if you can afford it, planning a vacation getaway to a warmer climate for a week

- helping someone less fortunate by volunteering at a soup kitchen or donating warm coats to people who are living on the streets.

And if all else fails, count down the number of days until Spring on your calendar and mark off each day so that you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Kicking the Electronic Addiction

If I had a dime for every time I’ve said to my kids “Can you please look up from your screen and give this the attention it deserves,” I’d be a wealthy woman. We’re all familiar with the electronic intruders that have taken over our lives. The influencers that mesmerize and hypnotize. The formidable opponents we continue to fight against. As adults, we are not innocent either.

And so as 2012 draws to a close and I contemplate goals and resolutions for the start of a fresh year, I vow to become more aware of what I am modelling. I vow to put my laptop aside and to focus less on screens and more on faces. I vow to let emails wait a little longer before responding so that I can give my children the attention I am asking from them, and to not be slave to my Blackberry.

A couple of weeks ago, in preparation for this, and as we approached time off work and school, I proposed a challenge and an opportunity to my family over Christmas and Boxing Day. I suggested that we take a two day hiatus from all personal electronic devices – laptops, ipads, ipods, cell phones and video games. Everyone agreed. I think the kids saw it as more of a challenge than an opportunity, but I didn’t mind why they agreed to it. I was just happy they did.

Since we don’t celebrate Christmas, we weren’t obliged to follow any particular tradition. So, this was precedent setting. As our start time of 7pm on Christmas Eve approached, I changed my bbm status to alert my friends that I would be turning off for a couple of days. I responded to pending emails, completed work on unfinished word documents and then pulled the plug. So as to resist my Pavlovian response to the red flashing light on my Blackberry, I purposely placed my cell phone face down on the dining room table. Then we lined our laptops and other hand held devices alongside each other on the same table – a symbol of our commitment to see this through together.

Immediately, I felt a sense of peace and calm. It felt good knowing that we would not be distracted by any electronic device for a couple of days. We enjoyed dinner together free of any interruptions and then pulled out a game we had recently been given as a gift – LOGO. The focus was on the game and each other. I felt a sense of connectedness and enjoyment at such a simple pleasure. After the game, we watched a movie on TV while sharing popcorn. When it was time for bed, the kids had their lights out much quicker than usual. The familiar glare of an electronic screen was gone. There was nothing to keep them mesmerized and cross eyed into the wee hours of the morning. We all slept well.

Day one of remaining unplugged and we woke to the smell of waffles from the kitchen. My husband, who often enjoys starting his day with a coffee and games on his ipad, was looking for something creative to do. In his quest, he stumbled upon the waffle maker tucked away in the workshop area. The aroma of freshly make chocolate chip waffles wafted upstairs and we hurried down to enjoy them while they were still fresh and hot.

A discussion about this being an opportunity to organize neglected areas of our home arose and once again, with no electronic distractions, the kids and my husband were open to this. It was so refreshing to see everyone engaged and involved, working together as a team. At certain points during the day, I was thrilled to see family members reading a book or chatting with one another. Everyone seemed more relaxed, less frustrated. I didn’t have to nag as much to get things done. I found everyone more willing and able to hear one another rather than being disengaged or immersed in his or her own world.  Later we played Catopoly -  a variation of Monopoly. I won! We ate more popcorn, watched another movie on TV, talked at length as a family about the pros and cons of Chloe purchasing a television for her bedroom.

On the second night of our challenge, we found Chloe sneaking a peek on her Facebook account at a friend’s house, on his computer. Her sister was mad as hell, saying that she had broken her commitment to our family but Chloe begged forgiveness, saying that hers was a temporary moment of weakness.

Day two and the kids were getting edgy and going through withdrawal. Since Chloe was going to sleep overnight at a friend out of town, and I wanted her to be in touch when she got to her destination, we decided to end our no electronic device agreement a little earlier than planned.

Despite their eagerness (and ours) to check emails, catch up on new posts and twitter comments and to get back into the virtually real world, we agreed that for the most part, our 40 hours of not being plugged into our devices had allowed us to be more plugged into one another. It had given us time to bond, to be free of a big distraction, to be more productive and to enjoy simple pleasures together. Granted – like any addiction, this was difficult at times. We had to resist succumbing to urges and had to find ways to distract ourselves, but it was certainly worth it.

Unfortunately it didn’t take long before we were all off in our own little worlds again, communicating silently with invisible friends. Now, like a reformed smoker, I especially abhor the intruder that so easily captivates and captures us away from one another.

One of my goals for 2013 is to work with my family at overcoming the powerful pull of electronic devices and to make more time for one another. I encourage yours to embrace this opportunity too.

Sara Dimerman has been a therapist and educator for over twenty years. She is one of North America’s most trusted parenting and relationship experts and the author of three books - 'Am I A Normal Parent?', 'Character Is the Key' and a book for couples – ‘How can I be your Lover when I’m too Busy being your Mother?’ Visit www.helpmesara.com and follow Sara on Twitter @helpmesara.

Getting Your Family's Wish List Straight

I love driving down city and suburban streets to see buildings, street lamps and homes adorned and lit up in honour of Christmas. I get caught up in the excitement of holiday cheer, with joyous music and candy cane decorations in store front windows. I look forward to celebrating the holidays around friend’s Christmas trees and sharing in their festivities

However, I offer hear my Christian friends complain about the less cheerful side of Christmas. The side that is not all fun filled and festive. When I hear about the tedium, the obligation, the sense of responsibility and guilt at not upholding tradition, I am grateful that I don’t share in this obligation. When I hear about the financial responsibility and overwhelming stress associated with making sure that everyone gets what’s on their on their wish lists, or that  family get togethers are meticulously planned so as not to offend anyone, I am glad not to have this on my to do list.

In a recent poll that was conducted in the United States, almost half of all the people questioned said that they would like to skip Christmas altogether. I believe that the same would be true for people worldwide. Their number one reason: financial stress associated with gift giving. In fact, I do know a few people who have made the decision to make Christmas a non event. One such person, living in Australia, says that she loves no longer getting caught up in the frenzy of giving and doing and is “building up to some beautiful, creative quiet time”. Time to take a breather and recuperate from a busy enough year.

I realize that for many giving up Christmas is not an easy feat – especially if you have kids. Even my daughter, despite being raised in a Jewish home, wants to partake. Every year she asks if we can have a Christmas tree and decorate our home with lights. She’s made a wish list for Channukah and a list of gifts she wants to buy her friends. She’s excited that we will be joining some close friends around their dinner table on Christmas day. She feels deprived, left out at not being able to embrace Christmas to its fullest. A child’s eyes see only the magic of Christmas. The thrill of opening up gifts that have been beckoning them from under the tree for weeks, of writing a letter to Santa in the North Pole and then awaiting his arrival on a sleigh. Which parent wants to disappoint a child? Heaven forbid he or she find out that it’s really not Santa providing all the wonderful gifts but parents who will be paying dearly as interest on their credit cards soar in the months ahead. And so, most parents grin and bear the heavy burden of spending what that they haven’t put aside. Not just on their kids, but on extended family, friends, teachers, employees. The list is endless.

How about making a change this year? Instead of buying a gift for every niece and nephew, how about putting everyone’s name in a hat and buying a gift for the person whose name you’ve drawn? How about placing a cap on the amount that each person will spend so that no one feels that they have to outdo the other? What about home made gifts such as a batch of cookies in a nice basket with cellophane and a ribbon for some? How about a charitable donation in someone’s name? Even a small amount is appreciated and the amount is not shared with the recipient. How about doing away with wish lists and ultimately disappointment at not getting what one wants or resentment at feeling obligated to fulfill the wishes? Instead of many gifts, how about contributing money towards a family fund for something you can all enjoy together – an experience or a trip?

In addition to the financial burden of over extending oneself by lavish gift giving, many adults find themselves taking on responsibilities they would rather not – either by entertaining in one’s own home or by agreeing to spend time with others. How about a change in this department too? Instead of following tradition for tradition’s sake, think about what would be meaningful to you and your family. Is spending time with relatives exclusively what you all want or would you prefer to spend more time with family friends? Would it be more relaxing to plan a drop in on Christmas day rather than having to extend yourself in the evening and then cleaning up until the early hours of the morning? How about having a pot luck instead of thinking that you’re not good enough unless you put out a smorgasbord of your own home made goodies? How about agreeing to join certain relatives after dinner for dessert or drinks rather than enduring an entire evening that you’d rather be spending at home with more immediate family?

My suggestion is to think about how you’d like to spend your holidays this year. Then, if you’re co parenting, discuss this with your spouse. Consider what messages your children are being sent by maintaining traditions as you’ve always known them. Do they hear you grumbling about the same old or looking forward to time with others? Then, think about how you can set a different tone and precedents that will assure you uphold what’s important to you. If your children are older and you’re feeling angry, dissatisfied, resentful, overwhelmed or stressed rather than content, grateful and mostly relaxed, then bring your family together for a meeting to discuss what’s on your family’s wish list and how you can create change if needed. You may be surprised at the amazing ideas your children can come up with and you’ll be able to enjoy, rather than dread the holidays for years to come!

Sara Dimerman has been an individual, couple and family therapist for over twenty years. She is one of North America’s most trusted parenting and relationship experts and the author of three books - 'Am I A Normal Parent?', 'Character Is the Key' and a book for couples – ‘How can I be your Lover when I’m too Busy being your Mother?’. Learn more or listen to advice from Sara and her colleagues by searching for ‘helpmesara’ podcasts on iTunes or by visiting www.helpmesara.com. Check out her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/saradimermanhelpmesara or follow Sara on Twitter @helpmesara. 

Gratitude Can't Be Imposed

By: Sara Dimerman

Children are born not wanting more than to be loved, given nourishment, kept safe and warm. Most parents do a wonderful job of meeting these needs and our children’s genuine gratitude is reflected in their loving hugs, smiles and giggles. As they grow and are exposed to other influencers, they begin looking beyond their needs into the world of wants. And if you’re anything like most parents wanting to  keep your children smiling and loving, you may give in to many of their gimmes. You may even over indulge them. Fast forward to a frightening awakening – you begin to see your children as spoiled brats.  Never satisfied with what they have, always wanting bigger and better, wanting what they say all the other kids in the neighbourhood have and punishing you by keeping their distance when they don’t get what they want the minute they want it. But wait a minute – are they to blame? Don’t we have to take responsibility for creating this monster? With the best of intentions – who can blame us for wanting to be loved – our children have been shown how not to be satisfied with what they have by getting too much and too often. With so much at their disposal, things lose their meaning. Not just material things, but even the valuable time and effort we give of ourselves.

Just following our direction to say “thank you” doesn’t guarantee our children truly are. However, a genuine feeling of gratefulness will generally lead to growing up happier. Feeling grateful for what they have affects their overall sense of well being. Looking around and feeling a sense of gratitude for what surrounds them in the present is the best “present” of all. Feeling grateful for being able to afford certain luxuries, for every day simple acts such as being able to reach into the fridge for food or switching on the furnace to keep warm are very important.

So, what’s a parent to do? If your child spends more time nagging for something than she does enjoying it once it’s received, is it too late to reverse the situation? No. Harder maybe, but not impossible.  The trick is not to go from all to nothing. Once you’ve identified the problem, work at changing things gradually. Next birthday or holiday, instead of buying lots of gifts, think of buying less items that are not so extravagant.  Consider purchasing or creating an experience that you can enjoy as a family instead.

As well, make sure that you are modelling appreciation for what you have too. Say what you are grateful for out loud – your child’s initiative for putting his dish in the dishwasher, a loving family, the ability to afford a warm pair of winter boots. Don’t lecture about starving children in Africa but create opportunities for your child to see people in less fortunate positions. Stop to speak to a homeless person on the street. He or she may not be so scary after all. Your child may learn a whole lot from this stranger without your having to say anything.

The bottom line is: the more we give, the more our children want. The more they want, the less grateful they are for what they have. So, the next time you feel guilty about not giving into a want, consider that you’re doing your child a favour.

Sara Dimerman has been a therapist and educator for over twenty years. She is one of North America’s most trusted parenting and relationship experts and the author of three books - 'Am I A Normal Parent?', 'Character Is the Key' and a book for couples – ‘How can I be your Lover when I’m too Busy being your Mother?’ Visit www.helpmesara.com and follow Sara on Twitter @helpmesara

YOLO

By: Sara Dimerman

Sitting together on the couch in our living room, my thirteen year old daughter turned to me and with that puppy dog look in her eyes, began “Mom….” And then paused. I knew that she was trying to conjure up a magical way to ask me about something she knew I wouldn’t be too happy about. “Yes…..” I responded.

“Well, remember when I tried to lighten my hair and create natural highlights with the lemon juice and it didn’t work?” Yes, I did remember helping her whisk up a mixture of lemon juice and some other baking ingredients apparently designed to create blonde highlights. “Well, now some of my friends have found this amazing new product that washes out in a few weeks. You know that Jenna’s mother wouldn’t let her use anything that was bad for her and she’s allowed. Can I use it too?”

Sadly for my daughter, my position hadn’t changed. I repeated the same old tired explanation about how I didn’t want her wrecking her beautiful hair, how there would come a day when she wished she didn’t have to colour the grey and how I wasn’t comfortable with the chemicals in the dye being absorbed through her skin.

Still, being the persistent child she is, she continued. “Mom, YOLO!” “Yo what?” I asked. “YOLO. You Only Live Once, mom. You’ve got to live each day as if it was your last and not sweat the small stuff. You always say that I should wait to experience these kinds of things until I am older, but what happens if I don’t live until the age you want me to wait until? How would you feel then?”

Woah! That hit me like a ton of bricks. What if she really didn’t? I didn’t even want to go there in my head, but how guilty would I feel then for making my beautiful child wait for simple things that would bring her joy? How would I feel for denying her wish? Then I snapped out of it. Whether intentional or not, her approach was undeniably manipulative. And I told her so.

“Chloe,” I said “I give you credit for finding creative ways to get me to do what you want so badly to do, but your tactic is manipulation at its best. Of course I might want to rethink my position when you put it that way. However, I also have to live by what I believe in today, so I’m sorry to disappoint you but my decision is still NO NO!”

 She didn’t say much after that. I think she realized that if I wasn’t going to change my mind after hearing the YOLO argument, this was a battle she was going to have to give up – for a few months, at least.

Sara Dimerman has been an individual, couple and family therapist for over twenty years. She is one of North America’s most trusted parenting and relationship experts and the author of three books - 'Am I A Normal Parent?', 'Character Is the Key' and a book for couples – ‘How can I be your Lover when I’m too Busy being your Mother?’ Visit www.helpmesara.com

 

"I'm Bored" (during the summer holidays)

By: Sara Dimerman

By this time of year, even parents are looking forward to a break from school – getting up early to make  lunches, driving to and from extra curricular activities and dealing with homework hassles. However, we also know that the long break from school during the summer months means that we might just hear “I’m bored” a few times too many.

With this in mind, many parents choose to enrol their children in summer activities  – day and overnight camps for example. Also to  plan for activities that the whole family can enjoy together – day trips or extended vacations. But how much is too much and how little may lead to a summer of whining and nagging.

Consider this:

  1. If you can, give the kids (and yourself) a full week of unplanned activities between the time that school ends and summer activities begin. Older children especially enjoy the break from having to be up and out of bed by a certain time. Maybe plan to spend an entire day in pj’s, for example.
  2. Not every child wants to go to camp, but for some this may not be an option – especially if you’re working and need your child to be taken care of. If your child is a reluctant camper, make sure to include him or her when deciding which camps to enrol in. There are so many options for day camps – from those that offer a variety of different activities each day – mostly outdoors – to specialty camps that offer a specific focus, such as dance and drama – mostly indoors. You can also choose between having your child attend one      camp for an extended period or choosing several camps that run for shorter periods.
  3. If you feel confident that your child will enjoy an overnight experience and he or she is not traumatized by the mere mention of this, go slow at first. Make sure that the camp offers a beginner program of a shorter length so that your child can get a sampling of being away from home and feel good about having done so successfully. I’m not a big fan of sending ones child to camp for the entire summer unless he or she has a passion for doing so – and even then, try to balance his or her time away with spending time reconnecting as a family.
  4. If your child is old enough to stay at home alone for short or longer periods of time, and asks to do so while you are away during the day, be wary of doing so if the days spent alone are many or longer than 3-4 hours at a stretch. Even if your child enjoys this freedom initially, he or she will likely tire of it before the summer is even half way through and then you might be scrambling to find activities to keep him or her occupied.  Also, consider how comfortable you are and how appropriate it may or may not be for your child to be unsupervised and independently responsible for filling his or her days. Is it appropriate for him to be able to call friends and organize get togethers without your involvement? Is it okay for her to spend every day hanging out at the mall or in the park without any adult supervision? (and how might you feel flustered and distracted from your work activities if you’re having to manage this from a distance).
  5. Think of family summer projects such as organizing photo albums, de cluttering your home and giving contents to charity or planting a vegetable garden, along with individual projects that have been put aside during the school year so that when your child says he or she is bored, you can direct him or towards helping with those.
  6. Don’t feel responsible for always having to come up with a plan for helping your child escape boredom. Give him or her credit for coming up with creative ideas on his or her own.

My opinion is that because summer holidays are so long, its best to find a way to plan ahead for them and to explore a balance between structured activities for your child alone, structured activities for your family together and down time for everyone. So, out of ten weeks, for example, a nice balance might be four to five weeks (spaced out may be best) of structured activities, interspersed with weeks that have less structure.


Sara Dimerman is registered with the College of Psychologists of Ontario and provides counselling to individuals, couples and families. She is the author of two parenting books, 'Am I A Normal Parent?' and 'Character Is the Key' and is one of North America’s leading parenting experts. Listen to advice from Sara and her colleagues by searching “helpmesara” on iTunes. Find out more at www.helpmesara.com

Confessions From a Bubble Wrapping Mother

By: Sara Dimerman

Ok.  I admit to bubble wrapping my kids. But in my defense, I also work really hard at considering how much of me saying “no” is fuelled by separation anxiety versus what makes logical sense.
When I was conducting research for my first book, “Am I a normal parent?” I asked parents whether they worried about being neurotic about their children’s safety and well being. Even though I felt reassured that I wasn’t alone – over sixty percent of the parents I interviewed around the world felt the same – I still worried about the impact of keeping my kids too close might have on their growth and development.
Enter Lenore Skenazy to give me even more food for thought. She was dubbed as the “world’s worst mom” after she let her nine year old son ride the New York subway home alone and then wrote about it in her column in the New York Sun in 2008. Fast forward several years and this mom has become an “expert” on letting kids go. With a parenting book and TV shows under her belt, Ms Skenazy is working at helping parents (and their children) move towards increased self confidence and independence. And my twelve year old daughter loves her for it!
I must admit to being sceptical – and maybe even a little afraid - when I first watched her show with my daughter. I wondered how I could trust the “world’s worst mom” to educate me on letting go. Of course, her show reveals the most extreme cases, but still...to my surprise, I am learning. And my daughter is thrilled.
Soon after watching the show, during which petrified parents were helped to allow their tween children to work in the kitchen unsupervised, Chloe was inspired. She has stirred up a batch of muffins every week since. And she’s really good at it – even using the oven and washing up after herself. But then again....I’ve never really had an issue with her becoming more independent around our home.
But outside the house is another story. For example, she’s pushed to go to the mall without adult supervision for a while now. I recall when parents completed the questionnaire for the aforementioned book and responded to an age at which they felt comfortable with their child being in the mall without adult supervision. The youngest age was ten and the oldest was seventeen. Quite a range but I’m not convinced that it’s all about age. I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable with a ten year old being unsupervised, but once a child is twelve or thirteen, it’s more about maturity, being aware of one’s surroundings and about having the life skills necessary to deal with the unexpected.
So I tried out my theory and encouraged by Ms. Skenazy, I allowed my twelve year old, Chloe, to spend a couple of hours alone in a familiar local mall with her friend, Jade, this past weekend. The deal was that her friend’s mom was going to be in the mall at the same time, that they were all going to have their cell phones on and that they were to agree on a designated meeting place and time.
An hour into their adventure, I received a frantic call from Chloe. Our conversation went something like this:
Chloe: (she sounded panicky) “Mom. Can you come get us? There’s a fire at the mall and we’ve been evacuated.”
Me: “Come on Chloe, stop pulling my leg. You’re just trying to freak me out because we’ve talked about what you would do in the case of a fire.”
Chloe: “No. I’m serious mom.”
And then I heard sirens in the background and knew that she wasn’t kidding. I asked where she was and if she had tried to reach Jade’s mother. She knew which exit they were at and had tried to connect with her friend’s mother unsuccessfully. I was pleased that they had responded exactly as they should. Despite observing some shoppers walking around the mall as if nothing had changed, and despite having left their coats in the car and knowing that they had to stand outside in freezing cold weather, they left the building and called me after not being able to reach the other mom.
Shortly thereafter, Jade’s mom reached them and they returned home to hot chocolate and lots to share. Chloe said that she was afraid that I would never let her go to the mall alone again. On the contrary, I told her. They had acted quickly and responsibly. Despite fears of being trampled by the crowds trying to make their way to the exits, of the threat of real fire and of standing outside in below zero temperature, they mostly maintained composure.
I certainly am grateful that there wasn’t a real fire but glad that the girls had this experience. It reassured me that in a crisis, Chloe knows how to handle herself. It also proved to her that I wasn’t crazy or overly neurotic to prepare her on how to handle emergency situations.  I’ve always said that it isn’t just about being afraid that she might get lost or picked on by an older group of children, but about wanting to make sure that she was ready to cope under pressure in tricky situations. I am proud of Chloe and her friend Jade’s maturity to handle themselves as they did. And they are proud too.

Tips to consider when kids want more independence away from home:

  • Consider whether not letting go is more about your anxiety or whether your concern is logical and reasonable. Then stick with your decision.
  • It’s not just about age. Consider the child’s level of maturity, awareness of surroundings, ability to handle the unexpected.
  • Safety in numbers. Make sure that your child’s friend or group of friends are as  mature and trustworthy as yours and that together, they can handle what comes their way.
  • Review “what if” scenarios to prepare your child for tricky situations before allowing increased independence
  • Don’t go from being with you to without you overnight. Wean off dependence in gradual steps.
  • Give your children credit and encouragement when they handle themselves appropriately. This will boost their self confidence.

Sara Dimerman is registered with the College of Psychologists of Ontario and provides counselling to individuals, couples and families out of the Parent Education & Resource Centre in Thornhill, Ontario. She is the author of two parenting books, 'Am I A Normal Parent?' and 'Character Is the Key' and is one of North America’s leading parenting experts. Learn more or listen to advice from Sara and her colleagues by searching for “helpmesara” podcasts on iTunes or by visiting www.helpmesara.com.

You're Not the Boss of Me!

By: Sara Dimerman (aka HelpMeSara)

A five year old stands, arms folded across her chest, in the centre of the living room. Its 8:30pm and she's been told that it's time to turn the television off and get ready for bed. "You're not the boss of me," she responds indignantly.

Fast forward eight years and she is now twelve. One morning, her skirt is a tad too short and her parent tells her so. She is asked to change into something more appropriate for school before she eats breakfast. "Oh, you're so old fashioned. Everyone wears skirts this short. You can't run my life, you know!"

Five years later, she grabs the car keys on her way out. "I'm going to visit Stella," she calls. I'll be back later." Her parent begins asking if she'll be home for dinner, but hears the door slam shut before she has the opportunity to finish her sentence.

As parents we struggle with when and how to take charge and when to allow our children freedom of choice. When your child says that you are not the boss of her or that you can't run her life, what she's really saying is that she doesn't like being bossed around. And who does? But what she doesn't realize is that she's too young to be boss over every aspect of her life and in reality, she really wouldn't want that anyway.

Consider this:

  • Since no one likes being told what to do all the time, are there enough opportunities for your child to feel some control over his or her life. For example, a four year old can help decide what he'd like for school lunch, which clothes to wear and the colour of his toothbrush. A ten year old can decide which friends she would like to invite over for get togethers and a fifteen year old can decide which extracurricular activity he prefers.
  • There is a big difference between being controlling and feeling in control. A controlling parent is usually most comfortable parenting from an authoritarian position as in "I am the parent, you are the child and since I am bigger and stronger than you, you don't have any say". However, this position typically does not yield the best results. Feeling in control is a good place to be for most parents. It typically means that you have adopted a style that defines a strong framework within which your family functions as a team, but that there is room for discussion, negotiation and compromise. When you lead with a specific parenting style in mind and if your child feels that you are fair, yet strong, he is more likely to co operate.
  • If you feel your temper flare when your child pushes your buttons by asserting his power, take a step back and breathe. Try not to focus on the words but the message. Ask yourself "what does this mean?" Are you being unreasonably controlling, with no fair warning. Are you expecting blind compliance? Is your child tired or hungry? Had a bad day?
  • Keep in mind that a certain amount of asserting ones power is normal and healthy and that your child may be better off as an adult by being boss over her own life than having other people run it for her.
  • Present the adult ground rules to your children and then work towards a compromise for those rules that are met with opposition. For example, even though you may want your children to join you for dinner each evening, be open to them missing a meal so long as you have either given permission or received reasonable notice (depending on his or her age).
  • When your child says something like "you're not the boss of me" or "you don't own me," don't fight back. Rather acknowledge what he or she is feeling ("you don't like it when I ask you to do something that you'd rather not do"), why he or she may be feeling that way ("It's hard to be a child and not to be able to make your own decisions all the time") and then offer support e.g. "If you feel that I am being unreasonable, you can tell me that and we can try to figure out a solution".
  • Be consistent. If you decide that your child needs to get permission before arbitrarily going to a friend's house after school and then just let it go when he doesn't ask in advance, he will learn that you give in or give up and that he can take advantage of this.
  • Learn more about being a democratic parent. Parenting in a democratic style usually encourages communication and respect. When children feel respected and heard, they are more likely to want to work with rather than against you.
  • It's not always your fault when your child is oppositional or asserts himself in an extreme or inappropriate way. Some children are born with more of a strong willed temperament than others and need to be parented differently. Rather than walking around on egg shells or being afraid of triggering a negative reaction, get some help in the form of books that address specific concerns, attend a parenting program or speak to a therapist for parenting help, or help for your child or family.


Sara Dimerman, aka HelpMeSara, is registered with the College of Psychologists of Ontario and provides counselling to individuals, couples and families out of the Parent Education & Resource Centre in Thornhill, Ontario. She is the author of two parenting books, 'Am I A Normal Parent?' and 'Character Is the Key' and is one of North America's leading parenting experts. Learn more or listen to advice from Sara and her colleagues by searching for "helpmesara" podcasts on iTunes or by visiting www.helpmesara.com.

School's Role in Restoring Calm

By: Sara Dimerman

A grade seven student arrives home looking sad. Her mother asks what’s wrong, but is told “nothing’s the matter”. Later, the child refuses supper, saying that she has a stomach ache. After her daughter has gone to bed, the mom receives a phone call from her daughter’s friend’s mom. She learns that both of their daughters, along with three other students, had spent part of their day in the company of a couple of school staff investigating an issue that had been brought to their attention by some other students in regards to “inappropriate conduct” during recess.

The other mom is irate. She shares that her daughter had also arrived home from school looking upset. After some prodding, her daughter, in tears, shared the events of the day. The two moms, upset that they had not been informed about this incident by school administrators, arrange to arrive at the principal’s office first thing the following morning. They want to know how and why their children were questioned.  Surely, they think, if the situation was serious enough to warrant being removed from class and questioned, they should have been told.

The following morning, the moms are reassured that at least their daughters are not at fault. They are told that the girls had been called in as part of an investigation into inappropriate behaviour by a classmate towards another peer. They had been questioned (“interrogated” the girls called it), together with the other girls and then apart, to try to get to the root of the problem. So, even though their girls had thought they were in trouble, that they had done something wrong, this was actually not true. And the girls’ story that they were never told why they were being questioned or what part they played in the situation, was not refuted by the principal.

The principal apologized and said that they had never intended to make the girls feel intimidated (even though that is exactly how the girls felt) but the damage had already been done. The girls’ experience with helping to resolve a bullying situation that revolved around a classmate, had been very negative. They had felt like criminals and at times, spies. They had felt as if they were, ironically, being bullied by the two large adults looming opposite them. They had felt like they wanted to run out of the small closed door office in tears, but stayed, knowing that to get up and leave would make the situation worse.

When the moms, knowing by then how their daughters felt, requested that they be called in the future should their daughters input be required, they were told that the Board policy did not require that this happen. They were told that any student could be questioned without his or her parent’s permission so long as the incident occurred on school property. The moms were not happy to hear this.

This story, and others like it, have been recounted to me over the past while by parents and children concerned about the way in which incidents such as bullying, defiance, inappropriate behaviour and threats have been handled at school.

Over the same period of time, there has been a movement away from punitive measures such as suspension and expulsion from school. This is not a bad thing since being forced to spend time away from school doesn’t always have the desired effect. In fact, it can lead to other problems -especially if the child is unsupervised or sitting idle. Instead, many school Boards have adopted a restorative justice approach. This means that facilitators (often child and youth workers or specific teachers) within the school, work with victims, aggressors, along with teachers and other adults to restore the situation back to what it was prior to the troubling incident.

The intention is wonderful and makes sense, but unfortunately, if the process is not implemented in its purest form and if the key players don’t have a solid understanding of how the restorative justice approach works, then even with the best of intentions, the process may go awry and lead to other more serious consequences - such as children being afraid to share incidents with school personnel for fear of how they are going to be dealt with.

Rick Kelly is a Professor in the Child and Youth Worker program at George Brown College in Toronto. He has been explicitly using a Restorative/Peacemaking philosophy for the past 12 years as a restorative conference facilitator and trainer, and, implicitly throughout his career, and as a parent of 5 children and a baseball coach. Rick believes, amongst other things, that as a parent, you have the right to know who is responsible for responding to critical situations at school, what training they have received to facilitate change and how the situation is managed. He believes in “transparency.” So, the big question is: have you been informed about how and who in your child’s school resolves conflict?
And if you this hasn’t been communicated to you already, how are you going to find out to make sure that your child’s school is dealing with difficult situations in a way that ensures your child feels that he or she is in a safe, supportive environment with adults who can be counted on to effectively model conflict resolution?

As part of your research, may I suggest that you to listen to my conversation with Rick Kelly about restorative justice and how bullying is being handled in schools today. This can be found under the podcast section at www.helpmesara.com.

Sara Dimerman has been an individual, couple and family therapist for over twenty years. She is one of North America’s most trusted parenting and relationship experts and the author of three books - 'Am I A Normal Parent?', 'Character Is the Key' and a soon to be released book for couples – ‘How can I be your Lover when I’m too Busy being your Mother?’. Learn more or listen to advice from Sara and her colleagues by searching for “helpmesara” podcasts on iTunes or by visiting www.helpmesara.com.

"Make your bed!"

By: Sara Dimerman

You wonder why something that requires as little physical effort as lifting, shaking and smoothing out a duvet cover would warrant as much nagging effort on your part every morning.

Yet each day you play out the same tired old scenario. You walk past your child’s bedroom while he or she is downstairs eating breakfast to see the bed covers rumpled from the night before, and pyjamas on the floor. You know that it would be so easy to tidy up, to restore order in only a few minutes, but you resist the temptation, remembering what you know about doing for your child what he or she is quite capable of doing. So, instead you shout down a reminder - “Before you leave for school, please remember to make your bed!”

But this has nothing to do with remembering. This has to do with priorities and your child’s priorities, when it comes to order and bed making, are likely entirely different to yours. “And what’s the big deal about having to make my bed anyway?” she might ask. Might say that she prefers the comfy look of a bed that has just been climbed out of. Might say that she doesn’t see the point of making it when she’s only going to get back into it later that day. So, who really owns this problem and is it worth fighting over?

Most parents say “yes.” Some say that it is the only daily chore they ask of their children. That they see an unmade bed as a sign of being lazy, disrespectful, uncaring, slovenly. Some might say that unmade beds make them feel that the whole house is in a state of chaos. A nicely made bed reminds them of the sanctity of a hotel room – with crisp, white linens and blankets tucked in at the corners. Neat, organized, clean – just the way most parents like it.

Most kids, however, are legitimately perplexed by this. They can’t see the relationship between an unmade bed and disrespect. May point out that they are not lazy in every other part of their day and that they really do care. They just cannot understand why you’re getting so worked up about an unmade bed.

So, what choice do you have? Well, you could continue to keep reminding your child about something he or she already knows all too well. You could refuse to give your child a ride to school until the bed is made. You could deduct a dollar from her allowance every day that she doesn’t respond to your request. You could share why the sight of her unmade bed distresses you so and hope that empathy for your plight will override her desire not to make her bed. Or, you could just close his or her door, make sure that the rest of the house is in the order you’d prefer, and accept that this is one issue most children and adults just don’t agree upon. My choice most recently has been to close the door. I’ve come to realize that yelling downstairs about an unmade bed is not what I’m going to waste any more of my precious breath on.

Sara Dimerman is registered with the College of Psychologists of Ontario and provides counselling to individuals, couples and families. She is the author of two parenting books, 'Am I A Normal Parent?' and 'Character Is the Key' and is one of North America’s leading parenting experts. Listen to advice from Sara and her colleagues by searching “helpmesara” on iTunes. Find out more at www.helpmesara.com

Driving Me Crazy

Coming to terms with your teen behind the wheel

By: Sara Dimerman 

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done as a parent? For me, it’s adapting to being a passenger or observer to my daughter behind the wheel of a car, nervous about her driving on roads alongside people who may not be quite as vigilant as she is.

On a general rather than personal level,  I’ve always been bewildered by the fact that 16 year olds are eligible to begin operating one of the most potentially dangerous pieces of machinery. With one small distraction or error, lives can be lost. In fact, motor vehicle crashes, according to American stats (found at driving.ca), are the number one killer of teens.  And yet, at sixteen, an age at which the brain is still developing, the law dictates that teens are capable of making split second life and death decisions.  Unbelievable to me that this is sanctioned, but that they are still years away from making less life changing decisions such as when they vote. And how is it that the same law makers consider it best for that same teen to wait until at least the age of nineteen to consume an alcoholic drink? I have heard it said that the age for driving may jump to eighteen, and I’d welcome this, but fear that it may just be a rumour.  The cynics among us may wonder if car manufacturers and  insurers might fight this change anyway. After all, sixteen year olds, (or their parents, that is) pay high insurance premiums for the privilege of driving a car.

A few years back , when my daughter turned 16, I was relieved to learn that she wasn’t all that eager to jump into driving. In fact, even though she obtained her G1 at 17, and completed her in class lessons soon after, she continued with a slow, steady and sporadic series of  in car lessons for years until she felt completely confident behind the wheel of a car. Last month, at the age of 20, she was granted her G2. I think that with all her training, she is a technically better driver than me. She has even pointed out a few things to me that I had forgotten. However, through no fault of her own, and despite reminders that she wouldn’t have been granted her license if she wasn’t competent, I still have my right foot on my imaginary brake on the passenger side of the car when is driving me anywhere, still grip the handle above the window and feel the urge to close my eyes as she is turning left at a busy intersection. Guiltily I know that I am more of a hindrance than a help. I know that when I’m nervous and giving off those vibes in the car, she is going to feel tense too but I can’t seem to help myself. I have reminded her on several occasions that this has nothing to do with her –she has persevered and diligently earned her rightful position behind the wheel of a car – but give me a break – after all, wasn’t it only yesterday that she was learning how to ride a bicycle!

Despite my emotional reaction, I am thrilled that she has learnt how to drive – and at an age when she is more mature, less of a risk taker and better at decision making. Driving is an important  life skill and will make her life easier when she one day has kids to car pool from one activity to the other or simply now wants the luxury and independence of getting from one place to another without relying on us.

Mostly,  I appreciate her patience as I work towards becoming a better passenger. It can’t be easy to understand how hard it is for me, as her parent, to watch the car that she is driving turn the corner until it is no longer in my sight.

Sara Dimerman has been a therapist and educator for over twenty years. She is one of North America’s most trusted parenting and relationship experts and the author of three books - 'Am I A Normal Parent?', 'Character Is the Key' and a book for couples – ‘How can I be your Lover when I’m too Busy being your Mother?’ Visit www.helpmesara.com & follow Sara on twitter @helpmesara

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