Dr. Lawrence Balter

Dedicated to Bringing Psychology to the Public
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Not in Front of the Children

Who's in Control?

Child Sense
Click a topic to read some of Dr. Balter's advice

Choosing the Right Toys for Children
Toys are an integral part of a child’s learning and development. Good toys are not only fun to play with, but they also help children practice important skills.  In addition to safety considerations, it is important to consider what children require and enjoy at different stages in their development.  Some toy manufacturers make unfounded claims about the cognitive benefits of their products.  With all the advertising and hard sell, it can be tough for parents to decide on the right toys for their children.  Here are handy tips to take into consideration when you are choosing a toy for your child.

    * For infants, the key is to provide items that stimulate their senses and their developing coordination.  Toys that involve their seeing, hearing, tasting and touching. Mobiles, busy boxes, rattles, and stacking toys are ideal.

    * When it comes to toddlers, the emphasis should be on action.  Toys that help their physical skills are the most appropriate--especially toys to ride on like rocking horses and wagons and cars.  Blocks are especially good for fine motor coordination.

    * Preschoolers are into imaginary play and are beginning to like organized social activities which means that dress up clothes and dolls are terrific.  Musical instruments and tools are popular, and audio tapes and books are also highly recommended.

    * Young school-aged children like mental challenges so they are interested in board games, construction sets, and painting and drawing kits.

    * Books are always a good idea since it is vitally important to encourage literacy in children.  Becoming a proficient reader is something they will value forever.

An important rule of thumb is that a toy that is properly matched to a child's abilities is certain to bring joy and satisfaction. 

Handling Holiday Hassles and Family Get-Togethers With the Kids

The holiday season is filled with gatherings among families and friends. But these occasions can be stressful for children.
It can be great fun when families get together for the holidays, but with small children, expect some crankiness due to the change in routine and all the excitement.  
There are some practical strategies for surviving the holidays and reducing stress on yourself and your kids:
    * Prepare your children in advance so they know what to look forward to--especially if guests will be staying at your home.

    * Keep your expectations realistic.  An energetic toddler is not going to be on his best behavior just because there is a family gathering.

    * Plan ahead so the kids aren’t aimless.  Be sure to have plenty of child-centered activities at the ready.

    * Try to keep to particular routines like naps and eating times as much as you can.

    * Protect your children from intrusiveness and over stimulation by relatives.

    * Don’t expect small children to get along with family members they rarely see.

I suggest you allow some down-time when children can have peace and quiet and do not have to be sociable.  

Halloween Can Stir Up Fears in Young Children

With Halloween just around the corner, some kids’ thoughts turn to goblins and ghosts.  Many parents go to a lot of trouble to provide costumes and masks for a joyous romp with their kids around the neighborhood, only to find themselves confronted by a wailing, tearful youngster.  The transformation into fanciful creatures can be too much of a strain for a young child's sense of what is real and what is imaginary.  Crying may be a reaction to having his sense of reality shaken.  

Phobias, or irrational fears, are fairly typical in toddlers and preschoolers.  Some psychologists believe that a fear of imaginary monsters, may symbolize a child's fear of his own "angry" feelings.  Sometimes, a real event can cause the fear, such as seeing a horror movie on TV or being told a scary story.

Whatever the source, be patient.  It will take time and well planned strategies to help a child overcome a phobia, but don’t be discouraged.  I suggest a series of steps.

    * Encourage your child to talk about her fear. 

    * If your child is unable to express it verbally, have her draw or paint the things that scare her.  These are safe and creative ways to give expression to inner feelings, and they help a child feel less vulnerable. 

    * With fears such as monsters in the closet or under the bed, try sprinkling "monster removal dust" around the room at bedtime. 

    * Conduct a search and destroy mission to demonstrate that there are no “intruders” in hidden places. 

    * At times, something as simple as a night light can do the trick. 

    * Never force a frightened child to confront a feared object. 

    * Do not trivialize or joke about a child's fear.  Remember, the dread is very real to a child.  Ridicule, embarrassment and other coercive methods will only make matters worse.

All efforts must be made gradually and in small increments.  Persistent and recurring fears should be discussed with your pediatrician or a child psychologist. 

Summertime Learning

Summertime provides a welcome break from the routines and demands of the school year. Kids should enjoy freedom from the regular grind. But, being out of school doesn’t mean learning has to grind to a complete halt. Skills are lost if they are not used.

Here are some tips to make summer both fun and educational:

* If you are making day trips, involve your kids in the planning. Reading maps, choosing routes and figuring out the mileage are good ways to keep them practicing academic skills. They won't even realize they are doing it.

* Be sure to include visits to historic sites as part of any travel itinerary. In advance of a trip, your kids can read about the history of the place and the noteworthy facts.

* Between trips to the beach and the movies, check out county and state fairs. These provide excellent hands-on learning while being outdoors.

* Create nature projects in the backyard or on a windowsill. Whether you start an ant farm or grow vegetables or flowers, you don't need an elaborate set up for kids to learn some basic science while having a fun experience.

* Establish a regular reading time. Parents and children should take turns reading to each other. To maintain writing skills, children can make up stories and create a book or a personal diary of summer's highlights. Adding photos and drawings will make this an even more appealing activity.

* There are many computer games and software that offer fun ways to build academic skills. Since it is summer recess, they can have a little extra time with these activities as long as the appropriate software is available to them. Still, don't forget to keep the traditional board and card games on hand.

It is vital to allow sufficient down time for children. Kids need time to enjoy unstructured, independent time when they can be aimless, or alone with their thoughts, or engage in play with peers.

Coping with the Separation of Sleep Away Camp

Leaving for sleep-away camp marks the official beginning of summer for lots of kids.  Summer camp offers kids an opportunity to meet new people, develop new skills, and to become a bit more independent.

Even if they're looking forward to the time away, saying goodbye and coping with the separation can be a strain for some children and their parents.  There are steps you can take to make the adjustment easier.

    * While it is not crucial, it can help if you select a camp where your child knows at least one other camper. 

    * Expect some complaints during the first few days they are away--the usual targets are the food, the bugs, the counselor or the other kids.

    * If a child is homesick, contact the head counselor or director.  But don’t rush into any drastic action such as immediately taking a child home since most concerns are usually short-lived. 

    * Don’t make any important changes while they're away like cleaning out their room, or moving, or instituting a marital separation.

    * Send plenty of letters and a couple of care packages to show them that you're thinking about them.

Sometimes parents suffer from separation anxiety while their children are having great time away.  I suggest you take solace in the knowledge that visiting day is just around the corner.  In the meantime, both parents and children should treasure their relative freedom. 

Dealing with Bullies

Bullying is no longer considered a trivial matter that children should handle by themselves. For some victims, schoolyard bullying is a crushing experience that can ruin their educational experience and can take years to overcome. Bullying can lead to devastating consequences. There are cases of internet harassment that resulted in a child’s suicide. Whether the bullying is cyber or face-to-face, parents and educators need to understand its significance and develop strategies for its elimination.

Bullying has many definitions, but they all seem to boil down to any form of physical or verbal aggression against someone who is weaker, smaller, less secure, and unable to defend him or herself. The perpetrator can be an adult, a child, or a group of people. Examples of bullying are hitting, taunting, or manipulating others into doing things against their will. Ostracizing is also considered a form of bullying. 

Bullying is hurtful is numerous ways. Aside from a physical attack leading to bodily bruises, there are psychological damages such as a lowering of self-confidence and self-esteem, fearfulness, debilitating anxiety and depression, and despair.

Four basics for dealing with bullying follow.

*Report Bullying — Parents need to teach kids that when it comes to bullies, "telling" you about it is not the same as "tattling" on someone, just to get them in trouble. There is a mistaken stigma attached to turning someone in for bullying. Also, fear is involved.

*Avoid Confrontations — Let your kids know that it's OK to avoid confrontations by walking away from a situation. You are not a coward if you avert a confrontation.

*Avoid Being Alone — There is safety in numbers. Remind kids to travel in groups whenever they can.

*Don't Ignore — Children who see a child being bullied should get help and adults who see it should intervene. Knowing that something can be done reduces feelings of helplessness in the potential victim.

Many schools have introduced curricula to deal with bullying through educational workshops and school-wide measures to thwart bullies and aid their victims. These interventions are essential and should be emulated by all school systems.

Click the TV/Radio tab above to watch Dr. Balter discuss bullying on CBS TV with Bryant Gumbel.

Helping Parents Cope With Kids’ Holiday “Gimmes”

Kids need guidance to help them get through this time of year.  They build up their expectations and often get carried away by their desire for gifts during the holiday season.  With all the hype and commercials directed at them as small consumers, they can develop a strong case of the “gimmes,”  Here are sensible ways to handle your children’s increased demands during the holidays.   

    * With very young children a bunch of small presents can do the trick.  The activity of opening them can be sufficiently satisfying, in itself.

    * Kids can prepare a “wish list” that parents help them prioritize.  They will have to decide what they want the most.

    * Do not tie holiday gifts to “good behavior.” That puts pressure on kids and can lead to unnecessary tension between parents and children.

    * Parents should teach their kids that gifts are not a measure of how much they are loved.  Children sometimes have the mistaken idea that the larger the present, the greater the love.

    * Don’t feel inadequate or guilty if you decide not to buy something you feel is extravagant.  Giving too many gifts can lead to a lowering of their appreciation.

    * Parents can set a limit on the number of gifts their children will receive.  A parent might say, for example, “You will get four things this year.”  If it is applied consistently and fairly, children will adapt successfully.

    * Serve as an example to your children.  If you are modest in your expectations and acquisitions, your children will follow suit.

One additional tip:  Children should be encouraged to engage in charity.  They can participate in food and clothing drives for the homeless or some other act of giving.  Providing for people who are less fortunate can help children feel good about themselves and put a check on the “gimmes.”    

Helping Children Deal with Disaster

Earthquakes, Tsunamis, droughts, famines, tornadoes, hurricanes. Natural disasters are unnerving to people of all ages and children are particularly susceptible to apprehension and worry when the world around them appears to be an out-of-control place.

Children react differently to disasters depending on their age, temperament, cognitive level, pre-existing vulnerabilities, and the immediacy of the particular event.

    * Parents and teachers should encourage children to express their beliefs and feelings. Avoid trivializing or rebuking a child’s expression of feelings. It can be helpful to refine and reflect the emotions they express.

    * Provide children with factual information, not false guarantees. Clarify misconceptions they might have.

    * Reassure them about their own safety. Be realistic.

    * Tell children about the many relief efforts being undertaken by people all over the world. Devise projects for them; being of assistance helps children feel less helpless. Children can engage in constructive actions such as contributing food and clothing, collecting money, and participating in any organized relief efforts. Doing so can help counteract a sense of helplessness and despair.

    * Small children should not be watching the TV images of the disaster. Graphic details can be too much for small children to absorb. They can create false impressions and lead to misinterpretations. The same is true for images in newspapers and magazines.

    * Maintain the child's normal routine as much as possible depending on the circumstances. Signs of stress can include problems falling asleep, staying asleep, loss of appetite, clinginess, edginess.

    * Invite children to talk about their understanding, their fears, and their concerns. A child's silence does not mean s/he is not bothered. Answer questions simply and directly taking into consideration age and ability to comprehend the information. Discussions at home and in school are vital; however, sometimes, less is more.

At times, children react to worrisome events by making jokes or acting in a silly or an irreverent manner. They often incorporate elements of the news into their play. Humor can be a means for them to handle their anxiety and they should not be reprimanded. Adults can acknowledge that the events are scary and offer reassurance.

How to Talk to Your Kids about Financial Crises
The current economic crisis affecting Wall Street could have a profound impact on families of with young children.  Every segment of society is affected by losses in the stock market, banks going under, and home mortgages in default.

Your job and financial status have psychological meaning that goes beyond just practical matters.  These are parts of your identity.  When they are jeopardized, it is natural to feel apprehensive and worried.  Children pick up on parental  anxiety.  Financial crises also have a direct impact on children if they have to forgo services and goods they were counting on.

As a parenting expert and author of Not in Front of the Children: How to Talk to Your Child About Tough Family Matters, I urge parents take the initiative and talk to their children about the implications of this crisis.

There are a number of important practical ways to help your children weather the financial storm you are navigating.  Don’t pretend that nothing is wrong or lie to them about the situation.  The key is to design your explanations for your child’s age and level of comprehension.

          * Explain truthfully what happened without becoming overly explicit.  The company closed or didn’t need as many people, and I lost my job.
          * Avoid burdening children with financial details.  It is enough to say, “We won’t have the same amount of money as before.
          * Spell out the steps you are taking and why.  If you are moving to a smaller home, prepare kids in advance and explain the reasons.  If Mom will be returning to work, or if a parent is taking on a second job, explain why he or she won’t be around as much and how this will affect your child’s routine.
          * Report on your progress with a job search and other aspects of your game plan.
          * Avoid emotional outbursts in front of the children, although expressions of concern are, of course, appropriate.
          * Don’t deprive yourself and your family of all enjoyment during tough times.  Plan innovative ways to have fun together without a large outlay of money.

Let them know you will pull together as a family.  Be reassuring and point out that there are obstacles and setbacks in life, and we will get through this one. 

Reducing The Back-To-School Jitters

It's that time of year again -- Back-To-School. Parents can do a lot to make the transition from summer fun to the school routine a smooth one. The key is good preparation.

    * For kids who are starting school for the first time, it's a good idea to walk the route together a few times before school starts.

    * A knowledge of the physical layout of the school building can be very helpful in orienting a child to new surrounding.

    * First timers can be helped during their lonely moments by having with them something familiar from home such as a set of keys or a photo of the family pet in their lunch box.

    * Arrange playdates with children in your child's class so there is a sense of belonging and people to look forward to seeing in school.

    * Read books about school, and have neophytes talk with older siblings and neighborhood kids about school.

    * Introduce some "school-type" routines at home such as "story time," "snack time," and "rest time."

    * For kids who are returning to school be sure to adjust their bedtime to approximate the school schedule, and get the TV viewing under control.

    * Buy a few new school supplies like pencil cases and notebooks to give a sense of a fresh beginning. You might also put out maps, globe, bulletin board, and other items in the child's room to get into the spirit of the new school year.

    * Do not leave preparations for the last minute. Clothes should be selected and laid out, snacks decided upon, and lunch money set aside, the night before the first day so there are no last minute anxieties. Kids should go off to school confident that everything will go smoothly.

Expect some restlessness for a couple of days before the first day of school. Don't be too strict as the day nears, but encourage them to talk about their apprehensions. Most kids adjust to school in a matter of days.