Learned helplessness is defined by Google as a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. It is thought to be one of the underlying causes of depression. But I think we need to question ourselves and our children more often and challenge this assumed defeat. This helplessness can become a bad habit and we need to find opportunities to make new, better habits.
The other day I was (once again) at the orthodontist with one of my kids. I should have used the restroom before I left work, but I knew we had this appointment and I didn’t want to lose any time. I made my way in the usual ridiculous traffic, picked up my son and we rushed along to the dentist. I practically ran from my car to the lobby, rode the elevator and hurried across the hall to the office…where I saw a teenage girl take the women’s room key and leave. I know it is a one-person bathroom so I wasn’t going to get in until she was finished.
I sat down, crushed, but figured it would only be another few minutes. The time stretched out and she was still not back. Then it hit me – why was I torturing myself? What would happen if I didn’t follow the standard practice? I stood up and took the men’s room key. I mean, all I needed was plumbing – does it really matter what the sign on the door says? I knew it was single occupancy so I wasn’t going to go barging in on a group of guys.
I remember when my child was younger and would tell me that she couldn’t read, yet she managed to navigate the television’s on-screen guide to find the show she wanted to watch. Sometimes the familiar “I can’t read” response was an excuse to get out of homework, sometimes it was a plea for attention or assistance and sometimes it was just a bad habit that no longer served any purpose.
So I urge you to question everything for yourself and for your child with special needs. Re-examine skills from time to time. Check back in on tasks that were challenging in the past. And also, take a long look at your thoughts and assumptions.
Do you have a child who is often emotional or moody – or prone to anxiety or depression? If so, you might be familiar with the negative self-talk that often contributes to these conditions. And, actually, any child – or adult – is subject to these thoughts on occasion.
Negative or anxious self-talk – sometimes also called “automatic negative thoughts” – is unhelpful, often skewed thinking that tends to drive negative emotions and behaviors. For example, your daughter might react to a friend who gets angry while playing and goes home, by thinking “I’m no fun to play with….nobody likes me” – and might avoid inviting any other kids to come over and play.
I learned about the concept of negative self-talk years ago through cognitive behavioral therapy while dealing with issues from my childhood. But I was surprised when I first began noticing examples of this thought pattern in my young son. When Elliott was in his first couple of years of elementary school, he would often come home at the end of the day and report that his day was “terrible”.
After digging a little I would often find out that one “bad” thing had happened each of these days – which then tainted the whole rest of the day. This overgeneralization / all-or-nothing thinking is an example of negative self-talk – and caused Elliott to have negative emotions about school and resist going in the mornings.
There are several different types of negative or anxious self-talk. A good reference book on anxiety for teens and kids – My Anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic (by Michael A. Tompkins, PhD and Katherine Martinez PhD) – gives an interesting classification for these unhelpful thoughts (a summary is listed at the end of this post). This book was recommended to me by a child and family psychologist and is well worth a read.
As the book title suggests, there are ways to deal with and manage such unhelpful thinking – and it’s useful to start early with kids who are prone to negative thoughts. At a minimum, it helps to start by identifying and unpacking the negative thought.
For example, with my son Elliott and his “terrible” days at school, I started asking him if anything good happened during the day. This got him to go over all the events of his time at school and put the “bad” experience into context – and I suggested that one or two bad experiences might not make a whole day terrible. Pretty soon, when I asked him how his day was, Elliott would outline how different parts of the day went (great, so-so, neutral, awful, etc) – and this pattern has persisted for more than five years! Even better, he has generally been much more positive about his school days ever since.
Additional exercises for recognizing and dealing with negative self-talk are provided in My Anxious Mind. Another practical book, with useful exercise to help teens cope with negative thoughts and other drivers of anxiety, is The Anxiety Workbook for Teens, by Lisa M. Schab, LCSW.
Types of Anxious Self-Talk (from My Anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic)
This is anxious thinking that assumes there are only two possible outcomes of a situation – both at opposite extremes, with no possibilities in the middle. So, the child in the earlier example might be focused on how the play date with her friend needed to be perfect, and if that didn’t happen it would be a disaster.
In this unhelpful thought process, your child will “magnify” the effect of something bad – like failing a test – and assume that he won’t be able to go to college as a result. Or he might “shrink” the importance of something good, like all his excellent grades in other classes.
This type of self-talk involves your child thinking he or she can predict the future – usually thinking something bad will happen. For example, your child is engaging in fortune telling if she decides to audition for a part in the school play but spends the weeks leading up to the audition thinking “I’m not going to get the part”. Maybe she will, maybe she won’t – but she doesn’t know, and anxious self-talk won’t help the outcome either way.
In the earlier example, the girl whose friend got angry and went home assumed that she could read her friend’s mind; that the friend thought she wasn’t fun and didn’t like her anymore. This is the mind reading track – and it’s important for the girl to know she isn’t a psychic and her friend will probably be back to play the next day.
With overgeneralization, similar to binocular vision, your child will focus on something small (usually bad) to make broad conclusions or sweeping statements – like, if one friend gets angry at me then no one likes me. Or if your son has one bad soccer game, assuming he’s no good and will get cut from the team.
End of the World
With this anxious track, your child is always expecting something terrible to happen. This could be at school or in relationships with friends, but it could also be thinking that every noise around the house is a burglar.
Too many thoughts with “shoulds” and “musts” can set the bar for performance and life experience way too high – and make your child anxious and less confident.
In this type of unhelpful thinking your child will jump to conclusions (usually negative) without all the facts – like when hearing that he isn’t invited to a party at a friend’s house, your son assumes his friend doesn’t like him. Getting the facts might tell him otherwise, especially if he finds out it’s a family-only affair (for example).
We have heard the stories in the news all the time—some say kids are “overscheduled” and need more time to play. On the other side, parents of the “tiger mom” variety tend to want their children constantly in activities and lessons to encourage their growth and development.
Until recently, the one voice you hadn’t heard on this topic was the one of science. Child development researchers are now trying to delve into this topic and understand the relationship between structured activities and children’s development.
In one of the first studies of this kind, researchers at The University of Colorado (CU) looked at the connection between how kids spend their time (structured vs. unstructured activities) and the development of executive function.
As you may know, executive function is one of the key regulatory skills that develops during childhood and is crucial to children’s success and well-being later in life. Executive function includes things like planning ahead, goal-oriented behavior, suppression of unwanted thoughts or behaviors, and delaying gratification. These skills have been shown to predict children’s academic and social outcomes years down the road. Based on this, you can see why researchers (and parents) are interested in understanding anything related to how executive function develops.
In the recent CU study, scientists asked 6-year-olds to record their daily activities for a week. They then categorized these activities as “structured” or “unstructured” according to a classification system previously developed by economists.
For example, activities such as sports lessons, religious activities, and chores were classified as “structured activities.” In contrast, activities such as free play (alone or with others), sightseeing, or media use were considered “less structured.” Routine activities such as going to school, sleeping, or eating were not classified in either category.
The researchers then analyzed the relationship between children’s time activities and their level of executive function. The results showed that there was, indeed, a correlation between these factors. The more time children spent in structured activities, the lower their scores on the assessment of executive function. In contrast, the more time children spent in less structured activities, the higher their assessment of executive function.
First of all, it’s important to note that this is just one study in what I hope will be a whole line of research in this area. In social science, you cannot base recommendations on one study.
Secondly, this study was small (70 children) and was only correlational, meaning we do not know if structured vs. unstructured activities cause a change in executive function or if there is something else going on here. What this study does show is that there is some relationship between these factors that deserves further study.
What does this really mean? How could unstructured activities help in the development of executive function? Although researchers do not know for sure, it seems like this may be related to the research on boredom. More and more studies are showing how “boredom” or what adults would simply call “downtime” is related to a variety of positive mental states.
For example, boredom is likely associated with people being more creative. Boredom also allows for the development of new interests, self-reflection and goal-setting.
Additionally, some would argue that a lack of downtime or time for boredom allows kids to become so accustomed to a fast-paced lifestyle that anything less-than-exciting seems uninteresting. One philosopher put it this way,
“A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure.”
All of this is definitely food for thought in terms of parenting. While we do not know for sure how these factors impact each other, it looks like there is some relationship between level of structured activities and the development of executive function. This is something to consider as you plan activities for your child.
The next time your child says, “I’m bored” consider looking at it as an opportunity to support their creativity and problem-solving abilities.
If your child is asking questions about sex, they’re ready for truthful answers. It’s never too early to start talking about it – find out how to go about it.
Young children are naturally curious about their bodies and other people. By answering any questions they ask, you can help them understand their bodies, their feelings and other people’s feelings. This is a good basis for open and honest communication about sex and relationships, growing up and going through puberty.
Talking to children about sex won’t make them go out and do it. Evidence shows that children whose parents talk about sex openly start having sex at a later stage and are more likely to use contraception.
How Much Should I Tell My Child About Sex?
You don’t have to go into detail. A short, simple answer might be enough. For example, if your three-year-old asks why she hasn’t got a penis like her brother, you could tell her that boys have penises on the outside and girls have vaginas on the inside. This could be enough to satisfy her curiosity.
Work out exactly what your child wants to know. For example, if they ask a question, such as “Where do babies come from?”, identify what they’re asking. Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.
You could answer by saying: “Babies grow in a woman’s tummy, and when they’re ready they come out into the world”. This might be enough.
If not, your child’s follow-up question could be, “How does the baby get in there?” You could answer, “A man puts a seed in there”. Or your child may ask, “How does the baby get out?” You could answer, “It comes out through a special passage in the woman’s body called a vagina”.
What do Children Need to Know About Sex?
They need to know that it’s OK to talk about sex and relationships, and that you’re happy to talk about it. They’ll learn this through your tone and manner when you talk about sex, so try to treat sex as a normal, everyday subject.
Beyond sex, your child needs to know the following main topics:
- The changes to expect during puberty – find out more about girls’ bodies and boys’ bodies
- How babies are made
- How pregnancy happens and how contraception can prevent it – find out more about getting pregnant
- Safer sex and how to use condoms to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Where they can get information and advice about sex and relationships – find out more about getting contraception
- Sexuality, and that it’s OK to be gay
Girls need to know about periods before they’re around 10 years old, and boys need to know about the changes they can expect before they’re around 12. There’s no reason for girls and boys not to learn the same things. For example, boys can learn about periods, and girls can learn about erections.
If your child is approaching the age where they need to know about puberty or sex and relationships, but they’re not asking questions about it, use everyday situations to lead to the conversation. For example, you could talk about a story in a TV programme, or bring up periods when you see sanitary pads in a shop.
Tell your child that they’re growing up, there will be some changes that happen to everyone and you want to let them know what to expect.
Why Your Child Should Know About Sex
Children need to know about sex, pregnancy, contraception and safer sex before they start any sexual activity. This is so they will know what to think about, such as safer sex and not doing anything they don’t want to do. This way, they can make decisions that are right for them when the time comes.
Most young people in the UK don’t have sex until they’re at least 16. Those who have sex before that age will need to know how to look after themselves.
Everyone needs to know about safer sex, whether they’re straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual. Women can pass STIs on to women and men can pass STIs on to men. For more information, see sexual health for women who have sex with women and for men who have sex with men.
Have an Answer Ready For Awkward Situations
No matter how open you are about sex, there will be times when you need a quick answer to deal with awkward questions, for example, in the supermarket queue or on a bus.
Say something like, “That’s a good question. I’d like to talk about that when we get home”, or “That’s a good question, but we need to talk about it in private”. Make sure you remember to talk about it later.
Read a useful leaflet on talking to your child about sex and relationships (PDF, 1.54Mb).
To find out where to get more information on sex, relationships, contraception and STIs, see Who can I go to for advice?
Course on Talking About Sex and Relationships for Parents
Researchers from Coventry University have designed an online course to help parents talk with their children about sex and relationships.
Parents can choose three modules covering the importance of communication and skills and timing for how they talk with their child.
Advice and examples are given for children aged 5 to 10, and also for tweens and teens.
Check out the course: Besavvy About Having Difficult Conversations.
Mornings can be hectic with little kids, right? There are breakfasts to be made, lunches to be prepared, and kids to be dressed, not including preparing yourself for your workday too. When all that is taken care of, you still have to get the kids into the car, along with whatever you need to take along for work that day.
And don’t forget the squabbling over rain coats, bickering over seating arrangements (but Mommy, I want to sit in his car seat today!) and then navigating the frustrations of rush hour traffic on the way to begin your day.
And there is the big chance that you forgot something very important.
It is very easy to be a distracted parent. There are so many curve-balls be tossed your way at once it can be hard to make heads and tails of the situation. Perhaps the biggest fear parents have in their morning routine is if they left something important at home. Did I grab enough diapers? Where’s the wallet? Do I have my phone? My keys? Did I make sure to turn off the stove?
And then there’s the remote possibility of accidentally locking your kids in the car.
Believe it or not, this kind of mental blunder is not uncommon to even the best parents. Most parents assume this would never happen to them… until it does. Many times local locksmiths are called in to help open the doors of a car and liberate the tots inside.
The following are a few tips that parents have learned the hard way that can help you remember not to lock your kids inside a car:
No. 1 — ANY TIME you leave your vehicle, make sure you ALWAYS have your kids with you
While this may seem obvious, what this means is if you need to hop out to grab something really quick from the supermarket, take the kiddos with you! If your one-year old that has trouble sleeping has fallen asleep in the backseat, and you desperately need diapers, you have a choice to make – and neither option includes leaving him in the back seat. In many states this is required by law, especially in those states where the temperatures can get pretty high (such as Florida). By making this a habit, you will avoid leaving them in the car, and locking them in the car by accident.
No. 2 — Don’t leave your Keys where the kiddos can get them
Even if you are in the comfort of your home. The auto lock feature on the key fob makes it easy for even a small child to secure the vehicle with themselves inside. Spare keys are a must, and please don’t make the mistake of putting the spare key on the same ring with your primary key. Finding a competent locksmith to create a spare is far easier than having this job done at the dealers.
No. 3 — Pre-arranged Communications with your child’s caregiver
Make sure you are in constant communication with your child’s caregiver and that they will call you if your child does not show up at day care. Parents have been in such a flurry, they have left their child in the backseat of the car as they head to work. These are the absolute worst lock-ins as they can be potentially fatal. There are “reminder” smartphone apps that require check-ins – if your child does not arrive at the caregiver’s location, a pre-programmed alert will be sent.
No. 4 — Check the Seat
Yes, a simple routine whenever you enter or exit your car should become second nature to a concerned parent. The same way you can check to make sure your keys, cellphone and wallet/purse are in your possession, you can flip your head to the backseat and make sure your little one is where he should be, Place a sign on the dashboard if it will help you remember.
No. 5— Have a Locksmith on Speed Dial
Despite taking every precaution accidents can and do happen, so have a plan in place for the “just in case” scenario, keeping in mind that the harshness of the situation will ultimately determine your response. If it is at the height of the heat of the day, 80 degrees and climbing and your child is in the car, you will want immediate action. Call the police, ambulance, and attempt to break a window for entry into the car.
If it is cool outside, and your child hasn’t been in the car for long, you may want a less drastic option, such as calling your local locksmith. Locksmiths are typically on-call 24/7 and will have no problem showing up onsite to spring your tiny tot from their imprisonment. If you need help finding one near you, and you are in the U.S., you can use this site for help in finding a local one near you.
In Conclusion — you must always be vigilant when it comes to car safety and your child. Parents tend to spend a lot of time researching the perfect car seat for their child in the event of a car accident, God forbid. However, they don’t really think that they’ll ever accidentally leave their child in the car. They don’t think they’ll ever be that sort of parent who could be so neglectful.
The truth is that it so easy to make the mistake of accidentally locking your child in the car. With the off chance of that happening, parents must remain vigilant and create a plan to prevent this situation ever happening. Take these tips to heart.
Car shopping overwhelms me. In many ways it’s exciting, but I am not good with all the little details. I also do not need every single bell and whistle – I just need a reliable, safe vehicle to load up with my kids and putter around town or occasionally go somewhere a bit farther. Also it should get excellent gas mileage and offer an affordable monthly payment, of course.
Every parent of a special needs child will have a unique list of requirements and requests, just like every driver likes things a certain way. For me, a dark cloth seat is important. My special needs child tends to spill things a lot, so something easy to clean that doesn’t show all the mess is key. Also, lots of cup holders will help avoid some spills. Lots of plugs and ports will also help avoid meltdowns on long rides. We don’t need ramps or lifts, but whatever your needs are you can find an adapted vehicle or have your vehicle modified in many ways.
With three rapidly growing kids in my brood I felt a third row seat was important. Also, my special needs child sometimes needs to stretch very dramatically, although this is less about being a special needs kid and more about just being a kid in general – especially a kid who has siblings. She also occasionally has muscle spasms that can be very painful for her (as well as for the person next to her when an arm or leg suddenly shoots out on its own) so giving the kids enough interior space was a high priority for me.
The tricky part for me is not to get distracted by how I want my life to be and to stay focused on the reality of my life. Sure, I would love to have the ginormous family vehicle with ample cargo space and seats for eleventy three for all those road trips and beach outings…but the fact is that we rarely do those things. I would love to plan detailed vacations where we shuttle from place to place exploring cultural and historical locations in areas near and far…but I am not all that good with all the little details, as I said earlier. So really, why pay for the tank-sized truckster every day when we might only use it for its true purpose once?
If your family needs a new vehicle, do your research. Be good at the little details, unlike me. There are so many packages and options available, find the one that suits your family’s special requests. If your special needs child is very sensitive to cold you might want the option to turn on the engine and the heater from inside your house via your smartphone. If you need to carry medication with you then an air conditioned glove compartment might be an absolute necessity for your family.
For more information on vehicles and special needs, check out this brochure from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration