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Happy Feast Day of St. Therese!
The Art of Accompaniment in Faith Formation
Helping Children Understand the Mystery and Meaning of Jesus' Death and Resurrection
Experiencing Lent at Every Age: A Developmental Guide to Lenten Practices
Helping Learners Embrace the Fullness of Catholic Social Teaching

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Child/Family Psychology

Nurturing Your Marriage as Parents

Happy St. Valentine's Day!

The United States Bishops recognize February 7-14, 2017 as National Marriage Week. For more information on that, click here. 

In recognition of this worthy focus on marriage, I am posting the following excerpt from my book, A Catholic Parent's Tool Box (Our Sunday Visitor, 2014):

Many couples, as they begin to have children, transition away from time as a couple to time as a family. The pressing demands of parenthood – the busiest job you’ll ever love – push “together time” between husbands and wives to the back burner. Many parents of young children feel guilty about spending time away from the kids – or even wanting to. And the increased mobility of today’s families often means that grandparents and other family members are farther away, making it a challenge for many parents to find reliable childcare.
Still, research tells us that the best parents are those who take time to nurture the marital relationship, even if it sometimes means occasionally sacrificing time with the kids. This makes sense for three reasons. First, you are your child’s example of how to have a healthy adult relationship. Kids learn by example, so if one of your dreams for your children is to find that special someone and live “happily ever after,” show them how it’s done. Second, children feel more secure when they know their parents’ relationship is solid. The day to day struggles of marriage and family mean that we will always have some conflicts, but kids get can get confused about how serious these are, and often have fears (even unspoken ones) that mom and dad may get divorced because they are arguing. More positive time together for husbands and wives is reassuring to them (and to you) that you still love each other no matter what. Third, parents who aren’t generally in close communication with one another find it much harder to set consistent limits for their children. Kids often learn to exploit this and can sometimes pit one parent against the other in an effort to get something they want. (It sounds a little devious, but almost all kids try it at one time or another. Perhaps you remember doing this yourself!) Parents will find that child discipline is a lot easier when they present a “united front,” working together to give the children what they need even when it means denying what they want.

So how do we do this in a world of real-life family demands? Here are a few tips:

1. Ask each other out on dates. Don’t find time, make time. Perhaps you could get together with another couple who have young children and agree to watch their kids so they can go out if they will do the same for you. Go somewhere you wouldn’t go with the kids – a romantic restaurant, a movie, or perhaps you may even wish to stay at home and have a quiet dinner and a little romance while the kids are out!

2. Do the unexpected. Surprise your spouse with something he or she really likes. It doesn’t have to be extravagant. (Flowers are the old cliché, but they still work, guys! They’re not that expensive if you deliver them personally.) Perhaps a favorite treat or a love note sent via U.S. Mail to your spouse’s work (or hidden in a briefcase or lunch bag). It can take just a few minutes to brighten up their day and spice up your relationship.

3. Bring back the good old days. Make a compilation of music the two of you listened to when you were dating. Did you have a song that was “your song?” If you are still in the same city, go to a place you used to frequent together. (If not, perhaps a place that reminds you of “back home.”)

4. “Steal” some quick moments together. Make a lunch date while the kids are at school or childcare. Be firm about bedtime, and spend try to spend at least an hour together after the kids go to bed. (Together enjoying one another, not paying bills and folding clothes.) Schedule this for two or more nights per week. Steal a moment or two in the morning while you are getting dressed for the day (Your bathroom door has a lock, right?)

5. Pray together. This is another place where time has to be made, not found. Hold hands and ask God to bless your marriage and your kids. Pray some traditional prayers together. Take turns reading the Psalms to one another. Tap into the Creator of marriage and family, the Source of the grace that strengthens us as husbands, wives, and parents.

6. Be affectionate in front of the kids. OK, don’t overdo it, but giving quick hugs and kisses is nice for you are reassuring to them. Even if they say “yuck,” they’re probably smiling on the inside.

7. Be patient with one another. If you’re not already doing these things, it takes a while to “get into the groove.” One of you may try something romantic when they other is not necessarily in the mood. Be open and patient as you work to get more in sync. Try again and again.

First Day Fears: Helping Your Child Cope with School Anxiety

Back to school time signals new beginnings: new classes, teachers, and friends, and a change in the daily routine. But for some children, starting the school year can be difficult, even distressing. This is especially true for children at key transition points, such as the beginning of kindergarten, middle, or high school. Fear of the unknown can lead to high anxiety, which depending on a child’s age, may manifest itself as verbalized worries, tearfulness at separation times, irritability, refusal to go to school, or physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach aches. Here are some tips for helping your child start a new school or get back into the school year routine.

For new kindergarteners and young children: 
• Check to see if the school has an open house or another time when you and your child can visit before the school year begins, see the classroom, and meet the teacher. Getting a sneak peek can help children who are fearful because they don’t know what to expect. While you are there, help the child ask questions about the planned daily routine. 
• Allow your child to make some choices about what he/she will wear, the color of his/her backpack, etc. Having some control in feared situations can greatly reduce anxiety.
• When you drop your child off for school, don’t linger too long, even if he or she becomes somewhat tearful. Hanging around can send your child the message that either you don’t think he or she can handle the situation alone or you have some doubts about whether he or she is safe. This “lingering behavior” is a primary contributor of school anxiety in young children. Rest assured that teachers of young children are well equipped to handle first-day jitters.
• Use a transitional object, if necessary. Just as we are comforted by medals and other sacramentals that remind us of the presence of God and the saints, children can be comforted by a reminder that you are with them, emotionally if not physically.  Perhaps a picture of mom or dad in their pocket or a new watch given on the first day of school “to remind you I am thinking about you every hour today.”
For middle/high school children:
• Reflect your child’s feelings and remind him or her that the other kids starting middle or high school are in the same situation and likely have some of the same feelings, even if they don’t show it. It’s natural to be a little nervous in new situations.
• Send the message, “I know you can handle this,” both with your words and your actions. After reflecting feelings, be firm about school attendance and independence. Don’t walk into the school with your child on the first day, even if they say they want you to,. Doing so can make an awkward first impression on preteen and teen-age peers.
• Encourage children to come up with their own self-affirmations, reminders they can say to themselves when they begin to feel anxious. Some children use phrases like, “I know I can do this,” or perhaps even a simple Scripture verse, such as “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13, RSV).

For all children: 
• Make an effort to connect with families at your parish who have children of the same age. If your children can meet some of the kids who will be attending the same school, they will at least see some familiar faces on that first day.
• Be a stickler about reported illness. If children say they cannot go to school because they don’t feel well, make sure it’s really serious enough to stay home. Are they running a fever? Have they been vomiting? If they are sick, they should be resting in bed, not playing video games or watching TV.

New experiences and relationships are part of what makes life enjoyable and meaningful. As we communicate the joy of new beginnings to our children, let us impart the message of the angel Gabriel, “Be not afraid!” (Luke 2 :10, RSV).

Helping Kids Cope with Anxiety and Stress

The beginning of the school year and the changes that come with it can sometimes cause stress for children and parents alike. Whether it's first-day jitters, adapting to schedule changes, homework, tests, or other issues, stress sometimes intensifies at this time of year. For some kids and teens, however, worries and stress can be more serious issues. According to recent research, about 13-15% of children and teens meet the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder -- a startlingly high prevalence rate for any health or mental health problem (and much higher that just 15 years ago). Signs of anxiety disorders can include persistent worries, frequent crying or irritability, changes in sleep and eating habits (for example, difficulties falling asleep), and physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches.

Though stress and anxiety can feel overwhelming, we can choose how we respond to it.  here are some ways we can help kids and teens deal with stress and prevent anxiety disorders:

Think positive! Help your child or teen identify and change patterns of thinking that might be extreme, absolute, or pessimistic. For example, it is usually not helpful to us when we think thoughts that begin with "I can't" or include words like "always" or "never." Try to replace these with more positive or flexible thoughts.  

Coach your child through basic problem-solving steps. instead of telling your child how to handle a particular challenge, guide him or her through the problem-solving process by helping your child ask and answer these questions: 1) What is the problem?; 2) What are all of the different things I could do?; 3) Which action should I take?; 4) How did it work?

Help your child cultivate stress-busting habits. Adequate sleep, exercise, proper diet, and quality time with supportive friends and family are things that can help us prevent and manage stress. Help your child acquire and keep these good habits.

Encourage through your actions. Don't try to do for your children what they can do for themselves, but may lack the confidence to do. Instead, serve as a cheerleader for your child by using encouraging words and actions that say, "I know you can do this. I believe in you."

Help them learn how to relax. Slow, deep breaths (sometimes called "belly breaths") can help us in ridding the body of tension, as can step-by-step muscle relaxation techniques, such as focusing on one muscle group at a time, and relaxing those muscles. Imagining a peaceful place can also be helpful in relaxing the mind and body.

Be a good example. Make sure you are a helpful role model when it comes to managing stress. Children and teens often do what they hear and see.

Help them learn to take their worries to God. I Peter 5:7 says, "Cast all you worries upon him because he cares for you" (NAB). God is a loving parent, and if we ask him he is ready to give us the grace to work through even the most stressful of challenges.

Talking with Children about The Worldwide Day of Prayer and Fasting for Peace

In response to the recent conversation about Syria, Pope Francis has proclaimed Saturday, September 7th as a day of fasting and prayer for peace. The Holy Father has also made a number of statements expressing his concern over the use of chemical weapons and also reminding us that it is our responsibility as Christians to find peaceful ways to resolve conflicts whenever possible. While we don’t expect children to understand the complexities of issues like chemical weapons, international law and military intervention in conflicts in other nations, current events provide an opportunity to dialogue with them about Catholic teaching on war and conflict resolution.

"War never again! Never again war!" Pope Francis posted these words to his account on Twitter in the midst of the debate concerning Syria. While there might sometimes be just reasons for considering military intervention, our primary goal should always be to find peaceful means of resolving conflicts. The pope also sent the following message: “"We want a peaceful world, we want to be men and women of peace." In talking with our children, let us reflect on what it means to be people of peace in our own daily lives. Here are some questions for reflection with children:

• Do I pray for my enemies, as Jesus told us to do?
• When I have a disagreement with someone, do I look for ways to make it better?
• Do I stop to pray, asking the Holy Spirit to help me choose how to work things out peacefully?
• Do I take time to calm myself down so I can make a good (and prudent) decision? 
• Do I talk things through and avoid physical violence?

Being a people of peace can sometimes be counter-cultural. To be peaceful people means “going against the flow.” Pope Francis says, “"We want in our society, torn apart by divisions and conflict, that peace break out!" Le us all resolve, on this worldwide day of prayer and fasting, to “let peace break out” in our families, our schools, and communities. Let us all say together, “Let it begin with me.”

Because I Said So

Every once in a while, a parent says something that I find really insightful and useful in my work as a family and child psychologist. A few days ago, my friend Lisa posted this to her Facebook:

"'Because I said so,' used to be the lamest answer an adult could provide. It made me think my mom was lacking in imagination, and didn't respect me. Now I realize it was a self-defense mechanism. 'Because I said so,' translates to, 'It's not negotiable.' 'Why' doesn't really mean why, it means, 'what are the obstacles I need to work around or remove to get my way?' It's a power play. My response to "why?" is, "I'll tell you why if you still want to know after you do it." It isn't that I don't respect them or think they will understand the reasoning behind a request, it's simply that I want it done. Period. I'm trying to avoid, "Because I said so," because it is insulting, but really, if my children were born in the wild, they would have already been eaten by a predator because they wouldn't just listen and do what I said without questioning me. Sometimes I think they just like seeing me lose my temper and bark at them. Not today of course. Today they were little darlings."

Way to go, Lisa. You get the Best Advice Award from this child psychologist!


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