Sunday, June 19, 2016

Less Is More: The Perils of Over-Parenting

Have you ever noticed that when things aren’t going right, particularly with your kids, your knee-jerk reaction is to do more of something—not less? If they are not listening to you, you most likely raise your voice, rather than lower it. If they are struggling with something difficult, you jump in with loads of ideas, rather than keeping quiet or offering only one or two ideas.

In truth, however, a softer voice would probably be more effective in getting their attention, while offering fewer of your own ideas would motivate them to devise their own solutions.

In our culture, there is a strong assumption that when our children are struggling it means they need more: more attention, more time, more focus, more love. Johnny seems a bit day-dreamy lately, so perhaps he needs more attention from his parents. Jessie isn’t doing well enough in school this semester, maybe she needs more focus from teachers and parents. Or Emma seems to have low self-esteem, so maybe she needs more love, acknowledgement, and approval.

Stop Over-Giving, Over-Praising, and Over-Sharing
Maybe for some kids and for some parents, this is true some of the time—but most of the time it is not. Often, giving more of those things is a sure way to impair our children. Even though we react this way out of love, we can be causing the very opposite result of what we intend.
From Day 1, we’ve been conditioned to over-function for our kids. By overdoing, over-giving, and over-praising, we are contributing to their ultimate dependence on these things.
As a result, now Jessie believes she can’t manage her schoolwork without lots of help from her parents. Emma can’t feel good about herself unless she gets others’ approval and acknowledgement, while Johnny doesn’t know how to regulate himself without getting others’ time, focus and attention. We have unwittingly encouraged dependence rather than self-reliance. Kids get addicted. And sometimes we parents get our own validation by feeling useful and necessary through over-doing for our children. But in the end, they learn helplessness rather than resilience.

Tolerating Our Kids’ Pain
We hear all the time that in order to be a good parent, partner, or friend it is important to fulfill others' needs and be empathetic to their feelings. Yes, that is important, but only up to a point.

For example, 13-year-old Nicole was very anxious about going on sleepovers at friends’ houses. Her parents empathized with her pain and struggle so much that they ran to pick her up as soon as she texted them with any indication of her discomfort. They would bring her home and hug her and listen to her express her sadness about “failing” again. They would do whatever they could to make her feel better and assure her that she had not failed, she was just not ready.

Is it possible that what Nicole really needed was to become more responsible for herself? Her parents could have encouraged her to challenge her fear, manage her anxiety, and regulate her own emotions.

If Nicole’s parents acknowledged her struggle and pain without rescuing her from it, Nicole could finally have grown up and become a more self-reliant and responsible person. This, of course, requires the parents to tolerate her pain. Although it can be very hard to do, it is only when parents can raise their tolerance level for their child’s pain that their child can be motivated to do the same.

When More IS the Answer
So is more ever better than less? Of course—here are four examples.
  1. Do more for yourself and less for your child. In this case, doing less empathizing, less “meeting her needs,” and less focusing on her is actually a more caring and responsible position for a parent to take.
  2. Think less about fulfilling your kids' needs and more about helping them be responsible for their own. For instance, “I am not running back to school so that you can get the homework books you forgot—you will have to find a way to find out what is due tomorrow or make it up.”
  3. Think less about your children’s feelings and more about helping them function at their best. “You may not feel like saying you are sorry to your cousin, but I am holding you accountable to do the right thing.”
  4. Think less about buying into their whining and complaining and more about helping them manage and regulate themselves. “I know that you hate doing your chores but when I ask you to do them I expect them to get done. You can be unhappy about it, but please find a way not to drag others down when you are unhappy.”

Be there for your kids in the ways they actually need you, but move out of their way otherwise. And learn to know the difference.

Letting Go
When you are told by teachers, in-laws and friends that your kids seem to need more from you—attention, time, focus, acknowledgement, approval—stop and think hard about it. Do they really? Are you actually neglecting them? If so, then of course you should do more of what they need from you.

However, in the more likely scenario, they are getting more than enough from you. So it’s best for them if you cut back and let them struggle to find their own legs. Letting go will leave you feeling wobbly at first, but with practice and time, you will find your own strong legs to stand on.

Less Is More: The Perils of Over-Parenting reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Are You Engaged in a Silent Mommy War?

by Anna Stewart, Family Advocate
Today’s mothers are all too familiar with the so-called “Mommy Wars,” an expression used to stereotype the struggles and challenges faced by stay-at-home mothers versus those of working or career mothers. Like with all stereotypes, the Mommy Wars conflict is far more complicated than that. When we talk about the Mommy Wars, what we’re really talking about is passing judgement. And not just society’s judgement about the choices mothers make, but the judgements that we mothers make about other moms, their choices, and their kids.
It helps to remember that other moms are simply doing the best they can, just like we are.
Why do we do it? Why do we engage in the no-win Mommy Wars, and how can we stop?
She must be a Bad Mother
See if this sounds familiar. In kindergarten, my son got invited to a classmate’s birthday party. Upon arrival at the party, he flipped out on the front porch and refused to enter. I was mortified. I cajoled, bribed, and strong-armed him into the house, sure that Linda, the host mom, was judging me for not being able to control him. Once in the house, he got no better. And so I took him home, feeling like a failure.
Linda never invited my son over again and even avoided me at school functions. I felt like she was judging me. My son was anxious, aggressive and loud. So it had to be my fault.
But, I judged her, too. Instead of sharing my fears that something was really wrong with my son, I labeled Linda as stuck-up, elitist, and rude. I didn’t invite her son over either, and I secretly passed judgement on him, too: he was too short, too loud, too bossy. My response to the situation was to silently wage war on Linda and her son. And this happens all too often: we judge each other as mothers by what we think of their kids.
A Desire to Protect
My reaction to the birthday party also stemmed from a strong desire to protect my son from life’s hurts. I wanted to be his buffer, his safety zone. I love him so much, his pain is my pain. And that probably sounds familiar, too. That deep love, that desire to protect and keep our children safe, can cause us to judge others either in response to criticisms, or (to keep with the war metaphor) so that we can “draw first blood.”
When We Assume…
As the mom of a non-traditional child (one who doesn’t behave within the narrow definition of acceptable), I know that other mothers of non-traditional children particularly feel the weight of judgement. We feel it when our child melts down in the store, pushes a kid at the playground, or throws their dinner all over the table because there are peas in the fried rice. We get used to the glares.
But what about the glares we give? What about the judgement we pass on the mom who won’t look at us as she scuttles past us in the store with her own two kids? We assume she is avoiding us, but what if she is trying to avoid her own kid’s meltdown? What if her daughter is triggered by other kids screeching?
Cultivating Compassion
So, how can we cultivate more compassion and less judgement and put an end to our own silent Mommy Wars? Here are five practices you can try:
  1. Parent groups. As the facilitator of numerous parenting groups, I see many guarded and defensive moms transform quickly to compassionate, friendly and available people. And I see groups of strangers who come to stand together and support each other.

  2. Weekly breaks: Parent groups are a great way to get out of the house without the kids, but it’s still focused on the kids. See if you can also do one thing a week just for you, even if it’s just for 15 minutes.

  3. Reviewing with our partner or friend: Sharing our concerns moves them out of the shadows and into discussion and reflection. Be willing to examine an incident or experience and to see it from all sides. Talk as if the person you are with does not know your child. What questions would they ask? How would you present yourself? Your child?

  4. Journaling: For many, journaling is the next best thing to talking (for some of us, it’s even better). Write out your worries and your what-ifs. Write about your dreams and desires. Write about your first bike, or how you feel about rainy days, or a story about someone who helped you. Write for at least three minutes a day, no matter what.

  5. Breathe: Practice intentional breathing by taking three slow, deep breaths with long exhales. Do this while you are rinsing your hair in the shower, or are waiting for the garage door to open, or lighting a candle at the dinner table. Calm breathing can be done anytime, anyplace.

It also helps to remember that other moms are simply doing the best they can, just like we are. Perhaps we need a universal signal so that we can say without words, “I see you. I feel for you. I have been there and this, too, will pass. You got this.” Wouldn’t that change things?

Are You Engaged in a Silent Mommy War? reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

Anna Stewart is a family advocate, writer, speaker, facilitator and single mother of 3 unique kids. She is passionate about helping families learn to advocate WITH their children and teens and supporting those with AD/HD. Anna is the author of School Support for Students with AD/HD. Visit her website and Facebook page here.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Teen Moodiness: Is It Normal or Is It Depression?

Your teen prefers to sleep till 11:00am, is crabby when she wakes up, would rather talk to the dog than you, and isolates herself for hours at a time in her room, glued to her laptop. Is she depressed? Or just being a normal teenager?

It’s perfectly normal for teens to be moody, irritable, overly sensitive and withdrawn. After all, this is a developmental period where both their mind and body are growing rapidly. But, as a parent witnessing your teenager’s mood rapidly change throughout the week, day, or hour, it’s common to worry that they may be affected by depression.

Below are some clues that can help parents differentiate whether your teenager’s mood and behaviors are “normal,” or if your teen is in need of attention from a professional.
The signs parents need to look out for generally involve changes in mood or behavior, or even physical changes, that suddenly show up and persist in your teen’s life.
Normal Teenage Moods and Behaviors
Popular perception is that the teen years are fraught with continual angst and unhappiness—and this can certainly be true for many teenagers. But, teens who are not clinically depressed are able to rise above moments of feeling fragile, blue, or helpless. They are able to bounce back after a day or so, calling on strengths such as their support network (one or two close friends, family, etc.), an interest in outside activities, an ability to function well at school, or an overall positive sense of self.

What Does Teenage Depression Look Like?
Depression in the teen years generally starts to show up around age 13 and then peaks between the ages of 16 into the early 20s. Identifying depression in young people can be difficult because there is a wide array of symptoms, which can be different from what we see in adults. The signs parents need to look out for generally involve changes in mood or behavior, or even physical changes, that suddenly show up and persist in your teen’s life.
  • Sleeping habits. All of my teens would sleep until noon on the weekends if allowed, mainly because their school week is filled to the brim with homework, sports, and school activities. But if you notice that your child would rather hole up in bed for the day on the weekends, has irregular sleep patterns you haven’t noticed before, or is taking an unusual number of naps, this could signal depression.
  • Using substances to self-medicate. Some teens find that using drugs or alcohol helps to temporarily ease symptoms of depression, and the high they experience can become a strong reinforcement to continue using. Certainly not all teens who use alcohol or drugs are depressed; but if you know your child is using any substances, check in to determine why. Alcohol and drug use has the potential to increase depression in both adults and teenagers alike.
  • Acting-out behaviors. There is a fine line between normal teenage acting out (back talk, challenging or breaking the rules, and being defiant) and the possibility that such behaviors are being caused by depression. Because the teenage brain isn’t yet fully developed, some kids find that when they act out, they get a temporary release from the anxious and depressed feelings that accompany a depressive mood disorder.
  • One thing to keep in mind is not only how often your teen acts out, but how he or she responds when you consistently apply consequences. For example, if your daughter has an emotional outburst with tears, yelling and name calling, but is able to regain her composure after you’ve responded calmly and are able to discuss what is bothering her, she’s most likely exhibiting normal teenage angst (even if she explodes again the following week). However, if she acts out in a threatening manner, cannot calm herself, or you find she continues to act in a hopeless, reckless manner, then she may need to be screened for depression.
  • Physical symptoms. Some teenage depression manifests through physical symptoms such as recurrent stomachaches, headaches, chronic pain, or gastrointestinal distress. If your teen has ongoing medical problems with no apparent physical explanation, seeking professional help to rule out depression may be useful.
  • Social withdrawal. All teens isolate themselves occasionally, and most want time away from parents and siblings, but social withdrawal looks different. For instance, if your son was in the habit of meeting friends at the skateboard park twice a week but now holes up in his room, this is something worth exploring with him. If his change of heart is due to a desire to change peer groups, or because this group of boys is engaging in risky behavior, then he’s making a good choice. But if he’s withdrawing for no apparent reason, this could be a sign of depression.
Annoying Behavior Isn’t Necessarily Depression
As parents of three teenagers, my husband and I find our house is filled with annoying behavior, pretty much on a daily basis. This includes yelling (more them, less us); irritability (sometimes all of us!); mean and even spiteful behavior directed at siblings; anger towards parents; a sense of hopelessness around a sporting event or a school project; and mood swings that can change from zero to sixty, depending on whether someone is getting what they want in the moment.

It’s easy, as a parent, to feel chronically overwhelmed by this rapid shifting of moods; and it’s even easier to wonder if there’s something more serious going on (after all, it all seems so irrational!). If one child tends to stir the pot more than the others, that may cause you to feel even more concerned. Keep in mind, though, that as long as your child is able to “bounce back” most days of the week, then their annoying behaviors don’t signify that they have a depressive disorder.

Whether your child is struggling with clinical depression or experiencing a rough patch in their development, as parents we need to be on alert to support our teen and determine what sort of help is needed. There are options available to help if depression strikes. Calling the pediatrician to see if they have recommendations for mental health workers that specialize in teenage depression is a good place to start.

The important thing to remember about adolescent depression is that this isn’t necessarily a lifelong diagnosis. If your teen is able to get treatment early, the likelihood is high that they will successfully get through this difficult stage in their development.

Teen Moodiness: Is It Normal or Is It Depression? reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Grieving Your Child Who’s “Gone Wrong”

Here at Empowering Parents, we’ve received many messages from parents sharing sadness and disappointment over the way their kids have turned out. It’s a subject we don’t talk about very often, but it’s one that really deserves some attention.

In The Total Transformation Program, James Lehman talks about parenting the child you have rather than the one you wish you had. What he means is that we each carry an image of who our child will be; and we often hold on to that powerful image, attempting to connect with the fantasy of our child rather than trying to relate to our child as they really are.
In order to be effective parents, we need to see our kids as who they are, right now, not who they used to be.
Letting go of that “fantasy child” isn’t easy.  In fact, it can be hard to even admit our disappointment when our kids don’t turn out exactly as we imagined, when they don’t like the things we enjoy, or don’t want the career we’d wish for them. Many parents feel grief at the loss of that fantasy—and that’s normal.

When Your Child Goes Wrong

But what happens when the reality of who your child is goes beyond disappointment? When the reality of who they are is actually incredibly painful? Here’s one parent’s story; maybe you can identify with the grief in her words.

My son was a beautiful little boy. He was smart and kind, and got along with everyone. Right up through his younger years, he was everything I dreamed of. That changed when he started school. He started bullying other kids. He got into fights, refused to follow directions and just argued with everyone. My formerly calm, kind boy became anxious and aggressive and eventually started using drugs. He’s dragging himself through the end of high school now, but there’s nothing left of that sweet child he used to be.

I know I failed him. But, I still look at him and see the boy he used to be. My heart is just so broken. My beautiful boy is gone, and I don’t seem to be able to let him go. How do I accept my son now? How do I let him be the person he’s become when all I see is that sweet little boy he used to be?

It’s difficult enough to see your children become people other than you imagined; it’s deeply painful to see them making mistakes, poor choices, or otherwise not living up to their potential. In this parent’s case, her son has veered far from both her dream of him and from what he used to be, so that “parenting the child she has” is far easier said than done.

Acknowledge the Grief

As parents, it’s easy to fall into the trap of acting the way we think we’re supposed to: we pretend we’re not grieving the loss of our ideal child; we push ourselves to love and accept our kids, no matter what. We shove our grief under the rug and put on a brave face.  The tricky thing is, though, that we don’t lie to ourselves very well. The grief is very real. The more we try to pretend that it isn’t, the more ineffective our parenting becomes. Not only are we still trying to parent a child that doesn’t exist, we also aren’t taking care of our emotional selves. 

But, to be an effective parent, you’ve got to address the feelings, issues and challenges that come up for you as a natural part of parenting. For example, many parents get annoyed with their kids. Children can be annoying at times, so this is a natural response. But if you don’t address these feelings (of annoyance, disappointment, grief, and so on) outside of your relationship with your child, you can find yourself making ineffective parenting choices like losing your temper or giving a consequence in the heat of the moment.

If you’re experiencing deep sadness and grief over what feels like the loss of not only your ideal child, but the child who used-to-be, it’s okay. You feel grief because you lost someone you loved. It makes perfect sense. It’s a valid and real loss, one combined with disappointment and, for most parents, a heavy load of guilt. Denying these feelings only makes things worse, negatively impacting both your ability to make effective parenting choices and to connect with your child.

Speak the Truth
It’s important to find places where you can speak the truth about your grief and your disappointment. While you do not want to share your grief with your child, you might lean on your peer groups, a trusted therapist or ally, or the other adults in your family system. The Empowering Parents community is also a great place to find connection and validation. The important thing is that you find a place where you can share the truth about your grief, so that your heartbreak isn’t undermining the effectiveness of your parenting.

We all love our kids. We love them through all the bad choices, wrong turns, disappointments, and struggles. We try to keep finding the good, even inside all the bad. We want the best life for them, the best life they can build. And sometimes, despite all our love, they choose a different path. In our roles as teachers and guides, we have power, but we do not have complete control. Sometimes, there is deep grief in accepting that.

If your child is no longer who you once knew them to be, you aren’t alone. As James Lehman wrote, in order to be effective parents, we need to see our kids as who they are right now, not who they used to be. We need to come to them with firm boundaries, clear rules and expectations, and an unconditional positive regard. If you’re struggling with this issue, please know that unconditional positive regard for your child can really only come when you’ve had the chance to speak the truth about your grief and your sadness. When we stop fighting our grief over the loss of the child we knew, we can show up to the reality of the child we have with all of our most effective skills.

We’d love to hear from you. Let us know if you can relate to the topic of grief and parenting in the comments below. 

Grieving Your Child Who’s “Gone Wrong” reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

Megan Devine is a licensed clinical therapist, a former Parental Support Line Advisor, a speaker, and writer. She is also the bonus-parent to a successfully launched young man. You can find more of her work at, where she advocates for new ways to live with grief.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

5 Ways to Help Kids Who Procrastinate

Not now. Later. Tomorrow. That’s when many teenagers say they plan to complete their household chores or tackle their homework. To a certain extent, this is normal—many of us have a tendency to delay, to put off until tomorrow what we don’t want to do today.
There is a difference, however, between the occasional delayer and someone who has an established, disabling pattern of procrastination fueled by an underlying issue. For parents, dealing with either can be a frustrating challenge. Discerning between the two can be even more difficult.
“Anxiety and fear are better managed by attempting to succeed at the task at hand rather than avoiding it.”
Defining Procrastination
Procrastination comes in a few different forms:
  • Not starting a task until the last minute.
  • Failing to complete an assigned task in a predetermined timeframe.
  • Putting off a task in order to complete a more preferable, lower priority task.
For children, procrastination usually results in a negative consequence such as poor or failing grades, the inability to participate in extracurricular activities, or family consequences like loss of driving rights, screen time, or increased parental supervision.
If your child is encountering these negative consequences on a regular basis, then they likely suffer from procrastination. But, there are steps you can take to help break the behavior. In order to effectively parent a child who procrastinates, it’s first important to understand why your child puts off tasks.
Understanding the Behavior
There’s a common misconception that kids procrastinate because they are lazy or have low motivation. While low motivation can be a contributing factor, there are many others, including:
  • Lack of Relevance: Your child may not see the task as relevant to his or her current or future goals.
  • Boredom: Some tasks just aren’t compelling. For instance, most kids don’t find cleaning their room to be a fun or engaging activity.
  • Lack of Self-Discipline: Knowing you need to do something isn’t the same as being able to get started. Kids are faced with an increasing number of distractions, which can make it hard to prioritize and stick to plans.
  • Poor Time Management: Many kids underestimate how long it takes to do something, and do it well. They put off getting started, assuming there’s enough time to complete the task.
  • Anxiety and/or Fear of Failure: Some children are unable to start tasks because they are afraid that their performance won’t meet personal expectations, or the expectations of significant others. Taken to the extreme, this anxiety becomes perfectionism—the paralyzing belief that anything less than perfect is unacceptable.
To understand your child’s procrastinating behavior, you need to talk openly and hear his or her perspective. Typically, kids are willing to share if they feel like you’re being supportive—they need to believe that you genuinely want to understand their fear so you can help them, not issue a series of consequences that may exacerbate feelings of disappointment.
As you listen, try to identify which of the underlying causes may be at play. Just as a physician can’t effectively treat a headache without knowing the underlying cause—dehydration, allergies, concussion, or tumor—you can’t effectively help your child stop procrastinating unless you understand what’s prompting the behavior. For instance, offering or withholding a reward for completing a task won’t help a child who is delaying because they don’t see why the task is relevant.
So what can a parent do? When your child’s anxiety prevents her from tackling necessary tasks, you need to intervene. These five steps can help:
  1. Ask Your Child Questions: Get to know how your child views their self, the expectations placed on them, and the reality of the situation. Ask questions like, “What standards do you set for yourself?” “What do you think we expect of you?” “What will really happen if you don’t accomplish the task based on the standards you’ve set for yourself?”
  2. Understanding how your child is currently interpreting the situation will help you develop appropriate parental responses.
  3. Clarify Your Expectations: Kids tend to overestimate parental expectations, so make sure you are clear and realistic in what you expect from your child. For example, many parents may focus on the effort put forth on a school project or test, not the grade—but a child may think you expect them to earn straight-As in every subject.
  4. This may be realistic for kids who are consistently high-achievers, but for children who struggle with just turning in their homework, such expectations may be too much. In this case, lean toward setting specific, achievable expectations such as structured time to do homework, study, or do chores.
    Also remember to be clear and direct when stating your expectations. Doing so will help ensure that you and your child are on the same page—if your child still procrastinates after you have this conversation, restate your expectations and reinforce that they are accountable for their own actions and the corresponding consequences.
  5. Teach Problem Solving Skills: Consider this scenario: If I don’t excel on this paper, my grade point average will go down, which means I won’t be able to play football this year, which means I’ll have no friends, school will be unbearable and I’ll be a total loser.
  6. Is that scenario reasonable or likely? No. But kids who fear failure often spiral into a series of unrealistic, irrational, worst-case consequences. It’s called catastrophic thinking. In addition to contributing to anxiety and procrastination, this kind of thinking can lead to outbursts of bad behavior. A child may act out because they don’t know how to solve the problem appropriately.
    You can help coach your child by teaching effective problem-solving techniques. Try breaking tasks up into more manageable chunks or setting smaller, more attainable goals. By helping your child understand how to develop a plan for tackling a problem, they may feel less overwhelmed by the amount of work involved with the task.
  7. Point Out Positive Qualities: Ask your child to identify the attributes they think lead to happiness and success in life—integrity, creativity, people skills, passion, for instance. Getting your child to focus on personality traits they already possess, or will likely develop, will boost their self-esteem and shine light on unrealistically high standards.
  8. Use Your Experience to Relate: Self-disclose some of your own fears and describe how you’ve managed them. By acknowledging your imperfections and struggles, you may prevent your child from feeling defective—like s/he is the only one who can’t effectively manage tasks.
Attempting Success
Because anxiety can be paralyzing, you may have to help your child get started. Consider giving her a defined start time. For instance, “After dinner at 6:00, let’s get started.” You can also try setting some rules around the process, like working for a certain amount of time without interruption, or completing a specific body of work before taking a break. This type of structure can help children (and adults!) manage anxiety and generate a sense of momentum and confidence.  
Ultimately, your goal is to help your child learn to set reasonable expectations. Anxiety and fear are better managed by attempting to succeed at the task at hand rather than avoiding it. Said another way, fear doesn’t simply dissipate with the passage of time—it is only reduced through continuous effort, which leads to success. With parental support, a plan to tackle problems and a willingness to try, your child will be armed with tools to manage tasks effectively.

5 Ways to Help Kids Who Procrastinate reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

Dr. Michael Kramer is a Clinical Psychologist and Nationally Certified School Psychologist who has worked with children, adolescents, and their families for over thirty years. Over the course of his career, he has worked in residential treatment centers, inpatient psychiatric units, community mental health centers, and public and private schools. In his private practice, he specializes in providing treatment to youth with anxiety, depression, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. He also works as a Sports Psychologist, providing service to high school. collegiate, and professional athletes. Dr. Kramer is the father of two grown children.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Disneyland Daddy

The Disneyland DaddyVicki is the single mother of Alex (12), Ryan (8) and Jessica (6). To make ends meet, she works two jobs—as a receptionist during the week and part-time catering on weekends. She has been divorced from Mike, a supervisor for a building contractor, for two years. Her relationship with Mike is strained at best, hostile at worst.

Mike gets the kids every other weekend and every Wednesday. The kids love going to Dad’s because there are “no rules.” They get to do pretty much whatever they want. Weekends are filled with video games, trips to the mall, pizza and movie outings. And candy. Lots and lots of candy. Wednesday nights are TV nights. The kids never do their homework on Wednesday nights because, after a long day, Mike wants to kick back; he doesn’t want to have to deal with questions about homework. Vicki resents Mike’s free-for-all parenting and calls him “The Disneyland Daddy.” 

When Mike drops off the kids at Vicki’s apartment on Sunday night, they are wound up, bubbling about all the things they did with Dad over the weekend and not wanting the fun to end. Within minutes, excitement turns to disrespect, when Vicki asks them to help with chores and get to their homework. They talk back, act out and tune their mother out. Sunday nights with mom turn into screaming matches and tears. The anxiety always spills over into Monday morning, when she has to get the kids out of bed and get to work on time. 

In her own words, Vicki’s life is “a wreck.” Her priority is to get the bills paid and provide for her kids. In doing so, she feels she is losing control of them at light speed. How can Vicki get back in control, when her parenting efforts are undone weekly by Mike? 

Mike doesn’t have effective parenting skills and tries to make up for it with deep pockets. He’s also perfectly happy that the kids go back to their mother’s and act out because it’s gratifying for him; it’s a way to act out his bad feelings toward his ex-wife. Vicki feels cheated, betrayed and resentful about her income disparity with Mike and for having to carry the whole workload of raising the children.
What they both need to understand is that in divorce situations, kids develop a sort of “extra sensory perception” about statements that reflect resentment, anxiety or jealousy. They already feel caught in the middle between their parents, and this heightened sensitivity to their parents’ words makes it even more so.

Can Vicki stop the disrespect and chaos in her home and can Mike learn to be a responsible, effective parent? Yes. But here’s what has to happen:
  • 1.) Manage your feelings. The hard pill for parents, especially mothers, to swallow, is that they have to manage their feelings of resentment and anxiety. Kids do sense when daddy returns them that mom is resentful. This raises their anxiety and contributes to the acting out. I recommend that mom sit down and talk with the kids when things are going well. Make a plan that when they return home, there should be a half hour transition time, where they just go to their rooms and unwind and unpack and have a snack. They don’t talk about the visit with daddy. They don’t talk about the chores. They don’t do anything. They just unwind. After that half hour of transition time, that’s when she meets with the kids and sets up the structure for the night (homework, chores and TV time before bed) and the week (getting up, getting to school on time).

  • 2.) This mom needs to have a structure in the home with rules and very clear expectations. She needs to establish a culture in the home that says, “You’re accountable to me.” What happens at Dad’s house is irrelevant. Mom needs to say this: “You’re not at your father’s anymore. The rules here are these.” Then turn around and walk away. Mom can establish a structure by saying, “It’s eight o’clock. You need to start getting ready for bed. The clearer that structure is and the more it’s backed up by expectations, responsibilities and accountability, the better the chances the kids will respond to it. The simple fact is this: When the kids come back from Dad’s, they need a structure to come home to.

    3.) Use a reward system. At the same time, mom can set up a reward system. The kids who do their homework on Wednesday nights when they’re at Dad’s get something extra. It doesn’t have to be something that costs a lot of money. It can be extra computer time, extra phone time or staying up half an hour later the night they get back. There’s also a much easier way to get the kids to do their chores. Give them a certain amount of time to complete a task. If they get it done, they get a reward. For example, if Ryan does the dishes within 15 minutes after supper, he gets an extra half hour on the computer that evening. Vicki should set the limits and make it the kids’ responsibility to meet them. Why? Because they can do it. Kids show us this every day. Why do you think they go home and act out, then go to school the next day and behave themselves? It’s because they can manage different environments effectively.

  • 4.) Try to work out a fair arrangement with the other parent. I think the “Disneyland Daddy” in this case needs to be challenged to become a more responsible parent. If these parents are involved in family therapy or counseling, accelerating Mike’s responsibility needs to be part of the structure. I’ve known families who have worked out an arrangement in therapy that if the child is acting out after being at Dad's house, the father has to come over and help calm him. It puts some responsibility back on the father and discourages him from creating the problem. This can only happen if parents are empowered through the divorce decree and custody arrangement or through regular or court-ordered family therapy. But it’s important for parents in these situations to have that empowerment, so that the family has a structure for the co-parenting task.

The Disneyland Daddy reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

Good Cop/Bad Cop Parenting

Good Cop/Bad Cop ParentingIf you and your spouse take opposing roles in dealing with your kids, you’re not alone. Many parents take on the roles of “good cop” and “bad cop” in the family. For instance, Dad is the kid’s best buddy, and mom is the nag. Or dad is strict and mom is a sympathizer.

Which “cop” is right? And should you be a cop at all?

I see two problems with the notion of good cop/bad cop parenting. First, is the very idea that somebody has to be a “cop” all the time. Parents don’t need to be cops. They simply need to be coaches and teachers for their children.

Second, what’s really happening when parents become good cops and bad cops is that the kids have learned to split their parents. The area of the split is where kids go to get out of meeting their responsibilities.

For example, Tommy goes to mom and says, “Dad’s making me clean my room before we go to the mall.” Or he says to mom, “Why do I have to clean my room? Dad doesn’t make me do it.” When your child makes complaints like this, both parents have to be supportive of each other. You have to be able to say, “These are the rules Dad and I both have, and you have to do it or you’re going to be held responsible for the consequences.” Then turn around and walk away. That’s it. Give simple statements of support. The more unified you are as parents, the more likely your child is to complete his responsibilities, because he doesn’t have another way out. The only way out is to act responsibly and do what’s asked of him.

But what if you don’t really agree with what Dad is asking Tommy to do? If you have a problem with a rule or limit your spouse sets or a request that’s being made of your kid, don’t make a face. Don’t sigh. And, by all means, don’t argue with your spouse about the issue in front of the child…or even indicate that you are going to argue. Just tell your child he has to do what’s been asked of him. Then talk with your spouse later, after the kids have gone to bed and out of earshot. This is important, because kids pick up on non-verbal cues from their parents a lot more than you think. If your child sees that you disagree with what’s being asked of him, he’ll bring up the issue again and again, to split you and your spouse and to avoid meeting the responsibility.

Simple statements of support work when you use them consistently. When Tommy complains that Dad won’t let him play Runescape before he does his homework, and you say, “Your father said you can’t play Runescape until you do your homework. That’s the rule,” you can bet Tommy will stop trying to split you and your spouse.

Good Cop/Bad Cop Parenting reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."