Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Homework "To Do" List

By the time you read this school will have started.  The honeymoon period of a new school year may have ended too soon for your liking and stress may be mounting in your home.  Some of the problems reported most frequently in my practice are those having to do with homework.  School is a very hard place to be for a child with any type of impairment or disability, whether it be physical, emotional or cognitive.  (ADHD is included in this grouping.)  Every child’s brain is still in the process of development and therefore they have not yet developed the skills to manage their emotions and sensory input.  At the end of the day, your child is probably spent and their brain is literally overloaded. 

I frequently experience the feeling that I can’t possibly do one more thing, listen to one more problem, or creatively or politely engage in another endeavor when I arrive home at the end of a long stressful day.  If I feel this way, I can’t even imagine how our children must feel who have expended great efforts at school to comply with rules, navigate complex social interactions, and engage their brain in problem solving and learning.  That being said, it is understandable why so many of our children fight, resist and shut down when it comes to doing homework. So, I hope the following Homework “To Do” List will assist you in having less stressful evenings.


  • Allow your child down time before insisting they do homework.  This is particularly important for the young child.  Encourage them to PLAY and literally de-stress themselves with physical activity.
  • Feed the brain with healthy foods. Many children are starving when they come home.  Provide them with a healthy snack or meal which combines a carbohydrate with a protein or a carbohydrate with a healthy snack such as fruit and nuts, crackers and peanut butter, or a tortilla with cheese.  For more information and resources contact me at dcantrell@satx.rr.com
  • Agree upon a scheduled homework time and stick to it as much as possible. Routines are critical. Have a start and end time for young children.  If the child is not completing their work because they are resisting are dawdling, you may offer them one gentle reminder halfway through the designated homework time and five minutes before the end of the agreed upon completion time.   When time is up calmly say, “Homework time is now over.”  If the child protests and then agrees to do their work you may say something like, “I am sure you will be able to stay on task tomorrow.”
  • Establish an agreed upon place for a child to do their homework with as few distractions as possible.
  • Empathize with your child when they protest against homework.  This is a hard one for parents because you are probably not at your best at the end of the day either. When I say empathize, simply state, “I know you must be tired and you really don’t want to do your homework. It’s a bummer but I know you can pull through it.”  This must be said with compassion and respect. It also needs to be the last thing you say. No rationalizing, explaining, threats, or bribes, just empathy.
  • Support your child when they ask for help. Parents are not always the best people to assist their children with homework.  If you find that you are engaging in power struggles with your child or that you are becoming increasingly frustrated, you might consider hiring a tutor.  I realize that for many of you funds don’t permit such a luxury so consider bartering with a neighbor, friend, or older school child to come over 1-3 times a week to provide assistance.  If you choose to use an outside source, remember to stay out of the mix and to embrace this time as yours.
  • Give ownership of homework to your child.  You must allow your child to take ownership of their school work, their successes, and their failures.  I find that when it comes to homework, parents often become drill sergeant or hover so much that they do their homework for their child.  Neither approach is effective or teaches a child time management, internal control, and responsibility.  I know that it will be hard to allow your child to go to school with incompleted work, but in the long run valuable lessons will be learned.
  • Seek outside support.  If you feel that you have truly followed the above guidelines, then it might be time to request and ARD to express concerns.  Your child may be receiving more homework then they can handle.  You may also need to consider medication management or a change in medication that is already in place. Last, but certainly not least, you may find that you need assistance/coaching in how you are responding to your child or in meeting your emotional needs.

I wish everyone a happy and successful school year!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


Wouldn't it be great if we all spent more time focusing on our success and our children’s successes on a daily basis?  In pondering this question I decided to look up the definition of success.  There are several definitions but the one I would like to focus on is: the accomplishment of one’s goals. 

Unfortunately, due to our culture’s bombardment by the media and advertisement telling us how/who we should be and what we should have, we often set the bar pretty high for what we define as success.  I know many young women who think they are fat if they are not a size 2 while many adults feel they are not successful if they do not drive an expensive car or live in a big house. 

I encourage you this summer to evaluate your definition of success as well as assist your child, if possible, in exploring their definition of success. Once you and your child have established a definition begin assisting your child in setting some small achievable goals for this summer.  Remember, the goals must be your child’s, not your expectations for them.  Once the goals are established, allow your child to take the lead in accomplishing the stated goals.  Your job will be to assist them in clarifying the goals and making them achievable as well as celebrating every micromovement toward the stated goals.

Goals don’t have to be grand or lofty.  Setting goals is often difficult for adults so it is very likely that your child might need some assistance by providing them with a list of things that make them happy or feel good.  I tell my young clients that I have only two goals for them. The goals are that the child is as happy as they can possibly be and that they are as successful as they can possibly be.  Happiness is the primary goal for I feel the rest will follow.

Assist your child in exploring what makes them happy and then assist them in creating goals for their summer from there.  Remember, these are not the goals you have for your child, but the goals they have for themselves.   I have created a list of “Things That Make Me Happy” that you may use with your child.  Have your child circle or highlight the items that create happiness for them.  Of course, your child may wish to add to the list.  The list is designed to assist you in discussing how your child can achieve these “happiness goals” this summer as well as create balance in their life.

Have a happy and successful summer with many celebrations!

Things That Make Me Happy 

·        Spending time with friends

·        Spending time with family

·        Making money

·        Being able to manage my behavior

·   When I am able to get along with my brother and/or sister

·        When I am not afraid

·        Playing with or working with animals

·        When I don’t get in trouble.

·        Reading and/ or listening to stories or books

·        Being more independent

·        When I don’t worry.

·        Creating stories

·        Creating art, objects, music

·        Doing kind things for others.

·        Going to the park, camping, looking at the stars

·        Pretend play or acting

·        Performing for family or community

·        Playing cards or board games

·        Sports- swimming, golf, water play, football, skating, riding bikes, skate boarding

·   Accomplishing a goal that is hard for me or that I didn’t think I could achieve.

·        Playing on the computer for a limited time

·        Teaching others how to use the computer

·        Taking pictures

·        Creating movies or videos

·        Watching TV and movies for a limited time period
Note to parents:

Once your child has identified what makes them happy, assist them in prioritizing what is most important to them.  It will also be important for you to help them in identifying the steps they will need to take to achieve their goals.  For example, if they want to have more time with friends and they have a difficult time with social skills, this is a wonderful opportunity to talk about the possibility of being in a social skills group and/or what it takes to be a good friend. Include these elements in the steps your child will need to take in reaching their goal.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Power of Empathy


noun \ˈem-pə-thē\
: the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else's feelings…  Merriam Webster

Imagine that you have had an atrocious day.  The morning started out with little Amy Beth refusing to get up.  Then she didn’t want to eat breakfast or wear the clothes that she had picked out the night before. The blouse, which she normally loves, was just too itchy.  She was in one of her moods.
Amy Beth whined all the way to school and exclaimed that you are a mean mommy because you didn’t allow her to eat chocolate cookies for breakfast.  By the time you arrived to school, Amy Beth was 5 minutes late and you felt totally rattled.
Once at work, you finally started to focus on the huge project that was due by the end of the day.  Just as things began to move smoothly the phone rang.   It was the school. Little Amy Beth had refused to do her work and had a major meltdown at lunch.  The assistant principal recounted that she screamed wildly, threw food, and finally hid under the table holding on to the table legs for dear life.  You were told that it was imperative that you come to the school as soon as possible.

I think by now you’re getting the idea that this was a really bad day.  So, let’s move ahead to when you finally arrived home to your husband.  When asked, “How was your day?” you exploded into a rant.

After a moment, your husband replied, “Honey, when are you ever going to learn to plan ahead for such unforeseen circumstances?  And, haven’t I been telling you that Mary Beth has been going to bed too late? You just really let that child rule the roost……………………..”

Just imagine how you were feeling after receiving these questions and remarks from your beloved?  My guess is that you were not finding them helpful and in fact you probably began to focus your venom on your spouse.   However, if your husband had provided you with a good empathetic response such as, “What a rotten day, you must be so discouraged and exhausted,” you would probably feel validated, heard and understood.  You might feel even better if he added,” What can I do to help?”

Often, when we are emotionally distraught, the thing that soothes us the most is a healthy dose of empathy.  Just a simple phrase that lets you know that another human being understands how you are feeling is remarkably calming.

My challenge for you is to provide empathy to the children in your life.  Instead of preaching, “shoulding,” punishing or problem solving, provide a short statement of empathy and see what happens.  Not quite sure how to go about this?  The following are some phrases and examples that might be helpful.  The key to having empathetic responses work effectively is to deliver them with sincerity.
  • Your child is tired and unusually cranky.

“Wow, you must feel really tired.  Would you like me to 

             help you put your toys away before going to bed?
  • After telling your child not to run in the parking lot, she does anyway and breaks her favorite necklace.
“What a bummer! That was such a special piece of jewelry.”
  • Your child has broken down in tears because he or she put off doing a school project and must miss a sleepover.
It must be really disappointing to have to miss the party.  I know you were really looking forward to going and being with your friends.”
 Give empathy a chance. It really works.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Fight or Flight?

It has been my observation that loving parents with special needs children have spent years in fight or flight mode.   There is so much to navigate: the medical system; the school system; the family system; the social system; and on and on.   You've probably learned along the way that you and you alone are the best person to advocate for your child.  I am sure that many of you have also endured disapproving, judgmental glances from professionals, family members, and strangers in the grocery store.  It’s a lot to manage logistically and emotionally.  As a result, many such parents, in order to protect themselves and their child, don their armor and keep their swords safely by their side. 

We all tend to look at the world through various perspective or lenses.  A classic example of this is the perspective of viewing life through the lens of “a glass half empty” or “ a glass half full”.  We can also look through various other lenses such as “I am a victim of life’s circumstances”  versus “I am empowered as well as given opportunities for learning and growth by making mistakes and by enduring injustice.”

Unfortunately, many parents of special needs children begin to see parenting through the   lens of, “I must fight for my child and protect him or her at all cost.”  Though it is very understandable why parents use this lens, one must ask,” Is this always the best lens in which to use to assist my child?”

Questions/thoughts to ponder when you feel yourself going into fight mode:

  • Is this really worth fighting for?  In other words, choose your battles.
  • Is this my child’s issue or my issue?  Sometimes the things for which one fights doesn’t really concern or impact their child.  When a big deal is made out of something that a parent finds disconcerting, children take note of their parent’s worries/anxieties and interpret them as a negative reflection on the child as being weak and defective.
  • Do I need to advocate for my child or is this an incident in which I can teach my child to advocate for himself? As children grow and mature it is very important for them to learn the skills that will assist them in advocating for themselves in an appropriate manner.  This is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child.
  • How resilient do I want my child to be?  No child becomes resilient without some struggles, disappointments, and failures. The question becomes, “Is this a struggle my child can endure?”  Please keep in mind that your child is probably stronger than you think.
  • Is the person I have challenged to a duel a true threat or perhaps just offering a different perspective?  Trusting others can be difficult especially if various systems have failed you.  However, there are some wonderful caring professionals that can assist you in navigating these systems.  Unfortunately, if out of reflex, one draws their sword, they may miss out on some healing benefits for their child and themselves.

 It is not an easy task to identify the lenses in which we view the world and harder still to change the prescription on those lenses.  Surround yourself with a healthy support network that can assist you in answering the above questions, challenge your thinking in a loving, nonjudgmental manner, and who respectfully allow you to make mistakes and grow.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Shedding the Masks

Boo!  It’s Halloween, the time to put on a mask while facing all the other masked boogie men hiding in the dark.  Regardless of how you may feel about Halloween, it is interesting to ponder how the rituals around this day parallel our daily lives. Many of us live with and are governed by our many fears, for example, the fear of the unknown, our mortality, what others may think, and how we are measuring up to the world’s standards.  In order to cope, we don, what we feel is an acceptable mask to interface with the world.  It is very uncomfortable to wear a mask and a costume all day so when we arrive home we stuff ourselves full of candy, or something else we find satisfying, to relieve our anxiety and reward ourselves for making it through yet another day without being seen for whom we really are….or so we think.

Interestingly, the young child is exquisitely genuine.  They say what they think without editing their thoughts or their words.  If you ask them their opinion they will indeed tell you the truth.  In our attempts to socialize them unfortunately we sometimes teach them that they are not okay being who they are. Eventually they too don a mask and costume and endure the cumbersome weight of being inauthentic.  It is very tricky business to socialize a child while allowing them to be themselves and accepting them for all their quirks and imperfections.  I think this process is particularly difficult for the parent of a child with disabilities.

 Parents desperately want their children to be accepted and happy. In our attempts to make this happen we often inadvertently send messages to the child that they are flawed, weak, incapable and powerless.  There are no easy answers for this conundrum but hopefully the following tips will provide you with some food for thought.

Tips for empowering special needs children:

  • Evaluate your feelings about your child and their disability.  Have you really accepted their disability or are you, due to your own grief process, still trying to fix your child and make them better?
  • Seek support.  The process of accepting the loss of your dream of the perfect child is extraordinarily painful.  Many parents will deny that this is difficult but their denial speaks to their lack of acceptance of their loss.  As a result of the denial one is unable to truly meet the needs of their child. The process of truly accepting your child’s disabilities is difficult.  There are many others who have experienced this path who have developed support groups. They, as well as counselors, are eager to assist you.  Take the time to find them and nourish yourself.
  • Allow your child the gift of struggle and failure.  It is through struggle that we grow strong and through failure that we learn.  A child with a disability needs an enormous amount of strength.  If we hover or attempt to anticipate our child’s every need, we disempower them and send the message that they are weak and can’t possibly make it in the world without us.
  • Focus on your child’s strengths and gifts. 
  • Enjoy your child.  Slow down and give your child and yourself the time needed to explore the world and rejuvenate.  Sit down and play with your young child without teaching or directing their play.  Sit with an older child and wait and see if they will invite you to join them in their activity.  If not, just quietly sit with them.  Do this on a regular basis and observe how powerful an experience this can be in strengthening your child’s sense of self and your relationship with them.
  • Be honest with your child about their disability. By not being honest and not discussing the disability you foster shame.  You are giving your child the message that there is something to fear and hide.
  • Seek authenticity in your own life’s journey.  Shed the masks and costumes and relish in your flaws, gifts, and idiosyncrasies.  These so called imperfections are the foundation of your uniqueness and when you allow them to be visible to the world you become exquisitely unique, likeable and approachable.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Bipolar Disorder

  I work with children and adults who struggle with mental illness on a daily basis. I am frequently surprised at the degree of misconception there is about mental illness and its impact on the individual and their loved ones.  It is extremely difficult to cope with the symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other disorders.  Unfortunately, many if not all clients, also suffer due to harsh judgment that accompanies the misconceptions about these disorders.  Recently I received the following letter from one of my clients. She is an amazing woman who just so happens to suffer with Bipolar Disorder.  Thankfully, she has found her voice and is no longer hiding under guilt and shame. I would like to share her letter with you and encourage you to “Say it Forward” in an effort to promote understanding and empathy rather than judgment of those who are suffering.

International Bipolar Foundation (www.InternationalBipolarFoundation.org) has created "Say it Forward", an email campaign, as a way to educate as many as possible about mental illness. Stigma is an unfortunate reality for those who suffer from mental illness, and the cause of stigma is ignorance. There are a lot of misconceptions about mental illness and those who have it. Read on and learn - it will only take a few minutes but you can really make a difference in someone's life by better understanding them. Then, help me to "Say it Forward" and send this on to as many as you can. Together we can make a difference!


Myth #1: Psychiatric disorders are not true medical illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. People who have a mental illness are just "crazy."
Fact: Brain disorders, like heart disease and diabetes, are legitimate medical illnesses. Research shows there are genetic and biological causes for psychiatric disorders, and they can be treated effectively.

Myth #2: People with a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, are usually dangerous and violent.
Fact: Statistics show that those who suffer from mental illness are much more likely to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator.

Myth #3: If you have a mental illness, you can "will" it away. Being treated for a psychiatric disorder means an individual has in some way "failed" or is weak.
Fact: A serious mental illness cannot be willed away. Ignoring the problem does not make it go away, either. It takes courage to seek professional help.

Myth #4: Mental illnesses do not affect children or adolescents. Any problems they have are just a part of growing up.
Fact: Children and adolescents can develop severe mental illness. In the United States, one in ten children and adolescents has a mental disorder severe enough to cause impairment. However, only about 20 percent of these children receive needed treatment.

Myth #5: People who complete suicide are weak or flawed.
Fact: Suicide can be the unfortunate result of failing to get treatment and support. Having a mental illness is painful, and society does not do enough to support and understand these individuals. Stigma is a huge barrier to receiving the treatment that is necessary to live a fulfilling life with a mental illness.

Myth #6: I don't know anyone who has a mental illness.
Fact: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 in every 4 people, or 25% of individuals, develops one or more mental disorders at some stage in life. Globally, it is estimated that 450 million people suffer from mental disorders.

Thank you so much for educating yourself by reading this email. Now you can do your part to end stigma and "Say it Forward"! Say It Forward

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Summertime: Prepare - Schedule - Enjoy

I think many of us have romantic visions of summertime.  An image of kicking back with an ice cold drink in a beautiful, carefree, sun filled setting often comes to our minds.  Unfortunately, the reality of summer living does not always match up to our expectations.  Though the kids have an abundance of time off, most parents continue working the same grueling hours.  Unless you have access to a pool and money for travel, once the extremely high temperatures here in Texas set in, the time outside that we have fantasized about becomes a distant dream.

Unfortunately, many parents due to soaring thermometers, fatigue, stress, and the need to avoid conflict, allow their children to sit for hours in front of a screen…..television, gaming system, or computer.  Often, the only time there is conversation is when the siblings are fighting about what television show to watch or whose turn it is to play on the  gaming system or computer.   The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting a child's use of TV, movies, video and computer games to no more than one or two hours a day. Too much screen time has been linked to sleep problems, behavior problems, violence, obesity, and a myriad of other problems.

So what is a parent to do? Prepare, schedule, and enjoy is the mantra I suggest adopting. 

Now is the perfect time to begin preparing yourself and your children emotionally for the changes summer vacation affords.  If your child has special needs, preparing for any kind of transition is essential. While usually greeted with excitement, summer vacation is a major transition for your child and your family. 
  • Assist your child in identifying their expectations of summer.
  • Explore your child’s feelings about leaving behind friends and predictible routines.
  • Assist your child in accepting the reality of the summer experience for you and your family.
  • Prepare children for changes in routines and schedules that you are implementing this summer.
  • Involve your child in setting schedules and making family plans. This is a perfect time to incorporate the use of Family Meetings.  Google “Family Meetings” to gain more information about this extremely helpful tool for building cohesiveness, problem solving, empathy, positive interactions, and appropriate expression of concerns and negative feelings.

All of us want a break from schedules from time to time however, eight plus weeks of no specific bedtimes or routine awakenings is not only excessive but harmful.  We humans crave and function best with routines, schedules, realistic bedtimes, and morning awakenings.  Now that you have minimized screen time more planning will be required to keep those kiddos busy.
  • Set a reasonable bedtime and wakeup schedule for your children based on their ages and vary from it as little as possible. The following guidelines may be of assistance: 
          Ages 1-3 10-13 hrs
        Ages 3-5 10-12 hrs
        Ages 6-9 10 hrs
        Ages 10-12 9 hrs
        Teens 8-9.5hrs
  • Schedule time for creative endeavors such as art, playing musical instruments, photography, acting, or cinematography. For younger children have some time scheduled either each day or several times a week where you have art activities available. Let your child experiment with different forms of artistic media.  You don’t have to spend a fortune.  For example, you can make your own play dough or purchase sidewalk chalk at the dollar store. Nurture your child’s creativity by following their lead and their interests.  Creativity takes many different forms so take some time to uncover your child’s creative gifts.
  • Schedule screen time.
  • Schedule “downtime” each day. 
  • Assign chores.  Remind children that summer vacation was originally designed so that children could help their families work in the fields.
  • Schedule 30 minutes of screen free alone time with your child each week.  This is a very special time in which you once again, allow the child to take the lead. Make sure the activities for which you engage are selected by your child. During this time try to not to preach, teach, question or tell your child how or what they should be doing.  Allow their play tell you about their inner lives and workings. With children ages seven and below you might want to pick some time to just play with them in their room or in a designated area with a specific group of toys.  You don’t have to do much but believe me, they will tell you what they want you to do if you allow them that privilege.
  • Take your children to the library once a week or twice a month to check out books and or participate in storytime. Make this a fun and rewarding experience.  Check out your local library and bookstore.  Usually many additional offerings are available for families during the summer.
  • Start a family fun night.  This offers the greatest rewards when it is scheduled the same time each week. Some families enjoy a pizza and movie night, board game night or a time in which the family engages in a special volunteer project together.
  • Schedule time to exercise or play together outside on a regular basis.
  • Review and refine your summer plans and schedules as you go.  The family meetings will greatly help in getting everyone onboard and taking ownership of the plans and schedules that have been implemented. 

Find joy in just being with your children.  The time you have with them is short-lived.  If you find that you are feeling unusually stressed, irritable, grumpy, anxious, or depressed, please seek help for yourself.  You are the greatest gift you can give your children and your mood is highly contagious.