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Childhood Expert Eileen Kennedy-Moore Answers our Questions

September 21, 2015

Eileen_Kennedy-Moore_photo1We are supremely fortunate to share with you this week insight from a leading child psychologist who has great advice on on how we can better handle some sensitive parenting moments. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, is an author, psychologist, and mother of four. She has a private practice in Princeton, NJ, where she works with adults, children, and families. In addition co-authoring Smart Parenting for Smart Kids and The Unwritten Rules of Friendship, she has a new video series for parents, produced by The Great Courses: Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids.

Some of the topics she covers in her Great Courses lecture really interested me, including how to guide children through issues related to anxiety, perfectionism and popularity. I’m happy to share her answers with you in this post. The doctor, as they say, is in!

Your Great Course lectures cover 12 topics that touch on different challenges of parenting—is there an over-riding principle or philosophy you might say parents today should keep in mind as they approach their roles as parents to growing children?

The lectures emphasize that there’s a lot we can do, as parents, to help our children develop essential people skills. We tend to think of academic or professional performance as one area and social and emotional functioning as something completely separate, but really these are deeply intertwined. Being able to understand and cope with emotions, communicate clearly, and build strong relationships are essential abilities for just about every type of achievement. In our day-to-day interactions with our children, there are many “teachable moments” when we can help them learn how to cope and even thrive!

EKMkidsquoteAnother important theme in the lectures is the idea of developmental change. Children are not just short adults! There are qualitative differences in how kids of different ages understand themselves and others. There are also typical behaviors and challenges that emerge at each age. It’s common for four-year olds to brag, for six-year-olds to be sore losers, for seven-year-olds to say, “Nobody likes me!”, for nine-year-olds to have secret clubs, and for eleven-year-olds to be very self-conscious and constantly compare themselves to others. When we, as parents, understand child development, we’re better equipped to respond in caring and helpful ways.

The lectures also emphasize developmental continuity. A common reaction to the course that I hear is “This is so true for adults, too!” Challenges such as how to make a friend, join a group, resolve a conflict, manage our temper, move forward when we’re scared… We face these again and again, in different ways, through out our lives, as we encounter new circumstances and new relationships, but the learning begins in childhood.

Your lecture on Anxiety is entitled “Anxiety: The Way Out is Through”—what do you mean by that?

When our children are anxious, the temptation for us parents is to try to reassure them or help them avoid the situation to make them feel better. We hate to see our kids suffer! The problem is that, with anxious kids, reassurance is a bottomless pit. The more we insist, “You’ll be fine, Honey!” the more questions arise in their mind along the lines of “But, what if…?” Also, the more we enable our children to avoid scary situations, the more difficult it becomes for them to face those situations.

The key to helping children move past anxiety is to allow them to build up their confidence that they can handle scary situations. Usually it’s best to do this gradually—think nudge, not push—and to let the child be actively involved in deciding what situations to face in what order.

Where do you think the desire for “Perfectionism” comes from and how can parents help their children work through it while still inspiring hard work?

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I’ve noticed, in my practice, that the kids who are most capable are often the ones who are most anxious about performance. You’d think these kids would be especially confident—and that’s often what they show to the outside world—but their parents see a different side. These kids stress about tests, even though they always do well on tests, or they dwell on every tiny mistake they made in a musical performance, sports competition, or even a social interaction!

Here are three quick ideas to help ease perfectionism:

– Encourage your child to compare his or her past versus present self.

When kids (or adults!) compare themselves to others, it’s a recipe for misery, because there are always people out there who are better, faster, smarter, more accomplished, etc. But that’s irrelevant to the more important question that we each need to ask ourselves, which is “How do I want to grow or develop?” Comparing current and past selves allows children to see progress and often gives a sense of hope.

– Avoid saying, “Do your best!”

For most kids, saying, “Do your best” is fine. It communicates that we only want them to try hard, and we’ll be proud of them no matter how they do. But when we say, “Do your best” to perfectionistic kids, they hear “Do the best job you can possibly imagine!!!” A better message is to tell them “Make a reasonable effort.” What is a reasonable effort? That depends on the importance of the task, competing interests or obligations, health and energy level… Not all tasks deserve our best efforts. It takes practice and judgment to figure out what is a “reasonable effort.”

– Focus on process rather than innate ability.

Research by Carol Dweck at Stanford and her colleagues shows that kids who hear “You’re smart at this,” rather “You worked really hard at this” avoid challenges, enjoy challenging tasks less, and are even more likely to lie about their performance! When we emphasize kids’ innate ability, every defeat feels like a humiliating public exposure, and every victory feels precarious. What if people find out they’re really not that good?! On the other hand, focusing on effort, strategy or even enjoyment gives kids a path forward that puts them in the driver seat of their learning.

9531---base_imageWhen it comes to status and popularity, what are some red flags parents should take note of, given the fact that even adults feel the slings and arrows of social pecking order, etc?

Even in preschool, some kids are more dominant than others, and social dynamics with groups only get more complicated as kids get older. For teens, social media brings a whole new magnitude to social status. Popularity is intriguing to a lot of kids, because it’s about social power and influence.

But research shows there’s a not-so-pretty side to popularity. Only about 9% of popular children are also well liked by their peers. Popularity is also linked to risky behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and early sexual activity among high school students.

As parents, we can ask good questions to help our kids navigate their social world, such as “How do you feel when you’re with her?” and “How do you think he felt when that happened?” We can emphasize the importance of kindness and genuine friendship. And, of course, we can be there for our kids, loving and supporting them, when they hit a social rough spot.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m very excited about my newest co-authored book—tentatively titled The Big Book for Friendship–which will be coming out in Summer 2017! It’s all about helping children ages 6-10 learn the essential skills they need to make and keep friends. It’s loaded with cartoons and kid humor as well as practical, research-based tips kids can use immediately. The book offers real help—and enough giggles to make the messages enjoyable and memorable.

For parents, I’ve just begun writing a new book about children’s self-esteem. Directly trying to improve children’s self-esteem tends to backfire. The more we tell self-doubting kids, “You’re wonderful!”, the harder they argue, “I’m terrible!” This book will delve into common problems connected to low self-esteem, such as having trouble fitting in with peers, giving up easily, feeling unattractive, and dwelling on mistakes. It will focus on ways to help kids develop real competence and confidence.

I also blog about children’s feelings and friendships for PBS Parents  and Psychology Today . I recently started a monthly email newsletter with links to my recent blog posts. You can see a sample here.

 Thanks to Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore for this interview. She mentioned her Great Course is now on sale for 70% off. Get it while you can.

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