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About Lawrence Cohen PhD

Here are my most recent posts

The Ten Talents of Parenting: Playfulness

For some dads, parenthood seems to come easily. They play, respond to children’s needs, understand children’s feelings, and trust themselves. The rest of us need to work at it a bit more. But that’s OK, we don’t have to all be naturals. This article, focusing on playfulness, is the first of a series about how to nurture the talents of fatherhood. 

 

Playfulness is harder when you are racing out the door and your child is dawdling over tying shoes, or when siblings are screaming at each other and screaming at you. In other words, playfulness is hardest when we need it most. Fortunately, all dads can learn to be more playful, even at these tough times. It’s a trait that can be nurtured, especially if you are willing to give up a little dignity.   

 

Make silly faces at the next baby you see. With toddlers, fall down a lot, and make a lot of noise as you topple over. Preschoolers love when you put on a funny hat and play dress-up with them. Even if it feels like you don’t know how to “make pretend,” do it. Start a pillow fight with five or six year olds, and then yell out, “Waaaah, pick on someone your own size!” Seven and eight year olds always crack up when you tell them that you want to get married to Barbie. Next time you want your pre-teens to clean up their rooms, don’t nag at them; sing your request in a fake opera voice. It gets them every time.

 

Of course, you’ll probably feel silly. Don’t let that stop you. Playfulness builds closeness with our children, and that’s worth it. After all, it’s also embarrassing to be seen yelling, screeching, threatening, or pleading with our kids, so we might as well be doing something useful and fun.  

 

So next time your child says, “Will you play with me,” don’t make excuses about being too busy; say, “OK!” and let them show you how it’s done.

– Lawrence Cohen, PhD

The Ten Talents of Parenting: Turning Worry into Trust

Turning Worry into Trust

A friend once told me about a new mom who called her pediatrician about 50 times during the first two weeks of her son’s life. Finally the pediatrician called the mom into her office and said, “Listen, you have become a parent. You have opened yourself up to a lifetime of worry. You have to pace yourself.”

As a world-class worrier myself, born into a family of champion worriers, I often wonder what the opposite of worry might be. For us parents, I don’t think that the opposite of worry is calm serenity. I haven’t met too many calm and serene parents (unless they aren’t paying attention!). Perhaps, though, we don’t have to worry all the time about everything. Perhaps the opposite of worry is trust – trust in development, trust in your parenting, trust in the power of friendship, and trust in children’s resilience.

Every spring, I get frantic phone calls from parents who are desperately worried because their 4-year-old children aren’t ready for kindergarten. Of course, they’re not! If a short phone call doesn’t reassure them, I will meet the family, have a few sessions of play therapy with the child, and lo and behold, in September they are usually ready for kindergarten. I am happy to take all the credit, but the real work was done by development (don’t tell anyone!).

Of course, it’s hard to trust the power of development if your sister’s toddler can count to 20 while yours is happier blowing bubbles in the tub, but don’t worry. Development happens. On the other hand, if your child seems to be more than one developmental stage behind his or her peers, or if there seems to be no maturing happening for several months, then it’s time to see if there is something more serious to worry about.

Trust Your Early Parenting

As children enter the world of peers, many parents panic about losing their influence. How could my sweet child come home with all that bathroom talk, those bad manners, that sassy attitude, or that burning desire for the latest toy or video game? (It’s funny, isn’t it, that it is always other people’s kids who start these trends and influence our innocent children.)

At these times, it is important to take a deep breath – maybe a few deep breaths – and remember to trust in the power of your early parenting. The attachment bonds we established might be strained by the pull of peers and the lure of stuff we can’t stand (like toy guns, perhaps, or super-girly dolls). But those bonds don’t crack. In fact, the best predictor of success in childhood – success in school, with friends, in emotional well-being – is a secure attachment in infancy. So remember the times you gazed lovingly into each other’s eyes, and trust that the headaches of later childhood will be fond or funny memories one day.

If your child didn’t have a secure and confident early childhood, then it isn’t too late, but you may need some help maintaining the link of connection during those later years when peers and media try to pull them away from you.

Kids Are Resilient

Friendships and other peer relationships are areas where it’s very hard for parents to trust instead of worry. I wish I had a nickel for every parent I know who has been terribly upset because their child didn’t have a best friend, or had a fight with their friend, or was teased at school, or wasn’t put in the right classroom – the list goes on and on.

As a friend of mine put it, “You have to let things happen as they happen, without overreacting, but you also have to be there, ready to listen.” This friend wasn’t always so philosophical about her son’s social life – she is, like me, a champion worrier. But she worked at it, realizing that she had to listen to her son without being so empathic that she was flooded with her own painful emotions.

A few years ago, she was beside herself when her son wasn’t invited to a birthday party. She focused so much on the pain – her son’s pain of exclusion and her own remembered pain from middle school – that she forgot to trust in her son’s resilience, his ability to bounce back even after a big upset.

My friend nurtured her trust in resilience by recognizing that a large part of her emotional reaction to her son’s social pain was from her own difficult childhood.

“That’s often the source of the intensity of my emotional reaction,” she says. “So if I just respond out of that feeling, it’s usually not very helpful.”

At the same time, she makes sure not to go too far in the other direction, dismissing her son’s pain as trivial. She listens, and sympathizes, but remembers in her heart that “this too shall pass,” even if it truly seems devastating to him at the moment.

Lawrence J. Cohen

(First appeared in Parenthood.com.)

The Ten Talents of Parenting: Reaching Out

Reaching Our for Support

Do you get enough support? No? I didn’t think so! Most parents
don’t. We may refuse to admit to ourselves that we even need it, or we may know we need it, but are
embarrassed to ask for it. We might not believe we deserve any help, or we might feel there’s
nobody out there willing or able to support us.

Another obstacle to reaching out is all the “helpful” advice and “constructive” criticism we receive from friends and relatives. This type
of help can make us feel like we are better off handling everything alone, no matter how hard that
is. We may have forgotten what true support feels like. But don’t give up. Keep looking and you’ll
find someone who recognizes that you are doing your best, who enjoys your children just as they are,
and who can listen to you without judging you.

Support can come in unexpected ways. I
remember one day, back when my daughter was 3 or 4, we were having a big argument. I don’t remember
what it was about, but I do remember that she kept yelling at me to leave her room. Each time I
started to leave, though, she would grab my leg and scream for me to stay. We were both extremely
frustrated.

I thought about calling my friend Kris to complain. She had a son about the same
age as Emma, and we often had good conversations about tricky parenting situations. So I started to
leave Emma’s room again, and she grabbed me again. This time, I said, “I’m going to call Kris.”
She let go of my leg, pushed me out the door, and said, “You go call Kris.”

By the time
Kris answered the phone I had forgotten our fight because I was laughing so hard at the fact that
Emma knew perfectly well what the situation needed – for me to collect some support, to get a little “fresh air” from someone not caught up in the immediate battle we were having. After that phone
call, Emma and I had no trouble reconnecting.

It’s still hard to reach out though. We all
have things we’re embarrassed to admit. Some parents really need a break, but they don’t want
anyone to see how messy their house is. If that rings a bell, check out the strange and wonderful
Web site FlyLady.org. The Fly Lady’s name comes from the phrase First Love Yourself, and she helps
people with CHAOS (Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome) and other homemaking dilemmas. Once you’re
over that hurdle, you’ll be more able to reach out for the support you need.

Of course, even
the Fly Lady won’t come over and do your dishes, but every aspect of parenting goes smoother and
easier if we can arrange more practical support (such as childcare that allows a much-needed break
or some good one-on-one time with just one child) and more emotional support (such as validation for
what a good job we’re doing – especially if it doesn’t feel like it).

Whenever parents meet
to tell their true stories of the joys and struggles of raising children – like at a mom’s or
dad’s support group – everyone’s feelings of hopelessness and isolation go way down, confidence
levels go way up, and day-to-day parenting improves as well. We usually don’t need someone to tell
us what to do, but we do need someone to listen to us think it through – and maybe let us cry on
their shoulder a little, too. This isn’t the same as complaining. Real support requires telling
deep secrets about our wishes, fears, hopes and dreams as a parent. If we don’t share these secret
feelings, they tend to keep us isolated and stuck in old patterns.

So try picking a friend
who seems like a good listener, or it could be your spouse/partner, one of your parents or a
co-worker. Take just five minutes to talk about what’s going well and what you could use a hand
with. Make it clear that you don’t expect him or her to fix the problem, just to lend some
emotional support (though if she offers to do your dishes, all the better!). Then ask if you can
listen to his or her parenting concerns for five minutes.

Whenever I suggest this idea,
parents always look at me like I’m nuts: Why on Earth would they “waste” 10 minutes on something
like that? But I keep suggesting it because I keep hearing back from people who have tried it; they
all say that sharing this listening time daily or weekly is what gets them through parenthood in one
piece.

One more thing, while we’re on the subject of reaching out. Most of us parents have
received dirty looks when we were struggling with a temper tantrum in public or involved in some
other humiliating parenting disaster. So when we see someone else in the same boat, let’s remember
to support them, offer to help them out, instead of passing on those dirty looks and rolling eyes.

Lawrence J. Cohen

(First appeared in Parenthood.com.)

The Ten Talents of Parenting: Connection

Focusing on Relationship to Ease Power Struggles with Your Child

When my daughter was just starting kindergarten, we had big battles over getting dressed. She would whine, “I can’t get dressed by myself, you have to help me.” I knew perfectly well she could get dressed on her own – she had been doing it for months – so I found this very aggravating. But guess who always wins a power struggle like this? I could never prove that she could dress herself, but she could easily prove that she couldn’t!

One day, in desperation, I picked up two bears from her bed and made one of them say, in a goofy voice, “She can’t get dressed by herself, she’s only 5 years old!”

Then I had the other one say, “Oh, yes, she can! She is Emma! She can do anything!”

Emma giggled, so I kept going. I had the snide bear say, “She doesn’t even know her pants from her shirt!”

Emma put on her pants and said, “Look!”

The bear turned around and said, “Oh, your Dad must have helped you.” The encouraging bear said, “Oh, no, he didn’t, she did it all by herself!”

In a few minutes she was all dressed, amid laughter instead of screaming. On the way to school, Emma asked me if we could play that same game the next day. I was a little worried we’d be playing it every day, but we ended up just playing it a few more times, and the power struggle vanished.

Through this game, I discovered that the real issue was connection. Most parenting difficulties boil down to a simple need for more connection. When children and parents aren’t feeling warmly connected, they tend to be uncooperative, whiny, demanding, selfish and prone to endless power struggles.

In the “good old days,” I had helped Emma get ready for preschool. But now that she was in kindergarten, she was required to dress herself. “What’s next?” she may have been wondering, “Are they going to make me get a job and an apartment?”

Putting in a few minutes of playful connecting time beforehand saved time in the end, from all the nagging and fighting we weren’t doing anymore. But when our kids are acting up, we don’t feel like reconnecting. We were probably already frustrated or upset, since that’s usually when they behave the worst. And their behavior does nothing to soothe our frazzled nerves.

As Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., and Gabor Maté, M.D., say in their book, Hold On To Your Kids (Ballantine Books, 2005), “the will to connect must be in the parent before there is anything positive for the child to respond to.” In their excellent chapter on “discipline that does not divide,” the authors suggest using connection, not separation, to bring children into line, and they encourage parents to connect before trying to direct. In other words, without making a connection first (through physical touch, eye contact, friendly words), the directions we give are likely to be ignored or resented.

Ellen Robertson, the mother of a 2-1/2-year-old boy, sent me an email describing her successful use of connection:

One day, my son Aaron was getting into more and more things around the house and my husband and I were saying, “No, no, no.” Finally, he pulled the power cord out of the TV antenna. I said, “That’s it!” But then I thought, “Yeah, and what now?”

I decided to try connecting with him instead of getting angrier. I sat down near the TV and pulled him onto my lap. He calmed down right away. It felt good. I think doing that gave me a moment to understand that my husband and I had been doing chores for a while, not paying much attention to him. I asked him if he wanted to plug the cord back in, and he did (it wasn’t dangerous). After that he was so happy the rest of the morning.

Before that I would never have considered trying to connect with a child who was being “bad.” I thought I needed to discipline by giving stern choices. I would have thought that being nice in any way would reward children for their bad behavior. It’s funny to me to even write that last sentence, because I think so differently now.

Lawrence J. Cohen

(First appeared in Parenthood.com.)

The Ten Talents of Parenting: Self-Acceptance

How to End the Blame Game

Most parents struggle with feeling inadequate or incompetent. One
key talent of parenthood is letting go of self-criticism and self-blame. How have you nurtured
acceptance of yourself, acknowledgment that you’ve always done the best you could – even if you
wanted to do better?

A few years back, my friend Helen asked me if I would teach a class for
parents who are always blowing up at their kids. I suggested she call around to her friends and
acquaintances to see if she could drum up enough interest for a class.

She was horrified. “Oh no,” she said. “You don’t understand, none of my friends do this, only me.”

I
suggested that she ask them anyway. A few days later she called me back: “I have a group all ready
to meet. Everyone I asked about it laughed and said they thought they were the only ones who felt
this way, and they couldn’t believe that I did!”

I often think about Helen and her friends
when I hear good, committed parents tell me how terrible they are. So I started collecting parents’
self-criticisms. We parents have a lot of them! Sometimes at lectures I will read this list out
loud, asking people to raise their hand for each one that applies to them. I frequently have to
raise my own hand – and not just to make people feel better.

As the list goes on, everyone is
soon laughing, looking around to see who else has their hands up, and nodding in support of one
another. I think that laughter is the best response to these types of harsh and hostile attacks on
ourselves. Our usual responses – believing them, replaying them constantly in our heads or piling up
evidence to “prove” they are true – haven’t made us better parents.

Some common things
that parents feel bad about are:

  • not playing enough
  • getting bored playing
    (I have to raise my hand high on that one!)
  • feeling that they have ruined their children
    permanently
  • not knowing how to discipline
  • yelling too much

Sometimes the same people identify with opposite self-criticisms, such as “I didn’t
breastfeed long enough” and “I breastfed too long,” or “I’m too soft on my kids” and “I’m
too hard on my kids.” One of my recent favorites is this one: “I try to reason with my son too
much. (Nods of agreement.) And he’s 2 years old (wild laughter).”

I think that once these “terrible secrets” are spoken out loud, and we see that people we admire feel the same way, then
the heavy burden lifts and we can see once again that we are truly doing our best as parents. Sure,
there’s always room for improvement, but when you really have made a mistake, don’t beat yourself
up over it. Just apologize, or do whatever you need to do to repair the mistake. Then move on,
remembering that anyone who knew the whole story of your life would feel only compassion and
admiration for you, not criticism.

Letting go of self-criticism doesn’t mean that the
quality of our parenting doesn’t matter. But listening to that same old radio station, the one that
keeps playing that same lousy song, doesn’t help us or our children. So change the station! Find
one that celebrates your successes and accomplishments, or that treats you with tender sympathy –
not harsh put-downs – when you mess up.

Here’s a suggestion for transforming those familiar
old self-criticisms into something more constructive in your life:

  1. Make a list of the
    so-called failures and inadequacies that keep popping into your mind.

     

  2. Use that
    list as a guide to what you hold valuable in your life and in your parenting. For example, if you
    beat yourself up over not spending enough time with your kids, then clearly you value spending time
    together. If you scream at yourself for screaming at them, then you value treating children with
    respect.

     

  3. Now, take this new list of values and good intentions, and ask
    yourself a few questions. Where did this value come from? Who inspired it or modeled it for you? How
    did you keep it alive when things were very tough? Maybe no one in your family growing up valued
    respectfulness toward children or spending fun time together, but if those things exist inside you
    as goals or values, then you must have seen them somewhere and recognized that this was how you
    wanted to be as a parent.

     

  4. Ask yourself, “When have I acted in line with this
    deeply held value of mine?” Keep asking yourself until you remember times when you took steps in
    that direction.

I predict that after this exercise you won’t just feel better as a
parent, you’ll also find yourself becoming the parent you’ve always wanted to be.

Lawrence J. Cohen

(First appeared in Parenthood.com.)