Thursday, December 5, 2013

Lessons in Parenting

Parenting is the great equalizer. I've said before that it is the toughest job we will ever do. In minutes it can completely humble us and bring us to our knees. But when done well it is incredibly rewarding. I know that for me each day seems to present me with opportunities for success and also failure. I often feel I say the wrong thing - respond the wrong way - regret a missed opportunity to teach my girls a valuable lesson. As I fumble along on this parenting journey I feel so very lucky to have access to those with great wisdom on all things parenting.

I was recently introduced to Cristina Young. We met and I immediately knew she had a warm and accessible energy - just what appeals to children of all ages.
Cristina has a master’s in social work with degrees from Columbia University and the University of Southern California. She is a psychotherapist in private practice with offices in Greenwich and Stamford, CT. Cristina specializes in working with families and children, and has worked extensively as a parent educator. She brings a strong background in education to her practice and has worked as a school counselor, teacher, curriculum developer, and admissions officer in a variety of both public and private school settings here in Connecticut, as well as in New York, California, Hawaii, and Maryland. As a social worker, Cristina has worked in a variety of settings including family counseling centers, group homes for abused children, hospitals and medical clinics, and in foster/adopt programs. Cristina uses a family systems lens to work in a relational and holistic way with families. She is a unique asset to parents and children navigating the school-age years. Cristina and her husband have three children, ages 14, 11, and 9.

Cristina Young

Q&A with Cristina Young, of Cristina Young Therapy

Who is your ideal client?

One ideal client is a parent or set of parents who is/are looking for advice on how to parent effectively while maintaining some sense of balance in all the other roles they play in their life. I like providing psychoeducation about developmental norms for children and I enjoy helping parents manage the angst and excitement of each phase.

Another ideal client for me is a child who might be struggling with anxiety, anger, sibling conflicts, depression, social skills issues, or any other problem that might cause the child to be frustrated, upset, sad, or confused. When I work with children, I also meet with the parent(s) fairly regularly to tell them about my observations of their child and to educate them about what the whole family might need to work on to support this child.

What sorts of issues can you help to work on and heal?

I help parents to figure out their roles as Mom and Dad and exactly what those roles entail in their family. I help parents figure out better ways to communicate with their children, to set appropriate boundaries, to open up about vulnerabilities, and to support their child as s/he manages obstacles. I enjoy mapping out better organizational systems with parents so that their family can run more efficiently and pleasantly--with less yelling and upset.
I help children to find their voice, to advocate for themselves, to navigate difficult social situations, and to take pride in who they are. My work with children has ranged from helping with severe anxiety to playground dynamics to sibling rivalry to coping mechanisms in the classroom. I help kids deal with bedtime problems, self-image issues, poor organizational skills, weak resilience, low self-esteem, anger problems, and immature social skills. I role-play endlessly with kids. I ask them to stand in the shoes of their “bully” or “tormentor” to help them gain perspective. I give them homework and ask them to challenge themselves to accomplish a certain number of goals before the next time they see me. We draw, play, use clay, puppets, bubbles, stickers. I find out what the child enjoys and I try to make sure I have it in my office. A child’s medium is play. The more they are at play with me, the more relaxed and open they can be. We find solutions together while we play and talk. The use of cognitive behavioral strategies allows me to help equip kids with tools that they take with them eventually so that they don’t need to see me any more.

At what point should parents ask for professional help?

This is a tough question which might generate a whole slew of answers depending on whom you ask. It’s best to know (as a parent) what the developmental norms are for each age so that you can have a very general sense of how your child compares to the norms. A good rule of thumb, however, is this: if your child often wakes up in the morning already showing signs of distress or upset before ever encountering another person or handling any obstacle or stress, it’s probably a good idea to get help. Or if something is impairing your child’s ability to attend school, to enjoy his/her friends and activities, or to sleep/eat, it’s probably a good idea to get some help. It’s especially important to take note of whether or not what you notice about your child persists or interferes in some way. We all have a bad day or even a bad week, but if something is getting in your child’s way of performing his/her normal tasks as a child (going to school, enjoying friends/family/activities, and sleeping/eating normally), then it’s probably a good idea to seek out help. Remember, however, that it may take a little while to find someone you connect well with so don’t give up if the first person you consult with doesn’t feel right to you or your child.

How can parents best handle sibling rivalry and conflict? Is there a good way to highlight and validate differences?

Children often cannot articulate this truth, but they feel safest when clear rules and consequences exist in a family. The parents’ job is to apply these rules and consequences as consistently and fairly as possible while also teaching the children “we give each child what s/he needs.” Therein lies the rub. Each sibling needs something different because each sibling has a different temperament. Children would like to see us, the parents, apply the exact same rule the exact same way to each sibling regardless of age, physical needs, or emotional maturity. When we allow children too much room for comment about our parenting decisions, things get messy. Sibling rivalry comes from a deep, primal need to be cared for by our parents. Seen from a primal perspective, every sibling who enters the family threatens the chance of survival for the exisitng sibling as s/he demands attention, food, love, and care. Luckily, we, as parents, can navigate this reality by reassuring our children that there certainly is enough love to go around in our family. Parents do need to establish clear rules and clear consequences which are age-appropriate. This, alone, can help siblings feel that each child is held accountable for their behavior in the family. Parents also need to take a good look at each child’s areas of strengths and needs so that activities and plans for the family will suit each child on a rotating basis. I like to help parents establish a baseline of civility that must be upheld by all members of the family (including angry siblings) and for which a consequence exists (preferably established together as a family) if a transgression occurs. Parents can validate differences in their children by encouraging all members of the family to attend the special performances or tournaments or exhibitions of each other family member.

In a day and age where anxiety feels like the norm, what can parents do to help their children manage anxiety and pressure in school and sports?

Parents can start by “letting their children in on their self-talk.” Whenever a parent has a moment when s/he has to deal with a stressor in front of a child, allow that child to hear how you are coping inside your head. For example: Right after someone changes lanes without looking on the Merritt, say aloud, “I wish that guy hadn’t cut me off back there. That really made me angry. Ok. Calm down now. Breathe deeply. Not a big deal. Move on.” Every time you model this for your kids, you are showing them how you deal with stressful moments. Parents also can notice how much their child can handle and schedule them according to their child’s tolerance levels rather than scheduling them based on what’s convenient. Some children love to be heavily scheduled, while others feel exhausted and anxious without any down time. Speak openly and honestly with your children about these things---let them hear how you manage decisions about whether to accept or decline invitations based on your other commitments and on your tolerance level. If you have a more reticent child, invite him or her to write in a journal/diary and “secretly” exchange it back and forth with you by placing it under each other’s pillow. Sometimes kids will write what they won’t say out loud. Then you can write back without having to speak directly to a child who seems to be anxious or upset about something. Communication is key! Figure out a way to get your kid to open up--if not to you, then through a little journal, or to a trusted grandma or older cousin, a coach, a teacher or someone. Pressure builds for kids when they feel like they are the only ones suffering from something. The minute they know they are not alone, the pressure lightens a bit.

How can we help our children do their homework without doing it for them? What is the ideal homework environment?

We can start by having the supplies our children need in a centralized location. Ask your kids to help you set up a supply tray with pencils, pens, markers, erasers, white-out, Post-Its, glue stick, scissors, tape, stapler, and anything else they can think of that might help them stay focused at the homework table rather than getting up and searching around the house for an item. The kitchen table tends to work well because it’s in a central location and a parent/babysitter can be nearby to give assistance. Assistance on homework means helping to rephrase directions in a clearer fashion or giving an example of something that might clarify a problem. Siblings who do not have homework tend to present the greatest challenge in those harried after-school hours. Consider having a special shelf that only adults can reach with toys that are only available at certain times--namely during the homework/dinner prep time. The hope is that these toys are more desirable because they are only accessible during a certain window of time, and then they are put away again until the next day.

Obviously, the ideal homework environment is quiet. Sometimes classical music or quiet jazz turned on at the same time every afternoon can signify to all kids that it’s quiet time (whether that’s 15-30 minutes or quite a bit longer). Clever word problems, mazes, Plexers, or pictures to trace can be printed for little ones to do while older siblings are completing homework.

If a child does not understand a concept covered in a homework assignment--even after you rephrase the directions (not reteach the skill!), jot a note on the homework assignment (if your child is little) or ask the child to address the teacher directly (if the child is older) so that the teacher understands the gaps in the child’s understanding.

What is the difference between being a parent and being a friend? Are structure and consequences an important piece of the puzzle?

A parent is willing to enforce the rules. A friend bends the rules when it’s cool or convenient to do so. A parent knows that a teenager’s prefrontal cortex is not yet mature, which means that the teenager’s judgment is not always sound. A friend thinks that if their kid can talk a certain way or understand certain lyrics, they must be old enough to handle other (more adult) situations. Sometimes enforcing a rule means a child/a teen will not be happy for that minute or that hour or even that whole day. That’s okay. A parent’s job is to protect the child, and to teach the child right from wrong. Children feel safer when they know that someone is watching out for them and setting appropriate limits. Often times parents of teenagers attempt to be considered cool by their teen or their teen’s peers. This desire often comes at the expense of enforcing a rule or a limit on their teen. Fill your need to feel cool by getting the approval of your own (adults) peers--not that of your child. Be adult enough to know that sometimes your kid is going to dislike you because you enforced an uncool rule. Know that this means you are being a great parent. Kids are supposed to push back, and we are supposed to come down even harder on the rules that pertain to safety and judgment.

How is technology changing our children’s lives? How much is too much?

Technology is changing the way our children communicate with each other. Much has already been written on this, and I think we (as parents) are tiring of the discussion. It’s a tiresome conversation because no one actually knows how any of this will pan out for our kids. We are the generations who are living in the thick of it so we can only surmise about the consequences of all this screen time we are exposed to day and night. I think our job as parents is to teach kids balance. When we “tech out” too long, we need to shut down our laptop or turn off our Ipad and say aloud, “My eyes hurt. My head is foggy now. I can’t wait to get some fresh air!” We need to model balance regarding technology---the same way we model balance in our consumption of food, TV, material items, etc. Too much technology is probably when your child no longer enjoys interacting face-to-face with siblings, parents, or friends. We talk to our kids about the brain as a muscle--and that we need to use all parts of that muscle. If one of my kids seems to veer toward a screen by default when given a chunk of time to relax and play, I might point out that I can tell the other side of his brain is getting weak and needs some stimulation in the form of drawing, jumping on the tramp, playing with the dog, etc. It’s all about balance.

How can parents diagnose ADD or OCD? What are the signs and symptoms and at what point do you need a professional?

As I mentioned in answer to another question, if your child is struggling in a persistent (lasting a long time--not just a day or two), consistent (it happens every time you go to the playground or every time you pick him up from the bus) way, it might be time to start asking questions. I would not recommend that a parent attempts to diagnose something as complicated as ADD or OCD on their own. These types of diagnoses require attention from a professional as well as input from a variety of adults who interact with your child in different settings. Also, it’s important to note that you know your child best--better than any teacher, therapist, or doctor. Your observations of patterns, strengths, needs, nuances, and reactions your child has to people and places are most important, and a professional will eventually request these observations from you. If something seems amiss to you, start taking notes. Look for a pattern. Often behaviors (positive or negative) are tied to sleep or hunger so start there. Rule out anything physical, such as problems seeing or hearing, with appropriate testing. Sometimes a child appears to be distracted or “lazy,” but they actually can’t hear or see the directions. They may be too young or too embarrassed to speak up about this. If you have ruled out anything physical, then it may be time to request an evaluation from a professional. Be sure to communicate with your child’s teacher and/or advisor, as well. Their observations may surprise you and help you understand that the situation only seems to happen at home or vice versa. Gather all of your information and evidence before you jump to any conclusions.

What is your favorite piece of parenting advice?

Remember that you are a model--as a parent. Kids are always watching and observing what you say, what you do, the way you treat people, how you handle situations, how you conduct yourself in different settings, the way you handle your own parents/siblings/friends, your ethics, your habits. This does not mean you need to strive to be perfect. It simply means that teaching opportunities are plentiful. The more you teach, explain, communicate, and illuminate for your kids why you do what you do, the better chance you have at shaping their values and ethics.


Truly such good food for thought. I seek knowledge so I can be better, wiser, and more informed as a parent. Thank you Cristina Young for inspiring me to take my job as parent more seriously.

Cristina has just opened a new office as well! The space is big and bright with charming windows and lovely wood floors. The address is 45 East Putnam Ave. Suite 119. It's in the building with Ted the Tailor--right across from the YMCA.

Cristina Young: 


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