Holiday Time is Family Time

 By Dr. Jan Hittelman

The holiday season is supposed to be a time for family get-togethers and celebration. Most families look forward to this special time of the year. A time for renewal of the love and warmth that family represents. Too often, however, it becomes a time of family conflict and struggle. In the counseling industry, there is often a spike in referrals after school holidays. This is usually the result of underlying dysfunctional family dynamics flourishing in an environment of ongoing family interaction. Let’s open our “Happy Holiday Family Survival Kit” and consider the following strategies:

1. The L Word: Generally speaking, we are terrible at expressing our positive feelings for each other. On the other hand, we tend to be masterful at expressing our negative feelings. This is a critical issue within the family. As parents we often feel love, pride, and caring for our children, but rarely do we verbalize it. Our children and others are not mind readers and desperately need to hear it.
2. Quality Time: Consider empowering your children by giving them the opportunity to suggest some family activities. After they brainstorm a list of family activities, pick the ones that sound good to you and make an effort to do them. While all of your time need not be structured, too much boredom and down time often leads to negative behavior and conflict.
3. Choosing Your Battles: Focus on the big picture; having an enjoyable time as a family and try not to let the smaller discipline issues become the focus of family interaction. You can always provide minimal feedback, make a mental note, and revisit it after the holidays.
4. The L Word: I know I mentioned it already, but we really are terrible at it. Make an effort to provide your child with genuine positive feedback. When you feel something positive, make sure you verbalize it.
5. The Element of Surprise: Think about some activities that you know your children will enjoy (see #2) and surprise them with it, letting them know that you are doing it because of something positive that they have done in the recent past (see #4).
6. If All Else Fails, Consider the C Word: If despite all of these efforts significant family dysfunction continues then consider benefiting from counseling. In many cases, short-term family therapy with a skilled provider can result in significant outcomes.

The basic elements of love, nurturance, effective communication and empowerment are at the heart of what makes any family system strong. It just takes effort to nourish and maintain them. Happy Holidays!

Growing As Parents

By Dr. Jan Hittelman

For parents of middle and high school students, efforts to help their children achieve in school can often seem like a recipe for disaster. Due to adolescent development, all the ingredients are in place: impulsivity, questioning authority, desire for independence, and raging hormones + school! It’s a roller coaster ride for most families.

The most difficult challenge for parents is often making the shift from control to advice. When our children are young we are able to exert a significant amount of control over their behavior. As they move through adolescence, those techniques are less and less effective. This is because the task of adolescence is to individuate, to become an independent adult. This necessitates separating from parental control in order to develop self-control, to learn by experimenting and making mistakes, to develop an internal set of values, morals, and identity. Consequently this is a very challenging phase of development for adolescents and their parents. Shifting from control to advice recognizes your child’s developmental task and allows the parent to maintain and strengthen their relationship and influence.

In order to be more effective with your adolescent, consider the following suggestions:
• Show Respect: part of the shift to adolescence is the subjective experience of no longer being a child, yet having parents continue to treat you as a child. The reality is that on a physiological and developmental level they are at the very early stages of adulthood. In addition, if you don’t show your adolescent respect you will have difficulty getting respect from them.
• Be a Good Listener: Even before you give advice, you first want to give your adolescent every opportunity to share their feelings, viewpoints, even if you strongly disagree. There’s always time to give advice later.
• Use Empowerment: Give your adolescent more say over matters that concern him/her. Provide an opportunity to “try it their way” with the understanding that if it’s not successful, other strategies will be necessary. Barring unsafe situations, it’s important for them to learn by their mistakes as well as their successes.
• Connect Privileges with Effort: Consider linking privileges (e.g. curfew, driving, bed time, etc.) with accomplishing agreed upon tasks (e.g. school performance, chores, etc.)
• Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: More than ever you need to choose your battles, otherwise the battles will be endless. In addition, utilizing the strategies above will minimize the number of potential battles that you will have.

A common battleground for parents and adolescents is school. With the shift from control to advice, comes the premise that your adolescent needs to take ownership of their schoolwork. It should be made clear, for example, that if an adolescent wants parental help with school, it is their responsibility to request it. The ideal time to make this shift is during middle school, but it’s never too late. Our parenting strategies must grow and mature as our children grow and mature.

Dad Power!

 By Jan Hittelman

While there is no denying the amazing bond between mothers and their children, our culture tends to minimize the profound impact that fathers can have on their children’s health and well-being. Research has consistently indicated that the more fathers are involved in parenting, the healthier their children are. More specifically according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Children with involved, loving fathers are significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self-esteem, exhibit empathy and pro-social behavior compared to children who have uninvolved fathers. Committed and responsible fathering during infancy and early childhood contributes emotional security, curiosity, and math and verbal skills.” Learn more by visiting:

As a culture and a community, we need to do more to include fathers in parent training programs and help them to feel welcomed and valued as involved parents. Unfortunately, there is still a negative stigma for fathers that choose to become more involved in the parenting of their children. Consider going to the local park and seeing observant mom’s keeping an eye on their children. Add a male to that mix and thoughts of child molesters and adult males not belonging often emerge. As more and more dads find themselves in a primary caretaking role, we need to do more as a community to welcome them and help dads to feel accepted and supported. One effort involves providing fathers with more parenting resources, instead of making them feel excluded by offering what are often referred to as “mommy & me” classes.

Children & Divorce

By Jan Hittelman

Generally, half of all marriages end in divorce, although those numbers have gone down a bit because of our recent economic challenges. A key concern for divorcing parents is the affect that this will have on their children. We know that children of divorce are at-risk for a variety of negative emotional, behavioral, and academic impacts. Looking closer at the research, however, we learn that it’s not the divorce per say, but how the divorcing parents interact that contributes to children’s overall adjustment. Generally, the more caustic and negative the relationship is between divorced parents, the poorer the child’s adjustment will be. While divorce inherently creates tremendous conflict and friction between husband and wife, it is important to develop ways to move on and heal in order to maximize not only the children’s post-divorce lives, but those of the parents as well.

Parental Attention and Child Behavior

By Jan Hittelman

As people we tend to focus on the negative more than the positive. A reality that profoundly impacts all facets of our existence, including the way we parent.

All children have basic needs. There are, for example, basic physical needs. All children require food, air, water and shelter. In addition, children have basic emotional needs. These include the need for nurturance and attention. Children will do whatever is necessary to fulfill these needs.
Now here’s the crazy part – because we are naturally negative, we unwittingly train our children to get our attention through negative behaviors. The very behaviors we disdain in our children are often fueled by our own negative attention. We teach our children, for example, to bother us when we’re on the phone! Yes, we teach them to do that. We rarely, if ever, give our children positive feedback when they don’t interrupt us, and always give them negative feedback when they do.

The good news is that even small shifts in your parental attention will result in significant and often dramatic changes in your child’s behavior. If you’re like most parents, there are specific undesirable behaviors that you are frequently trying to correct in your child. You have seemingly endless “discussions” regarding these behaviors, try a variety of punishments, but to no avail. Chances are that after the undesirable behavior occurs, you’re giving your child negative feedback regarding it. At the same time, however, you’re also giving your child your time and attention as a consequence of the undesirable behavior. As a result, you’re actually reinforcing their undesirable behavior with your negative attention
Remember, children need parental attention and will do whatever they have learned to do in order to get it. That is why a key element to parenting success is teaching our children how to get our attention in more positive ways. The expression, “catch your child being good” sums it up.

When your child misbehaves, provide succinct minimal verbal feedback and whatever negative consequences result and that’s it. The time to lecture your child is later, at a calmer more neutral moment. You will be able to discuss it more rationally, with less anger and you will not be feeding into this negative attention- seeking behavior.

The goal is to teach your child to get your attention positively. Consider some of the behaviors that you would like to see your child improve. Pick one behavior that you believe your child could easily improve with a little effort. Define in your own mind the opposite or desirable behavior that you want to see more frequently. Write it down, being as specific about the behavior as possible. Make a deliberate effort to shift your parental attention (minimizing the negative and maximizing the positive). Try to catch your child being good; anytime you see the desirable behavior, provide positive feedback.

The Magic of Structured Activity Rewards

By Dr. Jan Hittelman

Over the course of many years working with elementary-age children, it became clear to me that the common denominator for the vast majority of my “behavior problem” clients was parental attention. All of this led me to discover the magic of Structured Activity Rewards.

When I would suggest this approach to parents, many would initially respond: “We’ve tried behavioral contracts, what else have you got?” What they didn’t realize was that these behavioral strategies sound easy (i.e. reward the good, punish the bad), but common pitfalls tend to sabotage the system. These pitfalls typically include: using an overly complicated system (usually including grids and charts), choosing unmotivating “rewards”, not including the child in the creation of the plan, no plan for phasing out the system, lack of clarity regarding the behaviors themselves, expecting perfection, bribing versus reinforcing and poor parental follow through.

The purpose of the Activity Rewards Contract is to ensure initial practice of the behavior(s) that we are encouraging the child to learn. Motivation and practice are essential ingredients towards learning new skills and behaviors. For children needing to improve their behavior, however, there is often an initial lack of motivation and subsequent practice of the skills required. Using structured activity rewards solves this problem. In addition, using parental time and attention as the primary incentive serves to enhance the parent-child relationship and improves the parent’s overall discipline technique. The system, then, attempts to retrain both child and parent.

By precisely following the steps outlined below, the results are often immediate and dramatic:
1. Decide on the specific behavior.
2. Brainstorm fun activities with your child.
3. Discuss the specific behavior with your child.
4. Negotiate the terms of the contract together and write it out.
5. Review the contract together and make corrections where needed.
6. Read and sign the contract.
7. Encourage success; be the “good coach”.
8. Monitor progress.
9. Follow-up as soon as possible with earned activity rewards.
10. Revise the contract as needed.
11. When appropriate, phase out the contract.

For more detailed instructions and examples of real case studies, you can download my book: “Parenting Essentials: Seven Steps to Parenting Success”, at no charge from our web site: