Category Archives: cognition

How To Stop Yelling

angry-argue-argument-343.jpgVisualizing Behavior

Do you want to keep your cool when life isn’t going your way? Do you wish you didn’t bark at the kids when they’ve done something you dislike?

Visualization can help.

Visualization helps us improve our performance. Long-touted as an essential tool by athletes and professional musicians, we now know that positive thinking is not the reason that people feel they perform better with these techniques. Visualization is effective because thinking about practicing a skill changes the brain as if you had actually practiced the skill.

This is fantastic news if you struggle with any skill in your life–not just physical ones. Using visualizations can help you overcome social anxiety, make healthy choices, and best of all, keep calm during stressful times.

Instead of picturing yourself kicking the perfect touchdown into the goal (sports isn’t my thing), you can picture yourself responding with composure to life’s hiccups.

“Negative” Visualization

I tend on the negative side of things. I tend to worry more about very bad things happening than hoping very good things will. I tend to want to diminish my worst behavior and ignore whether my best behavior gets better. This is a default, not a recommendation–but there is something to be said for paying close attention to your liabilities.

While I visualize smiling each day while I do my exercise, I spend more time visualizing reacting better in my worst situations. Better still, I try to focus on being the kind of person who responds rather than reacts.

Try to think of a single, concrete situation that you respond poorly to. Do you yell whenever a glass of milk is spilled? Do you shut down whenever your child says unkind words to you? Do you hide if the house gets too loud? Just start with one thing.

And then picture yourself responding to that situation in the ideal way.

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Imagining Imagining

For some of us, that is impossible. Calmly reacting in a threatening situation isn’t “who we are”. We can’t even come up with a fantasy world where that would happen.

So–and I know this sounds silly, but trust me–imagine that you can imagine yourself responding perfectly. This worked for me.

I could not imagine being the kind of person who could give an uninflected “Yes” or “No” to questions that start with, “Did you remember to…?”

But I could imagine a theoretical world where I could imagine that possibility.

And now, at least some of the time, I am that kind of person. I’ve spent a minute or two for months picturing Amelia effortlessly saying, “No, I didn’t remember. I’ll do that tomorrow,” or “Yes, I did!” without any resentment in her voice.

Try to use visualization to improve your behavioral floor–the worst of your reactions. Practicing in the moment is often too hard because the reason you react so poorly is that you are hurt, scared, angry, or sad. Being removed from the situation allows us a safe place to exercise our self-control.

 

How to HEAL (With a Challenge)

Hardwiring Happiness


Hardwiring Happiness is a book about taking your everyday experiences and using them to build inner strengths. When you have certain characteristics like self-compassion and curiosity, you can call upon them during times of frustration and difficulty–but more importantly, they serve you well in everyday moments. Learning to appreciate the small things your partner does, pulling back on an argument with your child, and taking courageous steps towards accomplishing your goals all become easier when you have a wealth of inner resources.

How it Works

If you have a passing familiarity with pop neuroscience, you know the phrase “neurons that fire together wire together.” Your brain is an association machine and when we make associations, we learn. In his book, Dr. Rick Hanson calls upon you to use the brain’s knack for association to resource yourself–to H.E.A.L. the parts of yourself that are wounded and thrive in your daily life.

Metta meditation asks you to cultivate compassion. You do this by focusing on your heart, repeating the same phrase, and being aware of what compassion feels like in the body. The sustained attention to the emotion helps it grow and fill you up.

Hardwiring Happiness is asking you to apply the same general practice to your other inner strengths.

(In the Alert Authentic Mindful Group on Facebook, we are doing a 21-day challenge inspired by Dr. Rick Hanson’s book. Hardwiring Happiness. Please join us!)

Why You Should Do It

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Dr. Hanson spends the first part of the book going over some of the science and answering the question Why we want to learn the skills he is going to teach us in the second half of the book.

Our brains have a negativity bias. This is in our evolutionary past *not* noticing a pretty flower is okay; *not* noticing a tiger means death. Hardwiring Happiness is not about ignoring tigers. There are and always will be negative things in our lives that we need to pay attention to–and actually, some experiences that feel bad are good for us in the long run.

That does not mean that we should ignore the positive or leave it to our brains to notice it. We want to help our minds pay attention to the lightness and the dark–to quit giving undue attention and power to the negative.

The Human Default

Our world is vastly different today than in our evolutionary past. For our ancestors, serious stress was related to serious stress. Tigers, fear of banishment, and snakes. Sadly, our brains cannot tell the difference between these very real threats to our lives and too much traffic on the highway. We have so many stressors today, including but not limited to the intense and frequent technology stress that we get from renewing our Facebook page. Stress reactions used to be occasional but they are now frequent. Our bodies are now in a constant state of reactivity which is not good for our health, mental or physical.

Responsiveness, as opposed to reactivity, used to be our norm. There weren’t lions around every corner. In social situations, we were less knee-jerk and more of the present and open.

This book will help give you the tools to return to that state or responsiveness by paying attention to the positive around us and turning mental states into neural traits by helping strengthen the bonds between neurons that focus on the beneficial in your daily life.

The Method

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Follow this simple acronym: HEAL

H: Have an experience

E: Enrich

A: Absorb

L: Link

Have an experience: This is the easy part. This month, some experiences will just crop up during the course of your day; some you might have to create for yourself.

Enrich: Think of moments when you naturally feel complete. People often have them on vacation or during the holidays–they look around at their family members and their surroundings and are overwhelmed with gratitude.

You can create this kind of feeling by taking time out of your day to enrich positive experiences. While it may not envelop you in the way it does when it comes naturally, you can make it a much bigger part of your life.

Absorb: This step will often happen at the same time as enrich. As you are making the experience bigger and more embodied, visualize it sinking into you. Maybe you like the idea of gold dust sinking into your center; or maybe you want to picture electricity pulsing in your brain and creating your experience. Whatever it is, try to make the beneficial feeling more apart of you.

Link: One of the reasons that our memories of the past are so bad is because each time we recall them, we can modify them. We can use this little quirk of our brain to heal parts of us that are hard to handle.

When you “link,” you hold the positive experience in the forefront of your mind and call up a negative experience–holding it on the sidelines. Over time, this will gradually make those parts sting less.

HEALing is not about denying the negative in our lives, just paying the beneficial its due. 

(Please join us! We are already on day 4 of our challenge!)

If you have the time, listen to Dr. Rick Hanson go over some of the concepts on his podcast.

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babies are people

Babies Are People

Because they don’t talk. Because we support them. Because they need so much. Because we are all they have.

It is sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to remember that our babies are people too. They have their own needs, wants, and struggles.

Difficult Times

My partner experienced this recently when he kindly offered to take our four-month-old son for a while so could relax.

Our four-month-old sleep-regression-and-developmental-leap-having son.

He was not the easiest he has ever been.

My boyfriend remarked in his wisdom that he could see how people sometimes forget that babies are people.

My boyfriend, obviously, is not alone in this. We had spoken about it. I have had that feeling. We all have that feeling.

Little Baby “Thoughts”

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While we’ll never know exactly what babies think—although that’s not quite the right word—I try to put myself in their shoes. I try to think of having a pain and not knowing how to resolve it. I try to think of being alone and not knowing if I’ll ever see anyone again. I try to think of needing help, and the people I care for most withholding.

Of course, my son’s thoughts are nowhere close to this coherent. Babies are people, too, but he has just come out of creature mode. He is just waking up to the world. His emotional system is just coming online, and he can begin to respond with reactions other than fight, flight, freeze or faint.

But even without the cognition, the important thing is there. The feelings are there.

And to me, they sound very difficult and very frustrating.

No Theory of Mind

I try not to go in the other direction, either. There are people who prescribe far more cognitive abilities to children than they have. I probably tend on this side, though I can usually catch myself.

Infants don’t have a theory of mind—they don’t know that you’re making choices and thinking thoughts different and independent from theirs. They don’t understand your motivations.

When my son is uncomfortable or in pain, I sometimes wonder if he is thinking, “Why won’t you just solve this? You’re so big, so strong. You can do so much. Please make this pain stop.”

But he doesn’t think that. He just feels: “I don’t want this!”

As he ages, he may start assigning blame. It will have to do with his temperament, and the sort of culture we set up in our household. Whether he blames me, himself, the world, or realizes that there is no need to sign blame, our ideas and attitudes towards are discomfort are going to have some effect on him.

Being Present

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But for now, my goal is just to remember that he is a person. He is not an inanimate objects that I can force my desires on, and he is not a full grown adult prescribing malintent. He’s neither a manipulative psychopath trying to pull from me every resource that I have nor plant requiring just a bit of water and a touch of sun.

All that I can do is respond consistently to his cues. This doesn’t mean perfectly, and this doesn’t mean immediately. It means recognizing that he is trying to communicate his needs and wants to me and responding to them sensitively.

Sometimes, he will cry while he is in my arms, but if he is with me, he will be fine. And if I can see him and stay with him there without demanding he feel some other way, then I will, too.

 

Cry It Out

It is not possible to spoil your baby. Anything that your baby wants, your baby needs. If that is food, if that is sleep, or if that is just your attention.

Attention is not inconsequential to a human’s life. Because we are social creatures, others attention a is fundamental to our survival.
We are used to saying that babies only have one means of communication: Crying. That is not quite the truth. Read anything about breastfeeding, and it will tell you to look for other signals before they start to cry. Rooting, chewing on their fingers, behaving restlessly. The quicker you are to respond to these small signals, the easier it will be for baby to remain in a state of emotional regulation.

Mild Deprivation
We know that extreme deprivation of parental care causes huge problems for an infant. Famous studies were done in Romanian orphanages where they found out that children who were not touched or paid attention to had higher rates of criminality and drug use. They were in worse health and more likely to suffer from mood disorders.
The literature is less definitive on sleep training and other practices that involve the intentional decision to allow your baby to cry without responding.
What the literature is very clear on, though, is that responding to your child’s cues is never going to be the wrong thing to do. Especially not for an infant.

The point of argument is whether or not cry-it-out, as it is know, is negative or neutral; not whether or not responding is a bad thing. There are some physicians who will tell you that without sleep training, your child will fall into sleep dysregulation–some go even as far as to call co-sleeping or nursing to sleep a “sleeping disorder.”

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Sleep Associations
We all use what are called “sleep association” to get us to bed. Very few of us just conk out where ever and whenever. If you look for tips on the best way to get a good night’s sleep, you will again and again come across two suggestions: (1) Make your bedroom only for sleep; and (2) create a routine. Because our brains are association machines, you will automatically be put into a state of ease if you use these tools.
Anyone who is calling using your mother as a sleep association a disorder is drawing an arbitrary and unhelpful line.
While evolutionary psychology is often just-so, I think it is useful to note that babies would have slept with and been nursed by their mother’s for most of human history. While we should be wary of people using naturalistic arguments to push their view, using our past is not a bad default to move from.

Cortisol
What made the children in Romanian orphanages ill equipped to handle life?
It has to do with their cortisol levels. Cortisol is a chemical that is released in response to stress. Too much of it is linked with bad health outcomes.
Since we know at least one of the mechanisms that leads to poor life-outcomes, we can ask specific questions. Does cry-it-out release enough cortisol to produce negative, long lasting effects?

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Hyporesponsitivity
One of the most fascinating things about babies and young children is that they actually don’t produce much cortisol, even when they are crying a lot. This is called the period of hyporesponsitity, and you can read more about it here.
Hyporesponsivity essentially means that while you see your baby or toddler getting red in the face, crying, or having a tantrum, their brains aren’t reacting as if they’re in a stressful situation. It is hard to illicit a boost in cortisol, even if we can see that our children are having a very difficult time.
We don’t know why the brain does this in those early years of rapid neurological development, but we know it does. We also know that brains bathed in cortisol early in life set up their organism for failure, so it makes sense that it has some way to protect itself.
There is one easy way to get a baby or toddler’s brain to start producing cortisol, though: Remove their caregiver.
Our small ones use us as a buffer against stress. We mediate their emotions because they can’t.

Distress vs. Eustress
But isn’t stress good for us?
We will encounter stress throughout our lives. Some of that stress will make us more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, and some of it will make us better, stronger people. We can distinguish between these two kinds of stress. One is distress, which is negative; and the other is eustress, which is positive.
Eustress is short-term stress where we believe that we can cope with the demands on us. It is motivating. Taking on new job or hobby are examples of good stress. Distress can be long-term or short-term and it makes us feel like we do not have the tools we need to be successful. Unemployment and a death in the family are example of bad stress.
Are babies experiencing eustress or distress during CIO? Is it chronic stress or does it get interpreted as acute stress?

Inoculation
There is a phenomenon called stress inoculation. If you are exposed to a small amount of stress, you will slowly grow the ability to deal with more and more stress in your life. That is, you’ll subjectively perceive instances as eustress that you may otherwise have perceived as distress, if you have encountered similar struggles before. You will grow your window of tolerance for difficulty.
Studies have shown that baby monkey’s who experience short periods of separation from their mother’s in early life tend to be less anxious later in life.

Answers
This information my awareness of the need to focus on integration. My children and I need to be linked but distinct parts. Sometimes that calls for closeness and comfort, and sometimes that calls for standing apart.

As much as I’d like for the answer to fall definitively on my side–that what my gut tells me is right, is right–humans aren’t that simple. We might never have the answers we need to rest comfortable in our judgementalness of other’s choices.

How To Help Your Child Tell the Truth

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There is your beautiful daughter sitting next to the fridge, on the floor. Laying right next to her is an empty Snickers wrapper. She has chocolate all over her face and hands. She is smiling and licking her fingers. She looks up and sees you. She looks scared, guilty.

You ask her, “Did you eat that candy bar?”

And she looks you straight in the eyes and says, “No.”

How could she do that? You can tell from her look that she knows that what she did was wrong. And she is sitting there telling you a lie right to your face even though you know what she did!

More and more, this is happening. She lied about hitting her little brother. She lied about breaking the vase. What is going on with her?

I mean, doesn’t this four year old have a strong moral compass?

The answer is: Of course not.

She understands that she is saying something that isn’t true, but she doesn’t understand that it is wrong.

Because we so often note that children are the same as us—just developmentally different—we often imbue them with characteristics they don’t have. Like the ability to understand morality. Or abstract reasoning at all.

In reality, your child is not telling you a lie. Not with any of the connotation that this word comes with. She is making pretend because she doesn’t want to get in trouble and she wants you to be happy with her.

She looks guilty because our children understand our cues, and understand what has happened in the past. This sort of social-emotional reasoning is most of what they’re doing age 7, when they begin to develop more sophisticated views of the world.

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When lying, your child is doing an excellent job building the skills she will use later as the foundation for her moral reasoning. In particular, lying shows she is developing a theory of mind. She is beginning to understand that your mind isn’t a copy of her mind, and that both of you can think things that aren’t real. It is not a coincidence that lying appears in all children around that time that pretend play with monsters and tea parties begin. She is becoming extremely skilled at reading your tone of voice, body language, and facial expression to find out what you’re thinking and wanting from her. It’s a developmental leap!

What she is not doing is trying to “deceive” you in the traditional sense. She is trying to please you.

She is not yet at the point where she can exercise much self-control. So, instead of asking: how can I get my child to stop lying? Ask instead: how can I set my child up for success?

The first answer is not giving them a chance to “make pretend” that they didn’t eat the candy bar. Just say they did it and talk about what that means for now and what that means for the future. “You ate the candy bar. We are going to have to pick up our mess. In the future, you try not to eat that food when mom asks you not to; and mom will try not to make it so easy for you to reach!”

I always try to tell the child I take responsibility for setting them up. I say, “Hey, I made a mistake there.” I say it with a laugh and a smile. “Why’d I leave that out there! Of course you wanted that candy bar! Mommies can be so silly sometimes, huh?” This is not to guilt them, but to say demonstrate understanding and model character—you really do need to take responsibility for doing that. You don’t leave firearms and knives out because you don’t want them touching those things, so don’t leave out your candy and chocolate, either.

Nobody has to feel bad about what has happened. You have more information for the future, and your child just did what you would expect a child to do: eat a yummy thing and not want their parents to be mad at them.

You can also accept their make pretend at face value and move from there.

“Did you eat that candy bar?”

“No! A dinosaur did!”

“Okay. Can you help me clean up the dinosaurs mess?”

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This conversation can be used to illicit the truth out of them, or to talk about how you’re not mad at the dinosaur. You can use this make-pretend to talk about how it’s okay to make mistakes, and it may make your child interested in saying that it was them. If they help to wash up and cooperate, then they’re being pro-social, which is fantastic and a real consequence of what they did.

You can also just ask your child if it is “For real or for pretend?” Again, take it out of the moral realm. They aren’t bad or good for what they did; it is just what they did.

We do want to encourage truth-telling in our children. We don’t do this by using shame and disappointment. Feel free to make it clear, calmly, that you prefer the truth. “I didn’t like that you played pretend when I asked you that. I won’t be mad at you when you make mistakes.”

You can also use a lie as an opportunity for connection and creativity. Again, just stating the situation can be a starting point for this.
“No! A dinosaur did it!”

“That’s so silly. I know you ate the chocolate, but that’s a good story. Can you tell me more? Can we draw a picture?”

When you take away the incentive to lie—anger, punishment, etc.–then your child will be less interested in doing it. It’s not that it will stop altogether; and if they’ve been punished often for it, it will take a while to earn their trust in this area. Mention that you like truth, but don’t give them a 5 minute spiel about it. It doesn’t help their understanding. A kiss and a “Next time, you can just tell me you did it, okay?” will suffice.

At toddler age, lying is very simple and is easy to detect. While we do want to emphasize the importance of truth telling, the best way to do this is not by talking about telling the truth, but by showing that we are allowed to make mistakes without being punished. That our love is not based on performance. This sets the stage for honesty later in life when their ability to lie gains subtlety and complexity. It will count when what they can choose to hide is much more important than a candy bar.

When our children are struggling and making mistakes are the times we most need to connect with them. Lying is another opportunity to do this.

Why You Should Say No

If you ask your husband to go to dinner at your favorite restaurant, and he says he doesn’t want to go there, how does that feel?

If you ask your best friend if she can come over because you are feeling sad, but she is unable to, how does that feel?

Do either of these situations stir up in you a feeling that these people in your life are rejecting who you fundamentally are as a person?

Of course not.

Or, I certainly hope not.

You are able to understand that your desires don’t take priority at all times. You know it doesn’t mean your family and friends don’t love you.

What if your partner told you no, you can’t go to that restaurant? What if he locked you in your room because you asked too many times?

You would quickly, I hope, leave this relationship.

How would you feel if you asked your partner to go to the restaurant and he said yes? And then he sat looking miserable the whole time, maybe even snapping at you? How would you feel if when you got home, he quickly rushed around from task to task, exasperated with all the things he had to do because he spent time with you? He wakes up the next day exhausted, unable to give of himself. And in the back of your head, you know he is thinking: This is your fault!

Would that feel good to you? Would you feel like your partner valued his time with you? Do you want your partner constantly draining themselves in order to feed your every little desire?

Of course not.

Or, I certainly hope not!

We have a deep desire to make our children feel that we are on their team. We want for them to feel validated in being their authentic selves.

The best way to do this is stop viewing children as fundamentally different from adults. They are only developmentally different. They have the same needs as us, largely. To be loved. To feel understood. To be mentored in things that they don’t yet understand.

It sucks when we don’t get what want. Of course we want what we want. That’s why we want it. But we can deal. Our reactions are mild.

Kids cannot control their emotions in the same way that adults can. They’re developmentally different. Very young children do not have impulse control yet. Even once it begins to develop, the decision-making part of your brain isn’t fully developed until early adulthood.

But does that mean that they feel that a “no” answer is a fundamental violation of who they are as a person? No. It doesn’t. All that it means is that they don’t have the tools yet to manage their own disappointment.

Not getting what you want already sucks. It would be much worse if people were yelling at us, lying to us. If they were trying to help, but feeling guilty and stressed. If they were slowly building resentment towards us.

I would rather have no favors done for me than ones with that price tag.

Kids ultimately feel the same way, even if they can’t say it. They can handle a “no”.

What they can’t handle is a parent who can’t handle saying “no.”

The Best Way to Help Your Child With Difficult Emotions

Your child is hurting. She asked someone at the park if they wanted to be her friend, and they said no. She feels embarrassed, scared, and sad. She doesn’t understand why someone doesn’t want to be her friend.

You’re an attentive parent. You hold her while she sobs. You keep brushing her hair back, kissing the top of her forehead, and telling her that it is going to be okay.

She cries and cries until she stops. You don’t get annoyed at all. You don’t tell her to suck it up. You tell her that you’ll play with her. You play together and then it is time to go home.

This is a good response. It may even be the response that you’ve worked really hard to give. Perhaps you used to find crying weak. Or maybe you used to want so badly to distract her from her feelings. You’d give her candy or throw a toy in front of her face. It has taken a while to get this far—to not feel irritated or stressed by her feelings, to let her have them. You’ve done it.

And you still need to do more.

Always, there is more to do.

What your child needs is called emotional coaching in Dr. Gottman’s Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child. This means, of course, allowing your child to have their feelings. But we need to move beyond that. She needs to be taught the tools to regulate her emotions, not just sit and feel them.

For my part, I’ve been excellent at feeling my feelings my whole life. I wear them on my sleeve. And when I get depressed, I plop myself right down on my bed and feel that deeply and non-stop, every moment of it. In fact, I was so comfortable with feeling my feelings that for a long time I just couldn’t muster up any interest or energy to change them.

This wasn’t a bad first step for me. There was a huge difference between when I fought my depression and hated myself for it, and when I accepted it and worked with it.

But after having identified and accepted that it was a problem, I tolerated it.

I could not have done anything else at the time. I did the best I could. I lacked the tools for self-regulation.

You are helping your child to accept their emotional world, which is a great foot to get them started on and far better than not allowing all of the “bad” emotions out in the world. Still, you can teach them more.

These are the five steps Gottman identifies in emotional coaching:

1. Become aware of the child’s emotional

Look at that! You’re already 20% there!

2. Recognize the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching

30% there? 40% there?

3. Listen empathetically, validating the child’s feelings

Oh snap, you’re awesome at that one. 50% there.

4. Help the child to find words to label the emotion he is having; and

70% there! I would add that you should help him identify the feelings are in his body, as well.

5. Set limits while exploring strategies to solve the problem at hand!

This last part is where most parents in the conscious parenting community slip up.

While Gottman’s work refers specifically to when the children are in conflict with their parents, the work applies universally. We can talk to our children about another person’s limits when they are having difficulty with someone else’s boundaries.

What does helping them find strategies to cope look like?

  • These are good times to practice mindfulness. Whether it is blowing out your finger candles or paying close attention to a tree, this is calming.
  • Talk about positive experiences. Discuss with your child something in the past or future that made them feel good. This doesn’t hide the negative thing that is happening; it allows them to step outside of the emotion for a moment to get a bigger picture of the emotional world they’re in.
  • Walking/jumping. Physical activity calms us down and resets us.
  • Calm jars. Shake these up! I like the idea of designing different ones for different feelings. This can aid young children in identifying the emotions they’re feeling.
  • Story telling. Story telling can bring us outside of ourselves, help strengthen our theory of mind, and transport us. They help us to see things from others perspective and make sense of our behaviors. Read your child a book, or tell a glamorized version of the story that just happened from one or both points of view.

At a young age, you’ll help children to identify their emotions and teach them ways to cope with them. As they get older, you can elicit the feelings from them and ask them how they’d like to cope. Feelings are difficult to handle. The decision-making part of your teenagers brain isn’t fully wired up, so they’re still relying largely on emotions to lead them. They still need your help. You’ll have to validate their emotions and remind them that they have these tools at their disposal for a long time coming.

Practice

  1. Pick one coping technique that you will practice with your child. For now, just one. The comfort of familiarity helps to calm us.

Please leave a comment telling me what other coping techniques you’ve taught your child. Have friends visit this post and tell us their techniques so that we can update the list and make it a resource.