Kids Not Communicating: Are you speaking their language?

While I was kicking the soccer ball with a nine-year-old boy this week, it struck me that family conversations like The Family Meeting really need to be conducted outside in the fresh air. Who likes to be cooped up around the dinner table talking about what needs improving? I actually like the dinner table, ’cause it provides structure for conversations and easy opportunities for life lessons, not to mention the delicious food. But let’s just for a moment, consider that you might be willing to interact with your kids, teach them new skills and get close to their hearts with a bit of outdoor movement.

For many years, I have been working with families in their homes, teaching brain-based parenting skills. These families are kind, involved and caring. Often they have a child with a brain uniqueness such as ADHD. But increasingly, they are families just like yours where parents simply feel overwhelmed, children won’t do as they are told or home organization needs a bit of a touch up. Having earned my master’s degree in physical education longer ago than I care to admit, it has always struck me that when we play with our children they communicate better, feel more attached and even open up more.

So I’ve been thinking lately, “Are we speaking the child’s language or do we need to change things up?

What’s New? The past few years, I’ve been walking into homes with hoola-hoops, exercise balls and SPARKPE equipment, more than the traditional therapy fare. When we introduce families to the concept that we need to SEE IT, SAY IT, WRITE IT, PLAY IT and BUILD IT to LEARN IT, most families are game.

Where to start? Well you likely have sports equipment, lawn chairs, a chess set, a few games and other cool stuff in your home calling out to be used. You could make a portable family activities bag. I have a huge duffel bag I tote on wheels that has all sorts of goodies for engagement.

Inside are:

  • 3 marker boards
  • 10 expo markers
  • A set of base ten math blocks (kids love these for math, building or communicating)
  • 6 tennis balls
  • 6 polyspots
  • 3 cones
  • 1 dodge ball
  • 1 soccer ball
  • 1 deck of cards
  • White paper, graph paper, pens, stickers, glue, tape, scissors and more

What to do?

Got something on your mind? Want to know about your child’s day? Want to help your children practice taking turns and sharing? Family activities open the opportunity for exploration and learning.

A few fast ideas:

1. Kick the soccer ball back and forth, stand rather close together at first so that even beginners experience the feeling of accomplishment.

Now make a game out of it.

  • Parent: “Do you want to play the What’s the right thing to do game?”
  • Child: “No, I just want to play.”
  • Parent: “That’s right, we’ll play. I’ll name a situation when I kick the ball, then you can give me a good idea when you kick the ball. Let’s see.” “What’s the right thing to do when your classmate talks to you when you’re both supposed to be paying attention to the teacher?”
  • Child: “I just ignore him.”
  • Parent: “Right, good idea. What can you actually say?”
  • Child: “I can say, be quiet we’ll get in trouble.”

Change up the questions, give your child the opportunity to ask the questions when he or she gets familiar with the game.

You can have conversations about anything:

  • What family contributions (tasks) can the kids make in our home?
  • What can we do when Johnny takes our toys in the sandbox?
  • What do we do with our bodies when mom says, No!
  • What are three nice things we can do instead of rolling our eyes at our sister.
  • What are three things we can do as a family this weekend?

2. Bounce the tennis ball. There is nothing like rhythm to get the brain engaged. Alternate choosing a new rhythm to bounce the tennis ball to. I always have one ball for each person, bouncing the ball on your own is easier that bouncing it to another person.

3. Pass the talking ball. Are your kids all talking at one time? Identify one ball, stuffed animal or bean bag as the “talking ball.” When you sit or stand to talk as a family be it outside your car, at the kitchen table or in the store, if things get heated or muddled-up have one person hold the ball and only that person speaks everyone else listens.

4. Use many different modalities, if your kids generate a good idea while playing ball or chess, ask them to write it on the marker board to teach other family members later.

5. Play 15-30 minutes at a time. Honestly, a good solid exploration can take place in as little as three minutes.

If this is new to you you may be skeptical or thinks it’s silly. But when you see how the kids connect with you, talk with more ease and use their creativity in making new games, you’ll appreciate the magic of moving while talking. There is no one way to move and talk, but there is ample evidence that movement enhances brain function, improves concentration, decreases impulsivity and engages the brain. For the scientists among you, consider taking a peek at some of the following books:

So get moving before you start talking. Let us know what your family comes up with. We’re interested.


This post reflects Dr Kenney’s “The Family Coach Method”. Used in practice for a number of years, The Family Coach Method is ‘rug-level,’ friendly and centered on the concept of families as a winning team – with dozens of age-appropriate sample conversations and problem solving scenarios to guide a family to the desired place of mutual respect, shared values and strengths. The goal is to help children to develop the life skills, judgment and independence that can help them navigate the challenges of an increasingly complex world.



Your New Baby Safely Met Your Dog … Now What???

So you followed the guidelines I wrote to “Safely Introduce Your Dog to Your New Baby“, maybe added a few of your own ideas, everything went so well, and your dog seems pretty well adjusted to the baby’s arrival… but what can you do to ensure this relationship remains solid for the next several years, so they grow up and stay best friends? There are actually a few things you can do….starting with:

Canine etiquette.

happy-mom-baby-petting-family-dogIt is not only important to teach your dog to accept the change in his life and be well behaved around the baby… it is also important to teach your baby what we refer to as ‘canine etiquette’ around dogs.

What is ‘canine etiquette’? Canine etiquette is teaching the baby from a young age what is okay and not okay to do around your dog. Before I go too far – the most important thing…. NEVER leave baby alone with the dog. I don’t care how wonderful they are together, or how well your child has learned canine etiquette. I touched briefly on how dogs rely on instinct in my last post, but I would like to get into it a bit more. When a dog (or any animal for that matter) feels nervous or threatened in any way, they are not capable of recognizing a helping hand in that moment, and can easily strike out at anything around them when they are afraid. Has your dog ever gotten their paw stuck, and nipped at your hand when you were trying to help them? All they know, in that instant, is they are in pain.

My Mom used to tell the story of the very calm collie mix we had when I was a baby named Nosie. I was a very hyper child, and one day when he was sleeping at the top of the stairs, I flung myself onto him to give him a hug, and he went flying down the stairs. Going forward, when he heard me coming, or when I called him, he took off and hid. What we didn’t know back then was how lucky I was that our dog’s reaction was to run and hide when he saw ‘the threat’ (me) coming instead of reacting aggressively.

When you are holding your baby and they grab your hair, it hurts! Well, it hurts the dog too. The difference is, you can rationalize that the baby is not meaning to hurt you. You also have two hands; you use one to hold their hand, while you use the other to disentangle your hair from their grasp. And as you probably know, it is not a simple task! They have an amazing grip at that young age!! Dogs do not have two hands to accomplish this task, and they also don’t understand why this baby hurt them. A dog does not want to be around something that consistently causes pain. You may be reading this and thinking “But the baby doesn’t know any better! They don’t mean to pull the dog’s hair!” And you are absolutely right. But they can learn by consistency, just like the dog can. So when the dog approaches you and the baby, you take the baby’s hand and make long strokes along their fur. (Many parents coo “Nice Doggy” as they do this.) You are holding the baby’s hand and constantly moving it, so they do not have the chance to grab a hunk of hair. Now your dog associates your baby as gentle and loving, and learns to enjoy the baby’s company.

Baby Gates (AKA Puppy gates)

Many new parents make the common mistake of thinking they do not need to put the gates up until baby is mobile. And some of you may have put gates up when your dog was a pup, but have not needed them in years. Even if your baby is not mobile, your dog is. There are many interactive newborn toys to keep baby’s attention that feature a mat that you put on the floor to lie them down on, and a mobile that they look up at. These are great toys to stimulate their senses, seeing, touching, etc. But if the dog is on the move, this is a potential recipe for disaster. Remember, dog and baby should ONLY be together when you are there to supervise.

Respect and Dominance

One thing I explain to all of my customers is about being the “Pack Leader”. There are certain actions that a dog takes as submission, and these are things to be aware of between your baby and dog. Your baby will not always be a baby, and there must be a certain level of respect that your dog needs to learn. Your dog needs to see and respect your baby as a small human, not as a weak and helpless creature; and definitely not as puppy that is theirs to correct. How does a dog correct a puppy? With growls and little nips; which are harmless to a puppy, but not so to an infant. I am going to give you a few insights into the dogs mind, so you can understand this dynamic a bit better, which can help you to avoid these situations.

Eye contact: In the wild, the dominant dog (or pack leader) will perceive it as a threat when a member of the pack stares them down. They will go nose to nose with them and the leader NEVER looks away first. When the pack member looks away, they are showing their submission to the leader, and the dominant dog ‘wins’ the battle and maintains their role as leader. Babies tend to ‘stare’ at everything. This is how they are learning their environment. Now, since a baby’s attention span is short, they will stare at the dog for a few seconds, and then with a jerky type of movement, look away. So back to my example of in the wild, how did the dog perceive the baby’s dead-on stare and then baby looking away? – Dog has “won” – they are the leader.

You can easily shift this dynamic so your dog still sees your child as “the leader”. While you are holding the baby, be aware. When the baby stares at the dog, and you see they have caught direct eye contact, calmly shift baby up to your shoulder so the baby’s back is to him. You’ve accomplished two things: the baby didn’t show submission by “looking away first” plus – added bonus – your child has turned their back on the dog – something that only a pack leader can do.

Top Dog: In layman’s terms – the pack leader’s head is higher than that of all the rest of the pack, he is always “on top” or above. For this reason, it is important that your baby not be lying on the floor with the dog standing over them. So put up the baby gates if you want to lie baby down on the floor. It may be a bit annoying, but it guarantees the only time your dog is around your baby is when they are up in your arms and their interactions are being monitored – and baby’s head is always higher than your dog’s head.

Add Some New Commands.

Dogs are happiest when they are learning; so now may also be a good time to introduce the command “PLACE” if they do not already know it. For this command, you want to pick a bed of theirs or a mat, and pick a space where they can pretty much see everything. Remember that it is their ‘job’ to keep an eye on things, so you don’t want to put the bed or mat in a corner or area where they are isolated from everything. Use their leash in the beginning if you need to, and walk them to their mat or bed, and say, “GO TO YOUR PLACE” and guide them onto the bed. When they are completely on the bed, give them a treat and praise. Repeat this several times each day until you can say it and they will go there without the leash. Once they are consistently doing it, add the “SIT/STAY” to the command. If you make them sit and stay every time they go to the bed, it will become second nature to them to sit and stay on the bed when told to go to their place. The other positive about this is that everything in the beginning is about the baby, and the dog can tend to feel a bit ‘left out’ and rely on some negative behaviors to get attention. This assures that he will also get some attention from you every day.

At this point you’re probably thinking: “canine etiquette, watch out for baby staring down the dog, keep baby’s head higher at all times… this is all a bit much!” And it’s all on top of dealing with a new infant. But really, what are we talking about? Just a few simple things that will keep BOTH your baby and your dog happy and safe. You love them both…and you want them to be best friends. A few simple guidelines established right from the beginning and you’re setting them up for a lifetime of love and friendship.

I will end this similarly to how I ended my last post….. Why take chances, or leave things to ‘luck’ when just a few simple steps can ensure a great outcome?

When is Your Mommy Voice The Right One???

“Babies cry, that’s normal.”

“You need to let your baby cry for awhile. If you don’t they will expect you to pick them up all of the time.”

“All babies are fussy.”

Which voice is rightAre these all things that you were told when your food allergic child was an infant? Do you remember thinking that there must be something that you are not doing right as a new parent? Something that one of the doctors is just not telling you or explaining the right way? Your baby cried, endlessly, for hours. They balled up their legs and you could hear the pain as their belly was gurgling and trying to let out some of that gas. Gas is normal. Colic is normal. Even if it seems to coincide with feeding times. It doesn’t matter if you happened to eat peanut butter before you breastfed- this could not affect your child in any way. Wrong, all wrong.

I have been there and I can tell you the truth- babies do not cry all of the time. All babies are not fussy and what you eat most definitely can affect how your newborn feels. Are you shocked? Are you nodding your head, thinking “I knew it, I knew it! In my heart of hearts, I knew that something else was going on with my child.” That is your mommy voice. That little voice in the back of your mind (that actually lives inside of your heart) is the voice that connects you to your child. That is the voice that lets you know what your child cannot say to you. And someday, that voice will be the one thing that you will follow and may ultimately save your child’s life.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because my son has multiple, life-threatening food allergies and I have learned to listen to that mommy voice. And yes, it has saved him (I feel) more than a few times. As a parent, it is essential to understand that you need to do what you feel is the very best for your child- even if this means going against what everyone else is telling you to do. You will feel extreme pressure to do the conventional things expected of you. You will get dirty looks and people will assume horrible untruths about you. You may need to go through many, many doctors to find the answers that you need. Like the time I met with a new allergy specialist who never even looked at my son but instead, chose to belittle the allergy tests that we had and went on to tell me that I am a terrible mother for not feeding him these foods. Upon check out, the woman behind the desk said “She wants you to make a follow up appointment” in which my mommy voice replied calmly yet fiercely “That woman will never touch my son again.”

What will this bring you? Listening to your mommy voice will bring you specific answers about your child. It will allow you to find the very best network of doctors, friends, support groups and to understand that you are not alone in how you think. This voice will keep you strong in times of need but will also soothe you during the times that you feel utterly lost and confused- and this is ok too. So what is a “mommy voice”? Some call it faith, some say its God or the Universe speaking to them, others say it’s just your conscience. Does it matter what it is labeled as long as it keeps your child safe? Learn to listen with an open heart because, no matter what, love is what will guide you, always.

Emergency preparedness and Special Needs Kids

Being prepared for an emergency is important for everyone, but it is crucial if you have a special needs child in your family. Here in Southern California we tend to focus on earthquakes, but whether you are concerned about doomsday, zombies or natural disasters being ready can make a big difference.

Emergency kits are important, and not only in your home. Schools should have a kit for each child, and if at all possible, your car should also be stocked with basic emergency supplies. Your kit should address your family’s specific daily needs for at least 72 hours. If your child’s disability is invisible you must be sure to explain to first responders that you or another caretaker (and service animal) must remain with your child.

General emergency supplies such as contact info, prescriptions, food and water, a first aid kit, batteries, candles, matches, flashlights, blankets, a radio and baby wipes are a good place to start. Specific special needs emergency supplies may also include:

  • Extra glasses or contacts
  • Epi-pens
  • Breathing supplies or nebulizers
  • Foods for special dietary needs
  • Extra medications, supplements or medical supplies
  • A cooler and ice packs for medications
  • A generator if your child depends on equipment
  • An extra lightweight wheelchair, walker or other medical device
  • Batteries, CDs or a music player for comfort
  • Supplies for any service animals

In an emergency, kids will take their cues from their parents and caregivers so it’s important to stay calm, reassure the child and explain how you plan to keep them safe.

Preparing for a natural disaster or emergency can be scary for kids, so the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a special section for kids that includes games to make the process more fun. The site also has a section for parents and teachers. The American Red Cross has partnered with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to put up excellent information and resources on their website. There is even a Sesame Street Emergency Preparedness site.