Action Before Conversation

by Susan Griffin

For the sake of our children, we could all stand to talk less and act more. Act first and talk later. Parents spend far too much time explaining and reasoning with their offspring, rather than taking action. Try "get off the top of the refrigerator NOW" instead of "how many times have I told you that it is not safe?" Or a simple "pick it up" rather than a lecture entitled "I love a clean San Diego!"

Who's job is it anyway? Have you ever noticed that as parents' energy investment in a given task or situation gets larger, the child's gets smaller? If you're working harder at getting your child's chores done than she or he is, try a little exercise. Bite your tongue. Communicate your message as succinctly and firmly as possible, then bite your tongue and silently count to twenty. If the child hasn't moved, gently assist him physically in the direction of the desired behavior. Then repeat your brief message a second time using the same words, voice tone and volume. Bite your tongue again, and count to twenty. If the child still isn't cooperating, move to action.

Time-out is a great intervention. The child loses something they want - contact with other people and ordinary activities, while gaining something else -self-control. There are some helpful rules of thumb for time-out:

  1. Length should be one minute for each year of a child's age
  2. When the time is up, the child should be given an opportunity to come out of time-out and practice self-control
  3. If the child achieves self control before the time-out is up, let him out early. They have risen to the challenge and it should be immediately acknowledged
  4. Time-out should not be more fun than the problem behavior that earned it.

Withdrawal of privileges can also inspire a young person to be a good cooperator. But make sure you impose a loss that makes the child suffer more than the parent! Grounding a teen-ager for the rest of his or her life might prove too much to handle for mom or dad.

ABC is especially important during times of transition. Some transitions are natural and expected, like the birth of a new child. Others are unexpected and create a crisis, like divorce. If you are in transition, stop and think before you make decisions about parenting. You may inadvertently burden a child with adult concerns. Or you may withhold appropriate discipline because of guilt or fear. So talk problems over with a trusted adult before talking to your child.

Listening is one of the most important skills of a good parent. So once the child has responded to your intervention, accomplished the task and/or regained self-control, have a talk. Ask the child to tell you their understanding of what was negative about his behavior. Support all attempts at honest communication, and keep it brief. Take your cues from the child for the end of the conversation. Then take action again. A hug would probably be just right.

Deliver Encouragement Frequently

by Susan Griffin

In the last article we looked at the ABC of parenting: Action Before Conversation. Now let's look at a second concept in the alphabet soup of effective parenting. Deliver Encouragement Frequently (DEF). This is so obvious, yet difficult to do in the midst of our busy daily lives. We know our children need support from us. And we want to provide both emotional and physical nurturing for them. We've all heard the great advice: "catch them being good." It sounds so easy. So, how do we do that?

Children often need encouragement the most when we're feeling the least inclined to give it. This may be a result of our own level of stress, the child's behavior, the demands of an ordinary day, or all of these factors. If we start with ABC, action before conversation, we can lay the groundwork for DEF, deliver encouragement frequently. For example, you walk into the house after a stressful day to discover that your adolescent child has created havoc with the freshly cleaned floor. The child's friends are there. You feel your frustrated reaction and the impulse to speak out.

Stifle it. Say "hello". And take action, by taking care of yourself first. Go to your room, change your clothes, count to ten, focus on relaxing, and plan your next move. You want to be sensitive to the fact that you've just greeted your child, and that peers are still in the house. If you can't live with the dirty floor for a while, then calmly get your child's attention and request that his/her friends leave. Once they're gone, express your concern and ask for cooperation in addressing it. If you can live with the dirty floor for a while, simply wait until later in the evening when everyone has unwound a bit and you have some private family time.

DEF is a balancing act. We balance our need for respect and cooperation from our child, with our child's need for structure and teaching. And we do this in a constant state of change. For our child is a dynamic force in our lives. S/he may be unable to toddle up the stairs alone today, and then run up them tomorrow. S/he couldn't ask for what s/he wanted when you left the house this morning, and is able to speak it clearly when you pick her up from daycare.

Encouragement from mom or dad inspires cooperation from a child. So, for the sake of our children, let's all deliver encouragement frequently.

Guide His/Her Independence

by Susan Griffin

Children can imagine incredible possibilities long before they can handle the reality. Whether it is a 2-year-old contemplating a huge flight of concrete stairs with the thought of climbing them all alone, or a 12-year-old contemplating the same steps with the thought of jumping down them on a bicycle, the impulse for challenge, growth and independence is natural. So is the parental response to protect and safeguard the child. Balancing protection with a healthy dose of guidance is essential to nurture the child's need for exploration.

Because the world of a child is very small - just what s/he can see, feel, touch and hear - parents need to guide his/her independece to ensure that the child pushes the limits safely. For part of the wonder of childhood is that tender confidence that all within his/her control is possible and safe. But parents know better. Accidents happen. Our children will be hurt sometimes as they experiment in the world. Our job is to protect them when we can, and to help them soothe the disappointment of limitations and pain when they ineviatably come.

When the child is very young the need for guidance is nearly constant. Even infants can easily hurt themselves as they learn to control their arms and hands, if there is something in the immediate environment they might accidentally pick up. We must make sure that infants are placed only in safe spaces with safe surroundings where they cannot roll or slide into trouble.

As the child begins to move on his or her own the need for protection, including restriction of movement or access, increases dramatically. At the same time the need for stimulation and exploration is vital to healthy cognitive, emotional, and physical development. Guiding the toddler's independence starts with accurately assessing the world from his or her point of view. Cover or remove sharp corners. Stay close and observant when in an unfamiliar environment. Stay ahead of the child visually as s/he explores so you can anticipate and structure successful exploration.

Once the child is competent on wheels a whole new world opens up. Hopefully the parent has been practicing the art of limit setting and natural consequences to teach self-control. If so, the wheel phase is much easier. Establish clear time and distance parameters appropriate to the age of the child. Set clear consequences for violations of either parameter and then stick with it. The easiest consequence is a loss of the wheels for a period of time. The loss time depends on the child's age and personality. Periodcally check up on your child to make sure s/he is within the distance parameter.

Seek opportunities for your child to make his/her own decisions. Watch for signs that your child has preferences and help him/her express them. Clothing choices are one of the easiest places to allow and encourage the expression and exploration of personal choice. Second is room organization and decoration. We can guide his/her independence in these areas most effectively by offering appropriate, but limited, choices. For example, parents can select two or three outfits appropriate to the weather and activities for the day and allow the child to choose. Parents with a very high tolerance for creative clothing choices may be able to provide even wider choices, as long as the choices are consistent with adequate protection related to the weather.

One of the most important and difficult areas of guidance for any parent is allowing our children their angry feelings. That's because the ability to control impulses and have strong feelings, contain them, and direct them appropriately starts with the opposite. Impulsive action, overwhelming feelings, acting out and lashing out at the closest target - parents. If parents can support their children through approximately 2,000 of these difficult moments in the first five years of life, the adolescent years will be much easier. That's because the skills of independent thinking and mature action develop over time. Parents lay the groundwork during the first five years of a child's life by consistently and lovingly guiding his/her independence.

Just Keep Listening

by Susan Griffin

No matter what, we must listen to our children - actively and closely. And that's not easy sometimes. For our little ones speak a different language from adults. They speak in metaphors, symbols, and animalese. Children's language consists of whining, crying tugs and yelps; aches and pains; ghosts and monsters; candy castles and magic lands.

So how do we listen accurately when we don't speak the language? Listen actively first. Get to the child's level physically. Make good eye contact. Watch their face and gestures. And now the hard part. Tune into yourself as you watch and listen to your child. If we're open to active listening, our child will help us feel how they feel. Whether it's fear or sadness or anger, tune in first and then talk. It's called empathy - experiencing the situation from the other person's point of view.

Empathy is how we effectively listen to our children and it's how we teach our children to listen to others. If we model active listening for our child, s/he will use it with others. There's no moment quite as lovely as the first time a parent sees his/her child reach out to comfort or support another person who is having a hard time. That moment of kindness bodes well for the future of the child, the family and the larger culture. For active listening lays the foundation for the development of effective communication skills based on respect and mutual cooperation. And the older our children get, the more important communication becomes.

All parents are concerned about protecting their children from adult information about sex, drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Inappropriate information is everywhere: billboards, television, radio, magazines and video games. And other families homes. There's a limit to any parents ability to monitor what their children experience. So the earlier a parent opens the door to mutual communication about difficult topics, the more likely it is that children will talk.

How do we open the door, and keep it open? The first step is self-honesty. Each parent must acknowledge the tough areas for him or herself. When do you clam up? What makes you go silent? What topics do you avoid? When do you over-react? What are you paranoid or neurotic about? Whatever the answers to these questions, pay attention. These will be the challenge points between you and your child as s/he grows. Don't wait until his/her adolescent years to start the dialogue.

Speak briefly and simply when these sensitive areas present. Start when your child is young. If you see or hear something that bugs you, something you disagree with, make a simple statement like, "Yuck! I don't like that." Even very young children get the message. First, you have feelings about it, and second, you'll talk about it. This gives your child permission to talk to you about your tough issues and his/hers. And children have a way of responding to your active listening when you least expect it. Two days, weeks, or months later, your child will ask the difficult questions or express his/her opinion. And even when it feels challenging, there is nothing quite like it.

So just keep listening. From the cries of the infant to the valedictorian speech of the graduate the time goes quickly. We must make the time to actively listen to our children. S/he will respond dramatically to being heard. Our investment in listening now will create respect and mutual cooperation in the lives of our children and the lives of theirs.

Mold Natural Opportunities

by Susan Griffin & Dennis Wong

Effective parenting doesn't just happen. Neither do good grades, good friends, good relationships, or a good life. Sure, sometimes luck and fate conspire to present us with a chance at something special. But for the most part, we create our good fortune by molding the natural opportunities that life offers us simply as a part of being human.

Growth and development are natural impulses. Research has shown that there are optimal times for learning language as well as emotional and physical skills. And it's parents who help mold these natural opportunities. The attentive parent notices when the infant is trying to hold his or her head up on their own. And that parent creates a structure in which the infant can safely practice. Now, the infant will learn the skill without the parental structuring, but that would be just physical. A parent who molds the natural opportunities also stimulates incredible development in the emotional and mental arenas as well.

The concept of molding natural opportunities is based on research about signs of readiness or interest in children. Parents can attend and actively listen for these signs, then structure the environment and activities in a manner that respects and validates them. A great example of this is toilet training. Parents struggle with this issue. And so do children. Self-control vs other-control. Some parents push their children too hard and too fast to gain self-control of toileting even when there are no signs of readiness. And some parents don't notice when their kids are interested.

If you've gotten this far in this article, I'll assume you're working hard to pay good-enough attention to your child's needs, interests, and signs of readiness. There are many ways for us to encourage and support our children. One of the best is books. Even better is story-telling. And it's easy to get started. Plan a field trip with your children. Take them to the children's book section of one of the large community-based bookstores and plan to spend an afternoon there with your children. Keep it unstructured and follow your child's lead. They'll let you know what they're interested in. And it can give you some wonderful ideas for molding natural opportunities as they present.

For example, many children are fascinated by dinosaurs, dragons and reptiles. While you may not be crazy about reptiles, they offer an inexpensive way to teach children about diversity, uniqueness, habitat, environment, and overcoming prejudice or fear. And you don't have to bring them into your home or even pay to go to the zoo. There are may pet shops that specialize in reptiles. And the staffs are usually happy to educate children and adults about them. Your trip to the bookstore could lead to a series of local field trips that teach and support your child's natural interests. And sometimes our child will challenge us to move outside our comfort zone.

Molding natural opportunities includes teaching our children to swim even when we don't know how because of our own fear. It includes finding a piano teacher we can afford even if we can't carry a tune in a bucket. It might mean asking the boss for a change of schedule to be at our childs soccer game when we have two left feet ourselves. It includes helping our children to develop positive relationships; learn to resolve conflicts; develop positive peer relationships and feel a part of the community.

Molding natural opportunities means putting our children's needs ahead of our own. It requires the difficult work of allowing our children to be completely different from us in some very important ways. The greatest challenge to our own values as a parent may come in the pursuit of supporting and respecting our child's authentic self-expression. But the committed parent does it because effective parenting is no accident.

Molding natural opportunities means being able to understand our children as separate, unique individuals and helping them to form relationships to the world with their own personalities, interests and vision. Just as we learn more about relating to them at many levels, they learn to broaden and deepen their perspective in relation to others. It means sharing with them what is basic and genuine to us, and guiding them into the opportunities that are unique to their world, their lives and their experience.

Protect Quiet Routines

by Susan Griffin & Dennis Wong

All of our lives are hectic – full of demands that create the need for swift evaluation of complex issues and equally swift changes in direction. Some times the changes are physical, sometimes mental and other times emotional. Sometimes the changes are something that we were anticipating and other times we are caught completely by surprise. In either set of circumstances, as adults we have a variety of tools available to cope with change. We have the ability to recognize that we have successfully survived previous changes and transitions and we have the confidence in our own skills to do so again.

Even when our coping skills are challenged by excessive amounts of change and stress, we know how to reach out to others for help. We have learned ways to reduce and relieve our stress even if those methods are temporary like taking nap or having lunch with a friend. What we may not think about is the complexity of the process involved in our development of these coping skills. And we may underestimate the impact of even a seemingly small change of routine for our children.

For anyone, change is something that disrupts our routine. And a predictable routine helps to protect and preserve our sense of safety, security, confidence, and competence. The type of change and our own ability to cope with it are factors that determine how disrupted our sense of routine becomes. And those factors also effect our ability to protect our children from unnecessary disruptions. Contrast these two events. We walk outside one morning to retrieve our morning paper, only to find that it is not in the usual spot. We look everywhere and cannot find it. How are we effected? What do we do? How do we manage the situation? Let’s say that same evening we come home after work to find that the locks on our home have been changed and a process server is there to serve us with divorce papers. Now how do we behave?

Clearly not all marriages end in divorce, but 50% do. Many families will experience the serious illness of a parent or a child. 1 in 3 adults will experience a bout of clinical depression sometime in their life. And all of us will lose a loved one to death at some point.

Protecting quiet routines on a daily basis should be a high priority for parents. Both those that are for the soothing and comfort of the adult, as well as those that are for the children. It is these quiet, dependable routines that sooth and reassure us and our children through the ups and downs of life whether big or small. Think about the quiet routines that sooth and reassure you on a daily basis. Make a list. Then do the same with your children. If your child is too young to speak, watch and listen, and notice the rhythm of their day. Become conscious of the quiet routines that create a sense of security and safety in your lives and then honor them. This is easy to do when life flows predictably. So make your study at such a time, so that you are prepared to protect those quiet routines when the very real anxieties of change are a part of your daily life.

A daily shared meal or a bedtime story or a walk around the park or neighborhood are examples of quiet routines that can be preserved through all states of family life. Remember that children’s ways of coping with change are very different from adults. In general, the younger the child, the smaller his or her world in terms of the daily landmarks they use to orient themselves and feel safe and secure. You may be feeling a tremendous sense of disruption and upheaval because of a change in your family life. But be cautious about communicating that to your child. Practice self-restraint and check first to see how your child is doing. Stop, look, and listen are steps from our own childhoods that have much to offer us at a time of transition. Remember that your child does not think in the same way you do, so don’t assume that because you feel overwhelmed your child will. In fact, children tend to very easily take on the feelings of the parent if the adult does not allow the child to have his or her own experience.

Support Thoughtful Understanding

by Susan Griffin & Dennis Wong

For better or worse, children learn from everything and everyone around them. They are sponges, soaking up knowledge through listening and observing. One of the strongest methods of learning for children is role play and imitation. They also learn by carefully observing what and who their parents approve of or accept, and what and who their parents disapprove of or disavow. Common sense suggests certain connections between parental modeling and children’s choices. For example, it seems that parents who use tobacco products would be more likely to have children who do so. And that parents who use alcohol inappropriately would be more likely to have children who do the same. And, finally, that parents who are sexist or racist or elitist or classist would be more likely to have children with the same prejudices.

Research does generally support these correlations, but it is important to be cautious about drawing conclusions about solutions, especially simple solutions. For we all know that simple solutions to complex problems have an almost overpowering appeal. The more complex the problem, the more complex the effects on everyone. And complexity tends to increase the intensity of people’s feelings about the problems. No one likes feeling helpless or powerless, not matter what their age. It is human nature to need some sense of control in order to maintain a basic confidence in one’s own ability to manage problems and challenges. Complex problems challenge our sense of control because there are so many levels of involvement whether one is talking about the complex problem of an individual, a family, a community, or the larger society.

This combination of the way in which children learn and the human tendency to oversimplify creates an important job for parents. First and foremost, parents need to be able to acknowledge their own weaknesses and inconsistencies to themselves. Thoughtful understanding is based on empathic compassion combined with fact-finding investigation. And parents need to develop thoughtful understanding of their own problems to be able to talk with their children about them. It is confusing for children when they learn that smoking is bad for one’s health or that alcohol is a drug and have to make sense out of their parents choice to smoke or drink. It is doubtful that there is a parent who smokes who does not also wish they did not, at least at times. Parents often feel embarrassed or even ashamed of their problems. Parents who first practice thoughtful understanding for their own difficulties become better able to model appropriate problem-solving for their children.

As a way of supporting the development of thoughtful understanding in your children, pay attention to the messages that fill our world on a daily basis on television, radio, billboards, even other people’s t-shirts. Don’t ignore the messages. If you hear or see something that concerns you, say so. A lecture isn’t necessary. Just let your children know that you like or don’t like the message, that you approve or disapprove. Let your children know and then wait and let them approach you for more information. When they approach you, help them get the facts about whatever they are concerned about. And help them develop compassion for their own and other people’s problems. Support thoughtful understanding.

Value What Xcites You Zealously

by Susan Griffin & Dennis Wong

If you find something or someone to be worthy, useful and important, then show it.  Show it in the way you speak and the way you behave.  A parent is the most powerful teacher a child will ever have, and children learn from everything parents do and say.  They also learn from everything parents choose not to do and choose not to say.  It is the early years of intimate family life that teaches children the value of relationships - the principles of honesty, commitment, trust, process, recognition, validation, connection, and living fully.

Supervised Exchange: 
An Under-utilized Service To Protect Children During Family Break-up

By Susan Griffin, MS, MA, IMF

Separation or divorce can be devastating to a child’s sense of security about him or herself and the world. Fears abound. “Is it my fault?” “Is there something I can do to make them stay together?” “If they can quit loving each other, will they quit loving me?” Close behind anxiety about their relationship with Mom and Dad come concerns about losing their school, friends, activities, extended family and even their toys.

 These worries make children vulnerable in many ways and what they need the most are calm, relaxed, reliable and confident parents to guide them through what can be one of the most difficult transitions of their life. Naturally, most parents are just as shaken by the break-up of their family as the children are. And most feel anything but calm, relaxed, reliable and confident, whether they are the person left or the person leaving.

 This a normal set of reactions for both children and parents and they will survive the transition. Unfortunately too many will go through unnecessary pain and chaos during the daily or weekly transitions between houses as everyone works to reorganize the structure of their family. The key word here is “unnecessary!!” Almost all families experience anything from awkwardness to outright conflict during face-to-face transitions in the early days of the change. The parents usually have the support system both internally and externally to get through the negative effects of these conflicts without permanent problems. Children are much less able to navigate the tension or conflict between their parents without consequences because of their tendency to blame themselves.

 In general, adults have the ability to tolerate much more tension and even outright conflict than children do. However, adults in this situation are often not thinking clearly nor are they at their best in terms of dealing with stress so they, like the children, are inclined to cope with their negative reactions by reacting with unhealthy and hurtful responses to the stress.

 The first 3-6 months of major transition are critical for human beings regardless of the transition, and the break-up of the family is no different. It is at least as stressful as the unexpected loss of a loved one to death. But too many families are left without adequate support through these important early months and end up in an escalated high-conflict stalemate with the other parent, gradually becoming entrenched in fear, negativity and even paranoia because they are not at their best. There is a safe and inexpensive, readily available service that can both support and protect everyone throughout the break-up transition.

 Supervised exchange is a way to ensure that everybody learns how to make transitions between homes calmly and routinely, without uncertainty, uproar and chaos. Supervision of the transition between Mom’s House and Dad’s House, provided by a trained professional monitor who is neutral, objective and child-centered, is critical.

Some parents object to the notion of “handing my child over to a stranger.” While this is an understandable reaction, it does not look at it from the child’s point of view. Teachers, tutors, scout leaders, parental friends, baby sitters and nannies are significant people in the lives of all children. For the child, the professional monitor is seen as an adult helper who is there to help them and their parents. One of the reasons parents object to supervised visitation is that they know they will not do anything to harm their child and resent the idea that they need someone to help them.

 The truth is, and research bears it out, that parents do not intend to harm their children by fighting, yelling, screaming, or even coldly ignoring each other during transitions. These behaviors occur because the adults are having strong and immediate feelings they are trying to cope with. Parents behave in ways that put their childrens’ sense of stability at risk because they themselves are feeling overwhelmed by unexpected reactions to the other parent or to the actual reality of “letting go” of their children when it is time to make the transition.

 So even the best-intentioned parent loses his or her cool from time to time. And some parents engage in negative conflict up to and including name-calling during every transition. While parents are able to work through such unpleasant events after the fact, with friends, attorneys, therapists, extended family members, and others in their support system, their children are isolated with the emotions created by witnessing the conflict between their parents. And the children find themselves left with one of the parents and the child is feeling afraid or uncertain how to talk about it. Some children feel they need to lie to the parent about their true feelings because they are so afraid of losing the parent’s love. Or the child may find him or herself at school immediately following the parental conflict feeling vulnerable and isolated and even embarrassed because they don’t know who to talk to or how to talk about what is happening.

 Supervised exchanges shelter children from these unexpected incidents of parental tension and conflict and the results end up positive for everyone:

            A         the children can learn, through practice, to go back and forth between their two homes feeling safe and secure and happy, knowing they will not have to deal with Mom and Dad seeing each other or either parent seeing that the child is happy to see the other parent;

            B          each parent is able to transfer their child without worrying about negative experiences with the other parent and feeling safer and more secure knowing that unsafe behavior will be addressed and documented; and

            C         parents have time to cool down and learn to use their support system when something does happen during the exchange that upsets them.

Parents need calm and predictable time and practice with the new situation just as much as the children do. Supervised exchanges provide the space and distance from parental conflict which then gives each parent the opportunity to learn how to deal with some strong and challenging feelings without the presence of the other adult. That means that the adults are available to fully focus on the needs of the child during each transition.

 Unfortunately, many parents don’t get the chance to adjust to a new family structure and routine without the frequent disruption and uncertainty inherent in having direct contact with the coparent. So even minor and ordinary childhood incidents, like a bump on the head from a playground accident that could just as easily have happened at school rather than during time with the coparent, begin to turn into accusations of neglect or even abuse.  Left unchecked and uninterrupted such accusations can develop into serious allegations, repeated litigation, and increasing and even unresolveable conflict between the parents. The availability of a trained professional who is neutral on the merits of the case and available for support and assistance to all members of the family, can fill the vacuum created by insecurity and a lack of communication. The professional monitor can help both parents feel more secure by providing immediate, objective and factual information about concerns as they arise.

 Some newly divided families do exchanges at police stations because it is free, available and feels safe. As an attorney recently reported, even physical assaults can occur in police parking lots because the police do not actually supervise the exchanges. While the general sense of a police presence may help parents feel safer, the situation often feels more dangerous to the child because they know that police deal with people who break the law and people who are not safe.

 So the children approach the police station with one of two responses:

            A         fear that someone is in trouble and will or may be arrested; and

            B          the belief the judge thinks that one or both of their parents are unsafe and needs the police to keep them in line.

These are not healthy messages to convey to children and, again, the children may struggle internally to make sense of it without the ability to talk about their fears and beliefs with either parent.

 Supervised exchange is a way to ensure that everybody learns how to make transitions between homes calmly and routinely, without uncertainty, uproar and chaos. Supervision of the transition between Mom’s House and Dad’s House, provided by a trained professional monitor who is neutral, objective and child-centered, can bring that calm and routine to you and your children.

 Inexpensive supervised exchanges are available at San Diego’s Hannah’s House 7 days a week with staffing by certified professional monitors. Some independent monitors also offer the service at public settings throughout the community. Hannah’s House information can be obtained by calling (619) 294-9852 or emailing Safe4Children .

Information on other supervised exchange monitors in the county can be obtained by calling (619) 55-2100 and requesting a list from the Family Court.

Animal-Assisted Learning:
Maximizing the Natural Bond Between Children and Animals

by Susan Griffin, MS,, MA, IMF, ICADC, CADC-II, CCS

"What is man without beasts?  If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loniliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beast also happens to man.  Whatever befalls the earth befalls the son of the earth."

     -Chief Seattle of the Duwamish Tribe, State of Washington, 1855

Eric was sexually molested by his father when he was six years old. His father was convicted of the crime and went to prison for two years. When Dad was released, he wanted to try a relationship with his son again. The Court said yes, but only if the visits were supervised by a professional agency. Eric and his Mom were both frightened about the visitations, wondering what it would be like, how awkward and difficult it could be, and whether Eric would feel safe. But this family was lucky. The program they were referred to, the Griffin & Wong Institute, has an animal-assisted children's program which utilizes the natural bond between children and animals to aid them in navigating the difficult situations and circumstances in their closest relationships.

Eric's Mom brought him to the Institute for The Turtle Tour prior to the first scheduled visit with his father. Eric had the chance to get to know the facility and meet all of the animals. This child's relaxation and easing of tension was clearly visible as he interacted with the Mom and baby rats; Black Feather, a baby San Diego desert Tortoise; and Stumpy, a wounded and rehabilitated iguana. When the day came for the first visit with Dad, Eric was able to use his own knowledge of the Institute and the animals to help him feel empowered. The child initially appeared nervous and had a hard time looking at Dad. Each time the father moved physically close, Eric withdrew. Then, Eric asked the supervisor if he could show his Dad the baby and mother rats.

The resulting interaction was touching, and familiar to the staff at the Institute. The baby rats provided an unlimited source of interesting, warm, and intriguing interactional opportunities between son and father. Eric's sense of fear evaporated as he gently, softly, and quietly watched and played with the baby rats, with his father. Gradually, Eric began to engage with his father through comments and observations about the animals. His father responded, naturally allowing Eric to lead the interaction.

This visit between Eric and his father illustrates some important findings from research into animal/human relationships. A number of studies suggest that the presence of an animal can reduce stress and anxiety and promote a feeling of safety, whether or not the threat an individual senses is real. Randall Lockwood, of the State University of New York, asked two groups of subjects to interpret ambiguous line drawings of social interactions. One group included an animal; the other did not. His results indicated that the presence of the animal leads to the interpretation of social scenes as less threatening and improves the perceived character of the people associated with them. A person with a dog, thus, is considered more approachable and less dangerous than someone without one.

We know that stress is one of the greatest contributors to emotional and social adjustment for all children. If we look specifically at children living in chaotic family situations, and/or children with learning difficulties, including those born drug-effected, we see even more profound effects created by even ordinary daily stressors. A researcher named Friedmann measured the blood pressure and heart beats of 38 children over two 4-minute periods during which the child was asked to rest for 2 minutes and to read aloud for 2 minutes. A dog was present during either the rest or reading period. The researchers found that the presence of the dog resulted in lower blood pressures during both the rest and reading period. Additionally, if the dog was present at the beginning of the session, the children had lower blood pressures throughout the experiment.

Animals help children strengthen their contact with the environment. This is a particularly helpful response to utilize when we are working with challenging children. One study conducted by the American Humane Education Society (AHES) in Framingham Center, Massachusetts used animals in the classroom as part of educational modules on health, nutrition, grooming, association, communication and appropriate behavior. The follow-up measures were completed by the regular classroom teachers who reported that not one student who participated in the special animal-assisted educational program was completely unaffected by the program.

A minimum of forty percent of one class to a maximum of 100 percent of another class were judged by their teachers to have learned and retained specific information which corresponded to the AHES unit goals. A minimum of one-half of one class to 100 percent of the other two classes were judged to have gained general understandings and developed new attitudes. Teachers cited sensitivity to animals, understanding animal needs, ability to relate to an unfamiliar instructor and sensitivity to people among the understandings and attitudes accrued during the course.

Integrating animals into the learning situation is easy and beneficial. Love, compassion and empathy are vital concepts for challenged children. Animals bring these concepts alive in a compelling manner that truly maximizes learning by tapping into the natural responses inherent in the child/animal bond. It's like magic to watch what happens as children who are violent, enraged, and/or depressed begin to freely interact with horses in the animal-assisted program. The children initially return the nuzzling of the gentle horses and, within a matter of minutes, happily, enthusiastically and confidently initiate petting, grooming and feeding.

If you would like to experiment with animals in the classroom, contact a local program that offers this service. Some examples in San Diego County include: Helen Woodward Foundation; Cruizin' Critters; the San Diego Humane Society; and the Griffin & Wong Institute. The experience of warm and positive interaction is vital to the classroom experience. Here's a natural, inexpensive and readily available way to create the opportunity.