Modelling Healthy Choices for the Kids

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It has been several months now since Husband and I began our new health and fitness plan. Hubby has lost almost 100 lbs and I have lost over 15 lbs. I run three times per week and cycle twice a week. Hubby runs or cycles six days a week and has started doing a video fitness program at home as well. It has become just a normal, natural part of our life to count calories and weigh food as we prepare our meals throughout the day. It takes such little extra time, and the results are so very worth it.

Having been so successful in changing our own eating habits, we felt empowered to help our kids. Mr. Boo was an average-weight child until around the age of 6, when he began to gain weight. He’s now 9 years old and, while very tall for his age (just shy of 5 feet), is quite overweight, clocking in at just over 100 lbs. He likes his food, especially treats, and he doesn’t like sports. Carrying around extra weight doesn’t make moving your body much fun, either.

And so we decided to put him on our health and fitness plan. He’s watched us on our journey and we asked him about following our plan. We discussed it with him, presented the risks associated with childhood obesity, and stuck to an emphasis on health rather than looks or body image. He seemed quite keen on the idea. We started a food journal in which we log what he eats, and set a goal for him based on a calculation of his daily caloric needs (his goal is < 1650 calories per day). If he meets his goal, his reward is a miniature chocolate bar for dessert (60 calories).

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We’ve been doing this for about a month now and couldn’t be happier with the results. Not only has he lost 2 lbs, a very healthy rate of loss (~ 0.5 lbs per week) but we can see that we are establishing healthy habits that will serve him well for the rest of his life. He now reads nutritional labels and makes choices based on calorie content. He helps prepare his food, weighing out the ingredients and calculating portion size. We help by presenting choices when he’s hungry, and laying out the consequences of those choices in terms of what he can eat later. He’s learning that he likes to have a big meal at the start of his day, a small snack midway, and a good size dinner. He also likes to save room for an extra dessert, and will often forgo a second sandwich, for example, for a banana and some yogurt instead so that he can have that extra treat later on. One day he announced that he wanted to eat a whole pizza for dinner and asked for help in choosing some healthy, low calorie options for breakfast and lunch.

He’s also beginning to see exercise as something positive because it buys you more calories (up until now, the word “exercise” was met with groans and protests). This evening we attended the first night of a new drop-in gymnastics program at our local community centre, where the kids get two hours of free, supervised time on the equipment (trampolines, etc). It’s one of the few activities he has always enjoyed and he was particularly pleased that all that fun meant he could have a treat on the way home from the gym (he carefully read the labels in making his decision).

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To make this as easy on ourselves and him as possible, and given his extremely limited diet due to his sensory issues around food, we decided that “any kind of food goes” so long as it fits within his goals. It’s not what a lot of people would think of as “healthy” eating – it includes hot dogs and McDonalds cheeseburgers, and yet we still see that he is learning about making good food choices for his body. We’ve had a couple of interesting conversations about what a body needs to be healthy and grow, and why some foods are so high in calories while others are low. What we’ve all learned is that when you are looking to get the most food satisfaction “bang” for your caloric “buck” it pays to stay away from the really junky stuff. One bag of of potato chips, for example, is more than an entire cheese and liverwurst sandwich (despite his picky eating habits, the kid loves liver sausage). The sandwich will keep him full for some time and provide his body with protein, healthy animal fats, iron, and other nutrients he needs. But with the chips, he’ll be hungry soon after eating them, and they really only provide carbohydrates (which turn to fat if not needed for energy) and some not-so-healthy hydrogenated vegetable-based fats.

Miss Em is not officially on the plan – she is only mildly overweight and is independent enough that it would be difficult to monitor her food intake as closely. She has definitely been paying attention to what we are all doing, however, and she has expressed some interest in considering calorie content, although she is not prepared to take on calorie tracking just yet. She has made an effort to work more exercise into her week, going on bike rides or long walks to the local corner store. Kids watch what adults do and I know even if she doesn’t follow us right now, we are modelling the route to attaining a healthy weight and being fit so that when and if she decides in the future to do something about it, she’ll know how.

It’s a good feeling to take charge of your health, to be at a healthy body weight, to enjoy being active, and to feel good in your body. Hubby and I are pleased enough that we’ve been able to do so for ourselves, but seeing our son embracing this lifestyle and learning to make healthy choices for himself, is truly rewarding.

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Dealing with Problem Behaviours

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Last week Mr. Boo had a rough transition while getting ready to go out with his behavioural interventionist. I’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with these situations, but I still get caught off-guard sometimes. This time it resulted it me getting punched in the jaw. It has been a long time since Mr. Boo hurt me, partly because it happens less frequently than when he was younger, and partly because I’ve gotten pretty good at staying just out of range when I see that he might lash out. I was very upset by what happened. Not only did it hurt, but I worry about his future. It’s one thing to be a little kid who hits when he’s angry or frustrated, but the picture is going to look a whole lot different when he’s a teenager or an adult. While I know he’s improved immensely over the years, the potential is still there and it worries me.

I wondered if maybe I should be doing something…something more, or something different. I began to mull it over in my head and over the course of the next few days I noted two other behaviours that, while not as bad as hitting, are still things I’d like to address with a more concrete plan than just reminding him such behaviours are unacceptable. First, when he’s angry or frustrated he sometimes throws things. He’ll basically grab the nearest thing and hurl it in no particular direction. Countless things have been broken, but of course there is also the potential for damage to other people who happen to be in the line of fire. Again, this is an issue that has improved over the years, but still presents itself on occasion.

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Second, there is the swearing. This started in earnest about a year ago and, while we all drop the occasional f-bomb in our family, there are times when he really crosses the line.

I began to think that perhaps I was going to have to introduce some form of punishment in an attempt to influence his behaviour. When he is raging, in the heat of the moment, all he can think about is himself. While later he will feel remorse for what he has done, it isn’t powerful enough in the moment to stop him. I began to wonder if maybe a specific punishment would serve as a stronger motivator. I’ve always believed that punishment is ineffective at best, and counterproductive and damaging at worst. But maybe, I thought, I needed to reconsider. Autism has caused me to rethink other aspects of my parenting, so why not this one?

In this case, the punishment that would have the most impact would be one that affects what he loves most: his laptop. But if I was going to implement a punishment system then I would have to be very clear to state the rules up front. Autistic kids respond well to rules that are clearly laid out ahead of time, but they also have a keen sense of fairness: you can’t just make sh*t up on the fly.

Well, I soon ran into some problems. How long would he be removed from his laptop? What if he picked up an iPad instead, or went on the PlayStation? Would watching YouTube count? Would I have to remove access to all screens? Would the extent and duration of the punishment be adjusted to “fit the crime”? And how would I go about doing that when there are no set screen times in our family?

It got worse as I considered more scenarios. What if, as in last week, he hit me as he was heading out for the afternoon? Is he going to spend 3 hours with his interventionist and then come home and not be allowed on his laptop? That is way too much time between the crime and the punishment to be in any way fair or to have any meaning for him. He may have had an excellent session, and he’s going to come home to being punished?

And what if he needed a sensory break? Immersing himself in the digital world is his go-to solution when his sensory inputs get overwhelmed. We’ve always encouraged this form of self-regulation. Using it as a punishment sends the wrong message.

Frankly, the whole thing was bothering me. I just couldn’t come up with a set of punishments that made sense, were fair, and were easy to implement. I couldn’t even figure out what it would look like for myself, let alone explain it to him. But if not that, what could I do to curb these problem behaviours?

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Well, I’m happy to say that the solution presented itself today. Mr Boo had a mini-meltdown when, after finishing his homeschool work, he learned that his sister was using the big screen and he could not play on the PlayStation. By his logic, since he had interrupted his game to do homeschool work, he expected to go back on when he was done. But his sister was now using it. When I said he’d have to wait, he lost it. He went into the bedroom and, before I could go in there to help him calm down, he picked up a timer and threw it across the room, breaking it. I was angry and immediately announced that he was no longer going to get his turn on the PlayStation when his sister was done (and still, in my head, I’m thinking “is this for all day? if not then for how long? what would be a fair delay given that he is going out this afternoon?”). Well this only served to make him more angry and he tried to throw a lamp, but by then I was close enough to block him.

He calmed down fairly quickly after that (we’ve got a system that works well for us now), and began to tell me that this punishment thing was not a good idea. Inspired by the program director at the wonderful Centre he attends each week, I decided to listen to what he had to say and involve him in the discussion (she once spent a good hour doing just that with him, and managed to work a minor miracle – more in a later post perhaps). He told me that my job was to help him calm down (its a set of skills we work on together), and by telling him his punishment I was actually making it worse for him. I understood: he has told me he doesn’t like raging, that it is scary for him, and he is very grateful that I am there to help him find his way down to calmness. So if he sees me as the person – the rock – to which he can cling when raging, then how must it feel to have me making it worse by giving him even more to be angry and anxious about?

My first thought upon recognizing this was that maybe I should wait until after he calms down to tell him of his punishment , but right away that didn’t make sense either. Reward him for doing good emotional work by telling him of his fate? Naw. So instead I asked him what HE thought we should do about these behaviours. He wasn’t sure at first, but then I remembered something I read on the Aha Parenting website. Dr. Markham has written some excellent articles explaining why punishment doesn’t work, and I love the alternatives she suggests. In this article she describes empowering your kids to repair the damage they have done. Whether this is the hurt feelings of a playmate, the broken window of a neighbour, or admitting to stealing a toy, what kids really need to learn is how to make up for their mistakes, to really experience the impact of their actions, and to take ownership and responsibility for their actions. Importantly, they need to see you as someone who can help them do the right thing when they screw up, not the person who just makes them feel worse. So I decided to try her approach with Mr. Boo.

The issue was that he threw my timer (which he apologized for) and may have broken it. Together we came up with two solutions: if the timer was not broken he could make it up to me by helping with some household chore I needed to do. If it was broken, he offered to use his allowance to buy me a new one. What I loved about the process of discussing this with him was how strong our connection was during this time. I had helped him calm down and, as we usually do, I was holding him in my lap and rocking him forward and back (the rocking motion really soothes him). He was hugging and kissing me, his way of letting me know he felt bad for how he had acted. And all the while we talked about how to make up for his actions. He was not happy about having to do a chore or spend his allowance money, but he was a willing participant in this being a solution and the entire atmosphere around the discussion was one of working together and maintaining the integrity of our relationship. There was no argument about whether he should do anything to make up for it: he clearly wanted to. This is so different from the attitude of being punished, where all the focus is on being a victim, with little room for remorse.

For my kids, perhaps more than neurotypical kids, I am their rock. The world can be a scary, intimidating, and frightening place for them and they count on me to protect them, guide them, and help them deal with overwhelming emotions. Punishment changes my role entirely to one of combatant, a player on the other team, which erodes their trust in me. It also puts them on the defensive, sends their anxiety through the roof (with autistic kids, its all about reducing anxiety), and puts them in a worse place rather than a better one.

While part of me can’t believe I even considered using punishment, I’m glad I went through this thought experiment. It has reinforced to me, more than ever, that my instincts were right and that such an approach would do far more damage to my kids than it would help. I’m happy that together Mr Boo and I came up with a solution, that he was involved in the discussion, that it was done in a loving and warm atmosphere of connection, and that he took ownership of his actions and admitted that he was wrong. From now on, when he swears at us, throws something, or hurts somebody we will decide together what he can do to make up for it. It won’t always be fun for him, but we’ll still be on the same team.

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Getting Organized, Flylady Style

I have always struggled with self-imposed routines. In the past I have tried (and failed) to establish them and basically ended up deciding I was better off without them. However, my forays into the world of autism this last year have taught me that routines can be life-altering for families dealing with kids on the spectrum. Coincidentally (or not) I have also noticed over these last few weeks that I am living in a constant state of mild stress because I have so many things to do and feel like I’m never catching up and never getting it all done. I wait until something is in crisis mode then jump in and ignore everything else to fix it.

It really hit home this past month when the homelearning year began. I was determined to set more of a routine and, importantly, sit down and do homeschool work with the kids. One month into it and I hadn’t done so at all. I kept telling myself that I’d catch up this week and start the next, but that never happened. I knew I had to get this under control if I was to have any hope of getting my kids and myself into a routine.

My cousin recently posted on Facebook that she had discovered Flylady [warning: her website is very cluttered and not very well organized, the irony of which is not lost on her followers: read this post for a quicker explanation of the system]. I learned about her ten years ago when I joined an online parenting forum, but I’d never really believed I needed that kind of help and I’d sort of forgotten all about her until I saw the post. It made me realize that I do, in fact, need help. If I can’t keep this little home clean and tidy and find time to homeschool my kids, how am I going to cope when we have our new (much bigger) home? I felt I owed it to my family – and especially my husband, who has worked so hard to get us here – to get things under control.

I read through her site and realized that this was more than just how to have a tidy house. Flylady is all about establishing routines. And that is what I needed: for my home, for work, for homeschooling, and for the kids.

Her system works by introducing one task at a time and allowing time for them to get established as habits. This part of the program is called “Babysteps” and there are 31 days of them (I’ll discuss what happens after completing the Babysteps when I get there). I’m currently on Day 3 and I’d like to discuss the two steps that have been introduced so far.

The foundation of this method is the Shiny Sink. Each night before I go to bed my task is to shine my sink. It starts with a big clean on the first day, and the last step is to use Window Cleaner to shine the sink. I’ve never heard of that nor thought about it (I tend to avoid cleansers other than baking soda and vinegar, but I did have some Earth Friendly window cleaner around) but it really works. The sink shines! After that first big clean all you need to do is wipe it dry after using and give it a shine at night (later in the program there will be times set aside each month to do a big clean again). And I’ll tell you, that is a really nice thing to wake up to. When all the rest of your home screams “piles of work need to be done!” you can take comfort in that one little shining beacon of cleanliness.

But I’ve discovered another benefit to the Shiny Sink – it forces me to do the dishes at night. I am currently about 50/50 on whether they get done. Often I’m so exhausted at the end of the day I simply don’t have the energy. But I have come to appreciate how much better my day goes when I wake up to a clean kitchen, so I try. But now that I am shining my sink, I can’t stand to have dirty dishes around it so I have been good about doing them each night. Bonus!

The second Baby Step I’ve begun is Getting Dressed to Lace Up Shoes. When I first read this I thought okay, I understand the mental benefits of getting dressed at the start of the day. I think all stay-home mums know what it’s like to discover it is after noon and you’re still in your jammies. Or the FedEx guy arrives unexpectedly and you have to answer the door in a bathrobe (with our old trailer home and crowded run-down porch, it all just adds to the overall fashion theme we have going here….). But I balked at the shoes. I thought to myself how much I like wearing my lovely, cozy Padraig slippers. How wearing shoes in the house was a Bad Thing (according to my mother and most people I know). How uncomfortable I would be wearing shoes all day. I thought “I can skip that part”.

But then I read her reasons behind wearing the shoes and two of them really hit home to me. First, if you have shoes on you are more likely to go outside to, say, take out the garbage, or take the grocery bins to the car, etc. And I know from experience this is true. Sometimes I just don’t feel like taking off my slippers and so the thing gets dumped somewhere. Now that I am always wearing shoes, it is no trouble to take a bag of garbage to the bin.

The second reason was one of those “A-ha” moments that make you wonder why you never put two-and-two together before. I often suffer from sore feet and sometimes felt that I hadn’t even really done enough work to merit them. But guess what? Flat slippers don’t provide much support. So I have been wearing my runners and there is a bounce in my step and no more sore feet!

I sorta skipped ahead with my reading to see where I’d end up when done. And I’ve already planned out all my routines, cleaning days, etc. But I’m still going to follow the Babysteps and only add one when I’m supposed to. I know if I try to make too many changes too fast I will fail. It’s a process, and I intend to enjoy it.

An added bonus of all this is while I am gradually introducing things to my own routine, I have covertly begun getting my kids into routines too. I am now getting dressed to shoes each morning: the Little Dude likes to be naked, which was okay when he was 2 but not so much now that he is 8. So we’ve started with him getting dressed before he begins any activity. The Big Girl’s task is to wash her face first and then get dressed before starting on any activity. I’d already gotten them used to bringing their plates and cups into the kitchen when done with a meal (in our house that means literally walking about four steps, but it was the principle!). Now their equivalent of the Shiny Sink is that instead of just putting the stuff on the counter, they put them in the dishwasher.

As I go along adding things to my own routines, I’ll add to theirs. I’m hoping for big things at the end of this 31 days! I will keep you all posted as to how it goes…