About Cathi Cohen

Cathi Cohen, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Group Psychotherapist, has worked with children, adolescents, and adults in a clinical setting since 1984. Early in her career as a social worker, Cathi recognized the power of treating relationship problems through group therapy. It was this interest and expertise that led her to create the Stepping Stones Social Skills Group Therapy Program in 1990. The success of this program led to the formation in 1995 of In Step, a comprehensive mental health practice. Cathi is the author of Raise Your Child’s Social IQ: Stepping Stones to People Skills for Kids, and has become a leading expert in the field of social skills training with children. She has since then completed two more books, Stepping Stones to Building Friendships: A Guide for Camp Counselors, and Outnumbered, Not Outsmarted: An A to Z Guide for Working with Kids and Teens in Groups. In addition to writing numerous articles and conducting regular workshops for parents, educators, and mental health professionals, Cathi has appeared on radio and television programs about the mental health needs of children and their families. Cathi graduated from Tufts University before receiving her M.S. degree from Columbia University School of Social Work.

If I had a dollar for everytime I warned my kids to be careful I’d be a wealthy woman. Isn’t it the default parent response when we watch our kids exit the house with a skateboard in hand or witness them climbing up a little too high in a tree, or see them take a death-defying leap from a rock to the lake below?

I’d never considered the possibility that there were more effective, appropriate phrases to express my concern for their safety (or my utter panic when they take their life into their hands!). I could have been more specific and said something like, “Does that branch feel strong and safe?” rather than bellowing, “Be careful!” for the 100th time — a phrase they likely tuned out long before.

Turns out that kids are evolutionarily wired to take risks and that rather than keep them from skateboarding or tree climbing we can both calm our fears and instill confidence in them. A blog post on Child Alliance and Nature of Canada’s website has some really helpful suggestions for a variety of situations, such as:

What to say when they play at great heights (i.e. tree climbing)
“Stay focused on what you’re doing.”
“What is your next move?”
“Do you feel safe there?”
“Take your time.”
“Does that branch feel strong and stable?”
“I’m here if you need me.”

What to say when they play roughly with one another:
“Make eye contact before you tackle someone. Make sure they know you are coming so that they can get their body ready.”
“Check in with each other. Make sure everyone is still having a good time.”
“Ask her if she’s ok.”
“Ask him if he’s still having fun.”
“Did you like that? Make sure you tell her if you didn’t like that.”
Research has shown that child’s play —including risky play— has an important function in their development. Studies of young mammals indicate that they take on as much fear as they can handle. They also learn, if one of them accidentally hurts another while playing, that they can work through anger to keep the fun going.

Nature designed children to teach themselves emotional resilience through all kinds of play — including the risky, thrilling and fear-inducing forms that cause us, parents, to yell, “Be Careful!” For more detailed research on this topic see the work of Ellen Sandseter and her 6 categories of risky play.

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Being a parent often feels like being a mix of a motivational speaker, stand-up comedian, and drill sergeant. Sometimes I speak without thinking first — never a good idea — and other times I’m just stumped as to what is the right or best thing to say.

For a Job Well Done
Instead of offering praise for every job well done (no matter how small) ask your kid, “How does that make you feel?”. This gives her the chance to decide how she feels about an accomplishment or a triumph. The same goes for the reverse. If she forgets to turn in her homework two days in a row, instead of telling her how you feel about that, ask her how she feels. In either instance this approach allows your child to reflect on their feelings rather than having you fill in the blank for them.

Listen To Your Body
As parents, from the time they’re born we spend a lot of time tending to our children’s physical needs. We’ve tuned in to their symptoms as well as the source of their physical complaints so we are tempted to tell them why they feel sick (You just ate an entire bag of candy!) or extra tired (I know — you were up reading until past midnight!). Since they’re the ones living inside their skin, it’s important they get in touch with how their bodies feel, and why. Teach them to go beyond identifying what they’re feeling and to link it to a possible cause. Learning to listen to and heed their body’s signals is a skill they’ll use throughout their lives.

Inhale, Exhale
This one works both ways. Because our kids are sensitive to our moods and take cues from our behavior, if we are rushed and hurried, they feel that way too. “Hurry up and tie your shoes or we’ll be late” and “You’re going to miss the bus if you don’t get up right now!” translates into stressful feelings for both of you. Try to catch yourself in these types of situations, slow down, take a long inhale and exhale, and then, get on your child’s eye level and help him do the same.

Is there a Silver Lining?
Disappointment is hard to handle when you’re a kid— they want what they want when they want it. But since disappointment is a fact of life you’re doing her a disservice if you rescue him from feeling bad or sad when things don’t go as planned. Instead, use disappointment as an opportunity to teach her how to adapt, manage her feelings and look for the silver lining. Say something like, “I know you really wanted a play date with Sarah, but she’s sick and can’t come over. Since we’ll be home together let’s think of something we can do—how about make her a get well card?

Let Me Think About It
“Can I go on a camping trip with Sam’s family? Please say yes Mom; I really want to go!” Sometimes when you don’t know how to best respond to a question, buy yourself some time to think about it by responding, “Let me think about that.” Not only is this a helpful strategy for you, it shows him that some decisions take time to consider and it’s not possible, or necessary, to come up with an answer right off the bat.

“The most effective way to speak to a kid is to use simple words and sentences that allow you to accept his feelings but follow through on your rules,” says Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. Her book has lots of helpful insights and advice on this topic.” Check it out to learn more.

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