Category Archives: Parenting

My oldest is going to college. How do I make the transition easy for her siblings?

This is a post by Jeri Kayser, who’s been a Child Life Specialist at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota since 1985. Her educational background is in child development and psychology. She has three children who have been a great source of anecdotes to help illustrate developmental perspective. They’re wonderful at being good sports about it.

If you’re a parent of a college-bound kid, your life has probably been taken over by filling out FAFSA forms, figuring out finances, deciding who’s bringing the fridge and shopping for dorm sheets. They really had to make them some weird size, huh?

You may not have paid attention to how this transition has impacted your younger children still at home. But, it’s not too late to think about what might work best for your family when your oldest leaves for college, especially if your oldest is just entering his or her senior year in high school this year.

There will be big changes and more subtle ones. Sometimes it’s the little changes that feel more disruptive because they have a way of sneaking up on you.

When our oldest left for school, it took our family forever to set the table for four people instead of five. When that fifth place setting was obviously unnecessary, our youngest would always groan, “Oh yeah, Zach’s not here.”

This shift in family life begins to firm up over that heavily ritualistic space of time known as senior year. Every sport or club banquet honoring seniors, every college fair, the ACT test, senior pictures, prom and graduation celebrations all remind us of what’s to come. At a grad party we attended this spring, I found a younger sibling greeting guests. She spied me, sighed and said, “This has been the ‘All Andrea, All Year- year.’ I’m sick of it!”

It can be a bit daunting to achieve balance between giving your kids the attention they need and preparing yourself, your college-bound child and their siblings for this next step. My hope is that the following tips will help your family:

Visit college with the entire family

Take your younger kids on some college visits. It’ll help them understand what college is about and why their big brother is  so excited. Plus, it’s a family trip! Many college visit programs include activities for siblings. Our youngest loved checking out the bookstores. It’s fun to get them a T-shirt from the chosen school because it’s a direct physical connection to their big sibling when they wear the shirt.

Involve siblings in graduation party prep

It’s a ton of work to get ready for a grad party. Assigning a younger child to sort through pictures and make a poster can be a huge help. It’s also a great way for everyone to reflect on all of the shared memories.

Move-in day: Get all hands on deck

Having siblings help on the day your freshman moves into her dorm is another set of legs to run up those three flights of stairs with all of the stuff, but more importantly it’s a great opportunity for them to see where their big sister will be living. They can also make their own imprint on the room by contributing with a picture, stuffed animal or shared item. When you leave, make plans for when your family will next see each other. Even if that isn’t until Thanksgiving, there’s comfort in knowing when you will see each other again.

Use social media

Facebook, Twitter, Skype, texting and emailing can be easy ways to stay in touch. Our kids share an iTunes account and have grown to love the fact that they can listen to each others’ current interests. When my daughter is missing one of her brothers, she likes to listen to one of their favorite songs.

Be mindful that your freshman needs time to establish relationships with new friends at college and most schools recommend that they stay at school for about six weeks without visiting in person. This is a fantastic rule and a tough one to follow, but it’s definitely worth it for their enjoyment of everything the college experience has to offer. Be ready to intervene if your younger children are communicating too much.

Send care packages

Every kid likes to get a care package. And there’s no better time like the present – when back-to-school shopping is in full swing – to start collecting shoe boxes for transporting goodies to your child. As you find items that would be of interest to your freshman, put them in the box and when you fill it up, send it off. Younger siblings can help prepare the care package.

Parents: You’ve got this. Here’s to a great school year!

School is in session

This is a post by Amy Moeller. Amy is a therapist who has worked with children and adolescents for 25 years. She works in the Adolescent Health Department at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota and treats teenagers experiencing depression, anxiety, social struggles and chemical dependency. In addition, Amy co-founded The Family Enhancement Center in south Minneapolis 17 years ago. She works at the center part time with children and families who have been affected by physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. Amy is married and the mother of three children. 

It’s that time of year again. It’s time for your teen to go back to school and juggle activities, homework and sleep.

As a therapist who works with teens, I know sleep and homework can present significant challenges. Between pressures of being involved in sports and other activities and being social, sometimes sleep and academic work take a backseat.

We all know that sleep is critical for kids. But did you know that the average teen needs around nine-and-a-half hours of sleep each night, according to the American Sleep Disorders Association? Studies show teens generally get fewer than seven-and-a-half hours of sleep.

From the moment their alarm sounds, teens go, go, go. But here are some ways you can help your teen catch more z’s and stay on top of school work.


  • On a school night, set a time for lights out. While this is tough during the school year with activities, it’s better to set a time at the beginning than a mid-year change. Also, lights out means all electronics should be stowed away.
  • Establish a reasonable time to go to bed and wake up.
  • Help your teen develop a night-time routine that helps him/her slow down. Reducing commotion for an hour before bedtime will help your teen relax.
  • Cut caffeine consumption and encourage daily exercise more than two hours before bedtime.


  • Create an environment geared toward your teen. Some teens need privacy and quiet; others prefer to be around people. Find space in your where your teen is most comfortable. Have the tools they need to get the work done.
  • Pick a time for homework and stick to it. Routine makes your teen feel safe and secure. When they feel safe and secure, they’re at their best. Be available to help if your teen needs it.
  • Don’t let them get overwhelmed. When kids enter high school, they have a platter of activities from which to choose. Some teens want to do it all. This is a good opportunity to talk about “too much of a good thing.” See how they handle the responsibility of one activity before allowing them to take on another.
  • Get on top of a situation before it becomes a problem. During the first week, meet with your teen’s teachers or attend open houses to talk about expectations for your teen and your teen’s goals. This will send a message to your teen and the teachers that you care about your child’s education.
  • Keep your sanity. I know it’s easier said than done. Parents of teenagers often have trouble distinguishing between when to step in and help and when to back off. The grades they earn are their responsibility. We give them the space and the tools, and they need to do the learning. This doesn’t mean we ignore grades or stop caring. It means we push our teen toward taking the responsibility they need to become a successful adult.

Here’s to a well-balanced school year! Good luck, parents!

What advice do you have for other parents to prepare for the upcoming school year?




Talking to your kids about tragedies in the news

By now, you’ve likely read or heard about the violence that took place at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater during the midnight showing of the new Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.” According to the Denver Post, a gunman entered the theater and allegedly shot 71 people, killing at least 12. Police arrested a suspect, who is in custody.

We at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota are disturbed and saddened by this tragedy, and we extend our thoughts and prayers to everyone affected by it.

Today and over the next several days and weeks, the story around this mass shooting will continue to develop in local, national and world news outlets, as well as on social media. As a parent, you want to protect your children in every way, including sheltering them from this horrific event. Yet they may still be exposed. They may hear about the shooting from friends and other adults, social channels like Facebook and the news. Tragedies can hit home – no matter where they happen.

We reached out to some of our therapists and child life specialists, who offered tips about how to talk to children when there’s a tragedy:

Limit their exposure to media coverage

    • Don’t assume your children won’t pay attention to anything that isn’t “kid” programming. News media often display dramatic images that capture the attention of young children.
    • Be aware that media may break into a children’s program with updates.
    • Choose to watch a DVD or listen to a CD instead of watching TV or listening to the radio.
    • Consider activities away from media sources such as going to the park, reading books or playing board games.

Watch what your child watches and discuss what you see and hear together

    • Ask your children what they think and feel about what they hear and see.
    • Clarify any misconceptions they have about the information presented in the media.
    • Be certain to include information that older children may receive through social media and texting.
    • Monitor adult conversations. Children will often listen when adults are talking and may confuse facts for opinions.

Reassure your child of their own safety

    • Remind your children that you love them and are doing everything you can to keep them safe.
    • Educate them about the role of community service agencies such as police and firefighters that help to keep them safe.
    • Acknowledge a child’s emotions and take them seriously. Don’t try to minimize or talk them out of their fears.
    • Answer their questions directly but don’t give them more information than necessary.

Pay attention to changes in your child that may be a result of what they have seen or heard

    • Younger children are significantly more impacted by the reactions of adults around them as well as the visual images on television. They are more likely to exhibit behavioral changes as a result.
    • Older children may need to talk about what happened and their feelings about the events. They may ask more questions related to the event/attack or make speculations through “what if” questions.
    • Children may exhibit behaviors related to stress such as generalized fear that something might happen, changes in sleep habits or appetites, avoidance of places that are similar to the site of the attack/shooting, poor concentration and separation anxiety.

Be honest with your teenager

  • Be up front and frank. Teens have a higher understanding of the world than young children.
  • Invite them to share their opinions. They have them.
  • Be aware of their reluctance to go to a movie theater or similar environment. Be willing to accompany them until they feel more comfortable.
  • Talk about ways they can protect themselves and create a plan together should they find themselves in a dangerous situation.

For additional information about talking with your children about tragedies and trauma, please visit the American Academy of Pediatrics.



How do we teach our kids to be sad?

This is a post by Jeri Kayser, a Child Life Specialist at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.

Yep, you read that right. How do we teach our kids to be sad when every natural inclination tells us that kids need to always be happy? As parents, we tend to measure our self-worth in the reflection of our child’s emotions. As soon as our child cries, we seek a solution to sooth in a sympathetic response. But sympathy can sabotage self-esteem. No one wants others to feel sorry for them.

Empathy is more powerful. When you’re empathetic, you let your children know that you understand their distress and are prepared to support them as they develop their coping skills. This is much easier said than done. It’s painful to see your child in pain. Plus, learning to cope with sadness is a skill set that needs to be learned, so how can we help teach our kids how to be sad?

First Step: Embrace your own sadness. Kids learn by example. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, fatigued, frustrated, or generally not pleased with the status quo, do some self-exploration. There is much to be gained from trying to figure out why you aren’t happy. Seeking solutions is a way to gain control and find balance and when your children observe you work through something, they learn the value of the effort. Plus, they’re comforted by the fact that you have some of the same emotions as they do and have learned to deal with them.

Second Step: Remember everybody gets to own their emotion and every emotion is valid. We can go through the same event and have different responses to it, each equally relevant. There’s no “bad” emotion, just the one that’s present. If you can retain a calm presence, it’s easier to be supportive and not have your emotional response get mixed up with your child’s.

Third Step: Help give your child the vocabulary to express their emotion. Teach your child descriptive words that more accurately express their feelings. As they’re learning these words, encourage them to use art as well to express what they’re feeling.

Fourth Step: Help your child discover coping skills that work for them. One of my kids likes to write down her feelings in the privacy of her room (after the door has been slammed!). We know now to wait for the essay to be finished before she is ready to talk.

Last and most important step: Cut yourself and your child some slack. Being emotional is being human. Emotions are how we embrace life and experience it fully. It is not neat or perfect but real and messy and rich.

‘The Talk’

This is a post by Amy Moeller. Amy is a therapist who has worked with children and adolescents for 25 years. She works in the Adolescent Health Department at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota and treats teenagers experiencing depression, anxiety, social struggles and chemical dependency. In addition, Amy co-founded The Family Enhancement Center in south Minneapolis 17 years ago. She works at the center part time with children and families who have been affected by physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. Amy is married and the mother of three children. 

So you may no longer be the most influential force in your teenager’s life. Guess what: Your child still needs you and (secretly) wants your help and guidance.

This includes guidance about the topic some of us dread: Sex. When planning a conversation with your teen about sex, don’t save up for “The Talk” of olden days. The conversation about sex and sexuality isn’t a one-time event.

Believe it or not, teens want parental involvement. They want rules and boundaries that help them feel safe, and they want their sexual information to come from you – the parent. They can get the basic facts and figures from sex education in school. What they can’t get from their friends or school are values. Values come from the parent.

Before you have the first of many conversations, consider the following:

Keep an open mind. Don’t judge. Be open to your son or daughter’s ideas and thoughts, even if they’re different from your own. Accepting and acknowledging your teen’s feelings will get you far. Respect your teen. You don’t have to agree with him or her every time, but try to listen and treat him or her fairly. Be open and honest and, in return, you won’t get shut out. Teenagers have a keen sense of when adults aren’t being honest and genuine.

Consider the door closers. I give parents “door openers” and “door closers.” If your daughter comes home and tells you that her friend is pregnant, do you say, “You can’t hang out with her anymore. That’s terrible. See what happens when you have sex”? I’m sure you can imagine how far that response will get you. Open-ended, non-judgmental questions will get you further. Do you want to talk about it? How are you feeling about your friend’s pregnancy?  

Be proactive. Don’t wait for questions. Messages in popular culture provide great conversation starters. Watch what your teens are watching, listen to their music and read what they read. This gives you an opportunity to ask them what they think about the lyrics or the messages. Then you can share your ideas, opinions and values. I personally find the car to be my favorite place to bring up these subjects. When my son and I are alone in the car – let’s face it — he can’t escape me. I end up learning as much from him as he does from me.

Help your teen understand that sex isn’t just intercourse. Discuss other types of sex including oral sex. Many teens believe oral sex isn’t actually sex.

Talk about healthy relationships and love. Teens want to know about more than the mechanics. Find out what they think a healthy relationship looks like. Share your vision of a healthy relationship.

Have no fear. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” You can search for answers together.

If you’re still having trouble approaching your teen about sex, find a trusted adult to help you. And remember that while your teen may act like she doesn’t want you to have “The Talk” with her, she really does.

Have you faced any challenges when talking to your child about topics like sex and sexuality?


When the patient is the parent

Parenting is already a difficult job; now imagine parenting from your hospital bed – or worse, being so ill you need to rely on someone else to parent your child or children.  A hospitalized parent may be separated from their children, perhaps too ill to communicate, and the other parent or family member is too stressed to recognize the children’s needs.  Families struggle with separation and uncertainties with illness and hospitalizations, especially with sudden or traumatic medical events.

Parents and family members are often stumped at the best way to talk to kids about such situations.  Children can sense when something is going on and overhearing information can lead to misunderstandings or misperceptions. When a loved one is ill it is important to be honest with children and communicate with them at a level they can understand.  Taking a moment to talk with your children not only helps them, it may relieve some of your stress.  Parents are often surprised at how easy this kind of conversation can be – children usually have some information and are eager to be included. 

Three important parts of your conversation should include the following:

  • Mom or Dad is seriously ill (or grandparent, etc.) – Talking about an ill parent will not make a child any more upset than they already feel and it presents an opportunity for them to express, to a caring adult, how they are feeling. 
  • The name of the illness or injury If a parent has been diagnosed with cancer – it is okay to use the appropriate word. Children don’t often have bad associations with these words.  It will also be helpful if they want to share their story with a friend or teacher.
  • Your best understanding of what may happen – Explain what you believe will be your hospital course AND how this might affect them, “My doctor wants me to stay in the hospital until my infection has gone and daddy will be home with you” or “I’m planning to stay in the hospital until the end of the week but then I’ll make regular visits at the clinic to get medicine called chemotherapy; you will continue to go to school.”

 Ask your child what they want to know, and be open and honest.  Use age-appropriate words along with correct terminology to describe the illness.  Children will retell your story and if you worry about saying the words yourself, kids pick up on that.  You may need to reassure yourself too – people do have strokes and get better.  I encourage parents to be hopeful but honest. The worst way children can learn information is overhearing it.  Be mindful of what and how you share details of your illness, it might not feel fair to your children if they learn their cousins know more about the illness than they do.

Two – Six year old children need information and reassurance

  • Children often think they can cause something bad to happen – reassure that they did not cause this illness or injury.  Explain the illness on their level; don’t assume they won’t be affected somehow.  A two year old may not understand your illness, but they will know that a parent is not home or there are changes in routines.
  • Children often think illnesses can be contagious – reassure that they cannot catch the illness.
  • Children will want to know how they will be impacted – explain to them with detail the best you can.  Routine is important and equals security to children.  Keep children informed of their routine or any changes to their routine.


Six – Twelve year old children may desire detailed information

  • In addition to some of the other information, this age group can handle more information, but may get some of their information from peers, media, and online resources. 
  • Be sure to check in frequently in case they have new questions and concerns.


Teenagers can have a variety of reactions and responses

  • Provide lots of detailed information.  They want to be treated like adults even if their physical and cognitive changes interfere with producing very mature, adult-like behavior.
  • Make sure they have someone outside the immediate family to talk to on a regular basis, but discuss privacy issues, in case you want your personal info kept within the family.
  • Developmentally, teens are working on separating and being their own person.  This can be challenging since they want to spend time with friends but feel pressure (internal and external) to be home with an ill parent.


How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness (Kathleen McCue, 1994)

Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child When a Parent is Sick (Paula Rauch and Anna  Muriel, 2006)

Some kids’ cereals have more sugar than Twinkies


Did you know some cereals have more sugar per serving than a Twinkie?

Dr. Nicole Omann, a pediatrician at Children’s, spoke on KSTP this weekend about the importance of watching your child’s weight, and the shocking amounts of sugar found in some cereals.

Two studies about kids’ health were released last week. The first study revealed that not enough doctors are telling parents their children are overweight. The Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine surveyed 4,985 parents of children ages 2 to 15 who had a body mass index in the 85th percentile or higher, asking them if they had ever been told by a physician or health professional that their child was overweight. Only 22.4 percent of parents reported they had.

Your child’s weight is something you should monitor closely year-round, Dr. Omann said, not just during annual check-ups.

As for the cereal, Dr. Omann urges parents to have breakfast options like oatmeal, fruits and eggs for their kids instead of sugary cereals. The Environmental Group study listed the best and worst cereals for kids, with Kellogg’s Honey Smacks and Post Golden Crisp topping the list of worst cereals for kids. Read the full report on the sugar in children’s cereals.


Need to buy a toy for a child?

Jeri Kayser, a Child Life specialist at Children’s, wrote this post for families.

I have often thought that the hospital would be an excellent testing site for what toys kids really like and which ones hold less value than the box they came in. When we purchase toys for the hospital we need to find ones that will capture the child’s interest, support their developmental needs, be durable and have universal appeal. So with these thoughts at hand as well as mistakes and triumphs in present purchasing for my three urchins, I am offering a helpful guide to get as much value as possible from the task of buying a present for a child.

The Golden Rule of Toy Purchasing: The more the toy requires from the child, the more they will get out of it and the longer they will play with it.

I saw a stuffed animal in a toy catalog that was playing drums. That would be fun for about five minutes. The action of the toy has already been decided and the child has little input. A toy that allows the child to vary what they can do with it increases the possibilities and value of the experience. The following categories help give guidance to finding toys with lasting power:

The 4 Bs

1)    Books: You can never get enough of these. One of the surest ways to help your child become an excellent reader is for them to be surrounded by books that they can get their hands on whenever they want.

2)    Babies: This would include anything that can create a storyline. If you have ever watched kids play with small cars, the cars talk to each other and have roles to play. Stuffed animals, action figures and dolls would also fit.

3)    Blocks: Anything you can build or create something with. Small bricks, big blocks, clay or arts and crafts activities offer the chance to use your imagination in virtually limitless ways.

4)    Balls: Things that get your child moving. Balls, yoyos, bikes, hockey sticks, whatever. We all know physical activity is good for our bodies, but our brains crave that kind of stimulation as well.

Jeri Kayser has been a Child Life Specialist at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota since 1985. Her educational background is in child development and psychology. She has three children, ages 21, 19 and 15, who have been a great source of anecdotes to help illustrate developmental perspective. They are wonderful at being good sports about it.

What effect can “secondhand TV” have on infants?

The American Academy of Pediatrics updated its guidelines on media use for children under age 2, and raised the issue of “secondhand TV.” While repeating its original advice from 1999 that infants should not watch television, it also addressed the issue of televisions being on in the background for the first time.

“Many times with television, although there is a lot of educational programming that is out there, the term ‘educational’ can be used very loosely,” Paul Melchert, MD, a pediatrician at Children’s, told Fox 9 last night. “Kids under age 2 seem to learn better from interactive free play, exploring things on their own and at their own pace.”

Watch Dr. Melchert’s full interview above, and read more about the study in the Star Tribune.

Take it from me; tips to improve your child’s next appointment

Tips to asking questions and getting answers

The reality of having a child with chronic health care needs is that clinic appointments are a frequent event. One year I counted them all and from January to July we had 60 appointments alone.

I had to figure out how to make the best out of our appointment time.

For example, to get us in the right mindset, my son and I have a fun routine on the way to the clinic of listening to a tune by Elmo that goes “You have to be patient to be a patient.” This helps us both, but there are some other things that we could do as well.

So I’ve compiled a short list of tips that have helped me, and will hopefully help you get the most out of your next clinic visit with your child.

These ideas come from a lot of personal experience doing things the wrong way, leaving me frustrated, wondering what the doctor said, trying to recall when I am suppose to come back for a follow-up, and remembering that good question I wanted to ask heading home well after my visit, etc … you get the idea.

  1. Why are you there? This is important because it may determine how much time you have with the doctor. If it is a physical or well child check up you have about 15 minutes. If a sick child visit probably less time.
  2. How do we use this short amount of time wisely? Bring a list of questions and the first one should be the most pressing issue you have. This I learned after having a terrible time getting out the door, running late stuck in traffic, can’t find parking, or need a quick diaper change in the back seat, and then completely forgetting every question I had when the doctor arrives.
  3. Take notes if possible or ask the doctor to write things down, draw pictures, or what ever you prefer. Same list of troubles as #2 above happen when leaving and inevitably you cannot remember anything you talked about. You can also ask them to mail you a copy of the office visit notes. If you learn better visually tell the clinician that. If you don’t, save them the trouble of having to be a brilliant physician and an artist.
  4. Don’t forget prescriptions. If you need refills this is done more easily in person then tracking them down over the phone.
  5. Bring help. If you are able, have someone with you to care for your child while you are talking with the doctor. This can be very helpful.
  6. Get to know how the clinic operates. Surprises are not fun during after-hour emergencies. Educate yourself on what the after-hours procedures are, and what happens if your child ends up hospitalized or in the emergency department, or if your primary doctor is on vacation? I have learned that “call us if you need anything” is not as easy as it sounds.

As I also have said before, having your own personal health record is a great way to keep everything organized. I prefer an online version with the Children’s Medical Organizer, that I can then print out if needed.

Please add to this list. What tips have you learned coming to clinic appointments?

Melissa Winger

Melissa Winger is a Children’s of Minnesota employee and long-time member (and former chair) of Children’s Family Advisory Council. Read more about Melissa in her first post to the Kids’ Health blog.