Exclusive Interview With Author "Meri Wallace"
Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert, and child and family therapist for over thirty years, writes a blog for Psychology Today, and is the author of Birth Order Blues and Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old. She is currently publishing her third book, The Secret World of Children. This book helps parents to understand nine developmental reasons for their children’s challenging behavior and how to handle these issues positively.
Meri has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents Magazine, New York Family Magazine and Brooklyn Parent. She has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop and has been interviewed by national magazines including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Parents and many more.
She appears regularly on podcasts, radio, and national television networks as a parenting expert. She has made repeated appearances on shows such as Eyewitness News, Good Day New York, WNBC, CNN, MSNBC, BBC, WPIX, the Hallmark Channel and the Fox Family Channel. Meri also worked with a producer at Eyewitness News designing parenting segments in which she appeared as the expert, and hosted her own TV show on Plum TV.
Here is what she had to share with Writer’s Life Magazine.....
You’ve been a child therapist for over 30 years, why did you decide to specialize in this area?
I have always viewed children as beautiful gems. I love their innocence, exuberance and sheer joy of life. When I completed my B.A. at the Rubin Academy of Dance in Israel, I taught creative dance and music to children of all ages. My main goal was to help children express themselves through music and movement. Their excitement and creativity was a joy to behold and teaching them was a sheer pleasure.
I also observed early on that children needed kind, caring treatment to grow up feeling loved and I saw that parents were making many mistakes. Walking in the supermarket or sitting on a bus I observed parents responding harshly to their kids and saw how sad it made them. It was apparent that it was easy to harm a child’s self-esteem, or neglect and abuse them. I decided to go to New York University for a Master’s in Social Work and learn as much as I could about children’s development and how to help parents raise their children to feel loved.
What is the main difference between working with children vs. adults?
Young children do not have the language to express what they are thinking or feeling, nor do they have a clear understanding about what is happening around them. In working with children, I use play therapy such as doll play, or building and drawing. Play is a child’s most natural activity. It also is the window to their emotional life. A little child can’t tell you, “I hate the new baby. You spend so much time taking care of him. You don’t love me anymore.” But children will act out their feelings through play. Often a three-year-old with a new baby at home is drawn to my doll house and within a short time expresses his jealous feelings by tossing the baby doll out the window. As a therapist, this action gives me an opportunity to open up a discussion with the child. I help children identify their emotions, understand why they feel and act the way they do, and help them find words to express themselves in the treatment room and to their parents. When working with children I also meet with the parents and explain to them what is upsetting their children. I then guide them on how to communicate positively and reassure their children that they are loved. It’s interesting that when working with adults the goals are the same -- understanding your emotions, thoughts and needs, and learning and how to handle them effectively-- but it is all done with language.
What is the biggest reward you get from helping children?
Parents will come to me panicked about their child who is kicking them, failing in school or hiding cigarettes in his/her room. Through my work with the child and the parents we determine the cause of the negative behavior, often this is that the child is feeling bad about themselves and feeling unloved. I help the child express their emotions in words and I guide the parents to make positive changes in their communication to help their child. The beauty of my work with children is that I help the child to feel valuable and loved. This is my greatest reward.
Here is an example: Recently a family brought their twelve-year-old son, Sam, to see me. Sam was constantly having fights with the children at school. The school was suspending him and the parents called me for an emergency session. It became clear to me that Sam was very angry. His older brother was an outstanding basketball player and the family was completely wrapped up in his progress: going to games, award ceremonies and having nightly discussions about future tournaments. Sam had already spent his childhood being dragged to his brother’s games. In the family he felt less valued and loved than his brother. He was angry and took his anger out on the other kids at school. He also was frequently locked in battle with his parents because he wouldn’t listen to them and he became the bad child of the family. When I explained the source of this child’s problems to his parents, they were surprised. They hadn’t detected the root of the problem. Slowly they began to understand Sam’s experience and his behavior and I helped them to change their approach. They began to give Sam more attention, praise and affection. They started to foster his interests to show he was a special child too. At dinner they began to focus more on both children and not just talk about basketball. Slowly the child began to feel he was in fact equally loved and his aggressive behavior ceased.
Helping a child to feel good about himself and loved is the most rewarding part of my career.
Tell us about your new book, The Secret World of Children.
Children kick and bite, steal candy in the supermarket, and clonk the new baby on the head. When well-meaning parents see this behavior they are horrified. Is their child crazy? Will their child be on a therapist's couch forever? Parents desperately want to be loving and respond positively to their infant or their teen, but their child's behavior is often so confusing, scary and maddening that they do not know what to say or do.
The Secret World of Children acts as a life preserver for parents in a sea of confusion. In this book, parents will learn that nine natural developmental issues are the underlying cause of their children’s behavior from infancy to adolescence: the need for love, curiosity, aggression, the need for independence, urgent wishes, impulsivity, timelessness, the need for pleasure and fears and anxieties. Understanding these issues and using the positive tools in this book to handle challenging behaviors, enables parents to raise their children to feel loved. This is the main goal of this book.
At a time of tremendous unrest in the world and the need to repair human relationships, raising children to feel loved is the key. This book therefore is at the core of healing the world- one child at a time.
What is the main message you want parents to take away from this book?
That children are not bad. Their behavior is driven by nine developmental issues including the need for love, curiosity, aggression, the need for independence, impulsivity, urgent wishes, timelessness, the need for pleasure, fears and anxieties. These issues often lead to negative behaviors and parents overreact from fear and anger. Once parents understand the reasons for their child’s behavior discussed in this book and manage the behavior through the positive communication techniques I describe, they can guide their children to express their emotions, needs, and wishes in a more positive effective way. But it takes much patience, repetition and time for children to develop control over their impulses and handle situations more appropriately. Parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world!!!
What are some of the biggest misconceptions parents have?
The old belief about children for centuries was that children have a bad part of themselves that makes them misbehave and that the only way to get kids to listen and behave is to punish them, often severely. Parents haven’t understood that children are driven by natural development. Children are not little adults who know how to behave appropriately. They need time, biological growth, language growth, experience and most of all the guidance of their parents to learn the best behavioral choices to make.
There was also the misconception that the role of a parent is a strict disciplinarian. I prefer to view a parent’s role as a benign mentor; someone who guides their children about what to do in situations and is extremely mindful of protecting the child’s self-esteem. Setting limits with children to keep them safe is an important task we have as parents. But these limits can be handled in a positive way. I believe that explaining reasons for limits to kids in a loving way is more effective than punishments. Harsh punishment makes children afraid of their parents, causes them to feel bad about themselves and can hurt children emotionally and physically. Children can grow up feeling a loving relationship includes harm and end up making poor choices in their partners.
Your book, Birth Order Blues, gained quite a bit of recognition. Can you briefly tell us about this?
Everybody has a birth order and is drawn to the topic like a magnet. People sense that their birth order affects them and they are curious to know how. They all have questions: Is it hardest to be a middle child? Why am I a perfectionist? Why do I feel so inadequate?
My book was the first book for to deal with birth order by describing the unique emotional experience of each child in the birth order, and how these experiences affect the child’s emotions, behavior and achievement. The focus of my book was to give parents insight into the different experiences and skills to support each child in his or her unique spot and raise them to feel loved and self-confident.
The book was so successful because it helped parents to understand each of their children, solve sibling conflicts and other daily problems, and have a happier family life. Parents also were pleased to understand how the emotional experiences described for each child actually explained who they are.
What is the one thing you would tell a parent who is having a tough time understanding their children's behavior?
Behavior is a reaction to an emotion or an event. In order to deal with it successfully you must deal with the deeper issue. If your child is kicking the couch, or throwing his toys around, try to identify what happened immediately before the action. Did you say no to your child going to a party and now he is angry? Did he have a fight with his teacher? Once the underlying emotion, in this case, anger- is identified, you can help your child deal more effectively with the emotion. You might say, “I think you’re kicking the couch because I said no to going to the party. When you’re angry you need to use words. We don’t kick the furniture. Say, “I’m angry and we’ll talk about how to handle the situation.’’
What are you working on now and what can we expect from you next?
After the publication of Birth Order Blues, I rode a high wave in the media. I began to appear on TV and radio as a parenting expert; I started to design TV segments; I hosted my own show; I wrote magazine columns and articles; and I was constantly interviewed in magazines and newspapers. I hope to be launched again in all these activities when The Secret World of Children is published.
I was very thrilled to write a script for Meredith Company about the experiences of each child in their birth order. I am planning to approach them about making a video of the nine developmental issues I have identified in my work.
As a playwright, I will be working on a musical sitting on my shelf called, “Underground,” a play about two families struggling to make a living as subway musicians. The story describes how difficult their lives are and a tragic love story that ensues. I also would like to revive an Off- Broadway show I wrote called, “Tango Fever.”
As far as writing another book, I often think about writing a memoir.
For more information, please visit, www.MeriWallace.com