Posts Tagged ‘raising children’

Imperfect Parenting: Lies, Stealing, and Other Survival Methods

Posted on: May 27th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

Last week, I wrote that I’m going to a mini-series on imperfect parenting. Remember when I told you that while toilet training Henry I told him pants were a privilege? This week I’m pretty stoked to share all the immoral things I do to survive mommyhood. Just kidding, I mean, it’s not that immoral.

Photo of woman smilingIn becoming a mama, I, like anyone else, had this grand idea of what it would look like and who I would be. I spent 6 months building the perfect nursery off my Pinterest ideas, deciding what outfits were Henry’s “style,” and buying things off my baby spreadsheet. That happened. All of it. It’s hysterical to write now.

When Declan was just about due (3 weeks to delivery) I had turned him from breach and was on rest. I sat around my home and realized I had bought nothing, I’m serious, nothing for him. You know why? Because I co-sleep my babies, breastfeed them, and use cloth diapers. He didn’t need anything. I tell you this because in my dreams of having a baby I thought it came with all this stuff. Once I had a baby I realized it wasn’t the stuff or the picture I created. Being a mom is just like that.

Creating Your Own Mom Values

In being a mom, I, of course, have a list of values, ideas, and dreams that I want for my children. On my best day I’m able to be present and implement small pieces of this. This can look like being super present, playing, reading, cooking, and talking to listen with my children. In my head, every day looks like this. In reality, moments of each day look like this–the rest is up for grabs.

I’m going to tell you some things I do to survive. Don’t judge, we all do them! The first and most important lesson I have learned as a mama is to lie hard. This little lesson came to me when I was teaching Henry to stay in his big boy bed. I would lay him down, he would cry for me to stay and I would gently whisper, “It’s okay mama needs to go potty she’ll be back in 5 minutes.” Henry would feel assured and fall asleep. I never came back, ever. Martin would sit on our stairs and shake his head. What’s worse is I’ve now taught Dametrius and his babysitters to simply tell Henry they are going potty when they lay him down. We are all lying and it’s working.

I also lie almost every morning to Henry. It looks like this; Henry watches a show while I get ready for work (go back and read my post about technology prior to COVID for other parenting fails). I set a timer for 30 minutes and when the TV goes off Henry needs to get dressed. He asks me “Mama can I watch Daniel Tiger downstairs?” I say, “Sure baby, let’s get dressed and brush our teeth.” Henry always pops up and does his routine. We get downstairs and he asks again. You know what I say, “Maybe later.” I also tell Dametrius to do this when he gets Henry ready.

Do you know why I lie to Henry? Because it’s easier, plain and simple. If I told him TV is all done he’s gonna scream and I don’t want to deal with this. Neither does anyone else in our home. I know it’s wrong, I know I should just take a deep breath and say, “No,” but I don’t want to. I want to get my little man dressed without feeling like I’m wrestling an alligator. I won’t lie about the important stuff, promise. But as long as my kids don’t have long term memories I’m using this one.

I suggest using the line “maybe later,” instead of, “No,” I swear it works wonders. “Can I have a popsicle, ice cream, pizza, watch TV, see Grandpa…” The list goes on and on. “Maybe” avoids tears in our home.

Surviving as a Mom

OK, so now you know I lie to survive. I also steal! I told you about a piece of this last week. That in toileting training Henry I would take his prizes every night and put them back in the prize bin. What I didn’t tell you is that in the middle of COVID I realized I was spending my entire day picking up toys.

One item on my pre-baby Pinterest board was wooden toys organized in bins. Almost 3 years later and we are overflowing with plastic toys. After a few glasses of wine one Friday night, I announced to my husband I was becoming a minimalist again. I was one before a husband and kids. Well, more of an imperfect minimalist. Our Amazon delivery driver disagrees but I digress.

On this particular Friday, I told my husband that we never wanted our kids to have so many toys because they don’t appreciate them. So why are we living this way? During naps on Saturday, just like the Grinch, I packed up their toys. Like 75% of them. I put them all in the basement and set a timer for a month. If no one noticed they were gone I was going to donate them. It’s been a month, no one noticed, so those toys are long gone!

There was one tiny T-Rex that I hated and kept putting in the garage donation box that Henry kept rescuing so I finally gave in and stopped stealing that. It actually felt so good to downsize. Now I have to remind myself not to downsize on a daily basis. We picked the toys they have and we now have a one in one out rule again. But man, getting rid of the stuff not only freed up my time it also helped me get realigned with my own values on materialism. On a side note, I’m also doing the 33 challenge and loving it.

A Few More Parenting Tips

I think lying and stealing are the biggies at our home to survive parenting. To give you some smaller ones that I think are helpful I’ll list a few. Bribing is always lovely. If you’d like your child to do something, like come inside without chasing them, I recommend it. We give a lot of chocolate for coming inside vs. chasing. Passing the problem to your partner is a good one. For example, Henry wants a toy to do something very specific, I can’t figure it out, and say “Daddy knows how!” I also recommend making it a pattern to have your partner doing things you don’t want to. Henry likes someone to lay with him after books, so I told him “only daddies do that.” It’s almost a year later and you know who Henry asks to put him to bed every night? Daddy. But hey, maybe that’s because I lied. Who knows?

Parenting is hard work and raising small humans means every day is going to be different. At some point, you just have to do you. If what you choose to do causes no lasting harm to your children sometimes you just have to do what works for you.

I hope reading this brings some joy to all the imperfect parents out there. I’m not perfect, but being naughty can also be a blast (even for parents).



As I write this, Henry is sitting behind me with an empty flask. Don’t worry, we’ve never actually used it… we don’t have anywhere to go!

Imperfect Parenting: Toilet Training Edition

Posted on: May 20th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

In my last blog, I wrote about accepting being an imperfect parent. I’m going to take a few weeks to do a mini-series on all my failures and wins as a parent because the joy of imperfect parenting is honoring both. I’m walking this path right alongside you. Ain’t no shame here!

Almost eight years ago I opened Instructional ABA Consultants for business. I was a loud, proud, young business owner with a full heart and mission. I still have that full heart and mission today. At the time I did what most business owners do; I got a cute outfit, took a gorgeous photo, and wrote my professional bio for my website. It’s still there today (picture updated because no one is 25 forever…). In my bio, I wrote a great many things including my areas of expertise. One of them was toilet training. During my undergraduate studies, I worked in a preschool and toilet trained dozens of children. Later on, when I received my master’s degree, I also toilet trained children for my caseload. I even held parent lectures. I’m laughing that this is still listed as an area of expertise… Enter my son Henry.

Toilet Training Your Children

photo of a child potty trainingI began toilet training Henry around Memorial Day last year. Prior to that, he was showing interest in sitting on the toilet so I started my own training methods following his lead. Henry wasn’t yet 2 years old which is very young for a boy. But hey, I was not complaining because at the time I had two babies in cloth diapers!

We started with Henry sitting on the potty at every diaper change to get used to just sitting. Once we made it through this phase I created a schedule for Henry with a prize box for successes. I took him to sit every 30 minutes, set a timer for 2 minutes, and then gave him a small prize! I then stole these prizes when he went to sleep at night and put them back in the box (he never found out….). Henry started to pee on the potty and life was good!

I entered phase two per my own training; remove the diapers. Holy hell. When I removed diapers we entered a solid 8-month process of trial and accidents. During this phase, I used just about everything I could think of that I had used with my own clients. I tried going more often to catch the accident. I tried going 15-20 minutes after he drank water. I tried reading books, singing songs, and even the damn potty song on youtube (“Come on Henry what do you do, come on Henry it’s time to go poop!.) Yes, I just wrote that from memory. No, I can’t come back from that. There’s more.

I tried bare butt over Labor Day and Christmas break (except naps and bedtime). Yes, he smeared poop on his playroom wall. I tried having him clean up. We have a sprayer for cloth diapers so this was loads of fun. I followed the rules and while we were making progress with going pee on the potty Henry was still having accidents with pee when he wasn’t supervised. This was any time he was playing alone, playing in our yard (we have a fence and I can watch him within eyesight), or mommy was crying in the bath (j/k but for real). He also was not potty trained for poop. At all.

I decided to talk with my team, who I’m sure were thrilled I was begging for more ABA potty training advice. I mean, I’m their boss, it’s in my bio, I can do this, and I’m still whining at team meetings I can’t crack this nut. Honestly, the team was super gracious. I love them all to pieces for many reasons (including letting me be human). I wasn’t willing to go back to diapers because we were 80% there for dry pants and I didn’t want to move backward. But I had nothing else to throw at this.

Toilet Training During COVID-19

Enter COVID-19 and Shelter in Place. I did what any person who is sheltering and anxious does; I made a list of all the shit I was going to accomplish (more on that later and if you’re still doing this please be kind to yourself and stop…). First on the list; finish toilet training Henry!

You know what I did? Me with my decade-plus in the field and fancy degrees? I told Henry pants were a privilege and he could earn them back when he pooped on the potty. My son wore no pants for a solid month. I once had my acupuncturist tell me she did this with all her children and it took a weekend. Lies. I tried this weekend bare butt thing before, remember?

During the first two weeks of bare butt, Henry quickly learned to hold his poop for his diaper at nap. Then it hit me. The thing I tell every parent seriously; you cannot toilet train and use diapers. I just had never dealt with nap time or bedtime (as I wasn’t a parent at the time) so I kept using them. I ordered bed pads and a squatty potty (to help him stand and poop on the potty). Then I told him, “Henry you’re a big boy, no more diapers.” I put a toilet next to his bed and thought, “Godspeed little one.” And you know what? No rewards, no schedule, no waking up at night and Henry stopped using diapers while he slept.

As Henry’s mom, one thing I’ve learned from him is that he has to do literally everything for himself first. When he was a baby we would watch him practice new milestones (clapping, standing, words) in his crib on the camera sometimes weeks before he would show us. I needed to slow down and remember how he learns, even for toilet training. This would have saved us both some tears and yelling. Remember I’m not perfect and yes I’ve lost my shit in the bathroom when we need to leave and he’s refusing to go. No, I’m not proud of that. Yes, it’s over because I know this is a trigger and give myself more time now when we need to leave. No rushing, period. It’s a rule I follow for me not them.

So now we have it right? Henry is going on the toilet, all is well. It’s the longest it’s ever taken me to toilet train a child but I’ve done it, right? Nope. Turns out Henry really enjoyed bare butt and became a nudist. This included stripping outside, peeing & pooping outside (claiming he’s a puppy…) and a few times where he peed on my carpet like it was grass. I was horrified. I mean I was on business calls, mute, “Henry no! Pants on, no pooping in the yard!”

Luckily, I do have ABA in my back pocket so I created a “wear your pants program.” This was much easier than our previous feat. I gave Henry a fruit snack throughout the day when he had his pants on and set a timer for every 30 minutes outside to make sure he had them on. Outside was the biggest problem because of our, er, problem. In about a week of rewarding pants on behavior Henry started wearing clothing again.

It’s a month later and Henry is 100% clothed and toilet trained. When he poops on the potty AND wipes, I drop the microphone and pour myself a glass of wine. Rock on mama. One down, one to go. Declan, be easy little one. Please!


Imperfect Parenting

Posted on: May 13th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

Over the last month, I’ve written about my own personal journey during COVID to shine a light on fear. This week, in honor of Mother’s Day, I’d like to write about parenting during COVID. Personally, I’ve gone through highs and lows. Some days, I’m so grateful and proud. Other days it’s a completely different story. Through all of it, I’m learning to love myself and my boys in the midst of imperfection.

Intentional Parenting

Prior to COVID, I liked to think of myself as an intentional mama. I made a lot of calculated decisions about how I wanted to raise my boys and had some pretty high expectations of myself. I’ve shared before that when I had Henry I suffered from postpartum depression. As a trauma survivor, I had an added layer of not wanting to do anything to harm my child. Not harming my children in a physical way, I don’t worry about that, but in not wanting to make a mistake. From there I spent the better part of 18 months being 100% attentive to Henry when he was with me.

I mean, I was that Mom we all hate. Calculated floor time, zero TV, homemade meals every night, cloth diapers, no electronic toys. I was perfectly happy doing all of this but I didn’t do anything except this. I gained being a mama in my heart and at the cost of myself (a bit). Enter Declan (my second boy) and keeping up at this pace was just not achievable at the same rate. I went through an angry phase, being angry at myself for not being able to keep it up. Then I realized while I could love all the different ways I could parent my children, the most important was having a full heart. That I needed to find time for Jessie and not just the mama in me. I’ve quoted it many times but truly, “How Not to Lose Your Shit with Your Kid,” changed me.

Changing Your Parenting Style

After I realized I couldn’t keep up the same pace of my “perfect parenting,” and with two children under 2, I gave myself a hell of a lot of grace. I let myself fail, break my own rules, and most importantly spent time taking care of myself too. I was able to keep the things that were important to me for Henry and Declan. This looked like eating whole foods, limited TV time (none for Declan he was not yet 1), being present when I was with them, and allowing myself some alone time when we were home together. This felt good. Really good. Enter Shelter in Place. Without my village, it all fell down.

I had gotten into this groove with my children because I allowed myself access to support. I made sure I didn’t expect myself to be with my children 110% of the time. My children went to who I consider their second mom’s house (Dana!) three days a week. Martin and I were rocking date nights at least every other week. I was going to the gym. I was regularly cooking at home (while still appreciating occasional restaurants). I was balanced. I was happy with myself, my parenting, and so grateful for our new son Dametrius finally coming home. Then, overnight, it was just our family and our responsibilities increased as a family increased exponentially.

I’m pretty lucky in the sense I had already laid the foundation with myself that it was OK not to be perfect as a parent. That to be a mama didn’t mean to be on point every second of the day. But a big piece of this was letting myself have some alone time. With sheltering in place, alone time is SO much harder to achieve. My husband works 40 hours a week from home with little relief from his work to help with childcare. Owning my own company means I have to be the flexible one with fitting my work schedule around the kids. It also meant I’m with our boys way more than my husband. I’m learning how to teach our new 8th grader. Dametrius just moved into his new home, so I had no idea what he knew academically.

Add my own hippie heart of loving organic foods (but not able to go to the store), limited technology, and being present to everything else and you’ll realize this was a tall order!

So I did something radical. I’m serious, this was big for me. I threw away my script. Seriously! I decided that the most important thing was something I already knew after healing from postpartum depression and parenting two very young children. It’s love. That’s it. Love is all my children need to grow and thrive.

Realizing What’s Important as a Parent

Don’t get me wrong. There are still things that are very important to me as a woman and mama. But if I kept up with my pre-COVID rulebook I was going to crash and burn. Honestly, looking back, I don’t know how I wasn’t crashing and burning anyways! Sure, I had help, but my expectations were sky-high. So now I expect failure from myself and my kids on a daily basis. We fail, we cry, we kiss, and we move on.

I still want my children to eat well but, honest to God, cooked my first boxed mac and cheese for them ever. I still want them to play in the dirt more than behind a screen but we have movie night every night. I still want to be present with my kids but I allow myself to check emails on my phone while drinking coffee each morning. Some days we have free days. This means jammies all day, movie mornings, coffee, and picking up a toy or something small in a pickup order. I’m resting for myself, eating as well as I can, and moving or getting any exercise when I have a few minutes for self-care. When I can’t do these things I give my heart a big hug.

Mostly, I’ve realized that while my village made my pace possible it wasn’t what my heart wanted. Being home with my children for this amount of time has taught me to follow their needs and my own together. I’m not the mama I was before COVID. I’m messier, louder, and I cry a little more. But you know what? In accepting imperfection I’m happier too. I hope through reading this that perhaps you can love your imperfections in parenting too. And hey, maybe you’ll become a bit closer to your authentic self.


A Simple Autism Support Guide

Posted on: March 25th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

Over the course of the past week, our lives have changed rapidly. Here in Illinois, as in many states, we are formally following Shelter in Place. ABA therapy is medically necessary for children with autism and ABA therapists are categorized as essential workers. That being said, we gave our families and staff the option to pause services or work until the Shelter in Place lifts on April 7th in Illinois. We gave the same option to our Colorado families. There are still families receiving services and staff working, but we have more families currently on pause than those continuing with ABA therapy (as a personal choice). As a clinician and mama who is now going on week 2 home with my own children, I know how hard it can be. This week I’d like to provide some insight on simple tips for children with autism who are at home without their usual support team.

photo of mom journalingTip #1: Make a Daily Routine

I know that this tip sounds simple. I’ve even seen this tip on several parenting sites not specifically meant for children with autism. Having a daily routine during a time when life feels uncertain can be comforting. It’s also an easy way to ensure you are doing what’s important for you and your children every day.

For children with autism, routine has been, and will be, important beyond the COVID-19 outbreak. People who have autism often think in patterns and sequences. Life itself is one big pattern! To a person with autism, knowing what comes next can bring down anxiety levels. If anxiety is low, problem behaviors surrounding a change in the routine (the next task on the schedule) are less likely. The more predictable you can make each day for your child with autism, the calmer they are most likely to feel.

Tip #2: Single Task

I’ve mentioned this before, but in “How Not to Lose Your Shit with Your Kids,” single tasking is brought up A LOT. Maybe after COVID-19 the book will be a New York Times best seller! Just kidding. But in all seriousness, if, while you are implementing your child’s (or children’s) daily schedule, you are trying to multitask you are setting yourself up for failure. Single tasking is just what it sounds like. Do one thing at a time.

With millions of us now working from home, while our littles are there as well, I know what a large feat this is. You are trying to work and keep your children happy, which is multitasking in itself!

How I’ve personally tackled this is by setting up my children’s schedule (minus naps & food) around my day. What this can look like is taking breaks from work to transition your children through their schedule. It may look like cutting yourself some slack and when you really need to work. Things like putting a movie on or setting up play time that you don’t need to be involved in may seem like sub optimal parenting. While I know the mom guilt can be real, knowing our own boundaries makes for a calmer house. Do one thing at a time the best you can to keep your nervous system at bay. If you do lose your shit, go ahead and give yourself a great big mental hug. It’s OK, we’re all struggling.

Tip #3: Choose Small Goals

I learned this tip working with children with autism well over a decade ago. I was working with a boy with autism back in Ohio and he had a goal to learn to shower independently. In order to learn the full task of showering we broke the skill of showering into small steps. The goal was broken down into steps like taking clothes off, turning on the water, checking the temperature, and so on so forth. The whole process was over 25 steps! We taught one step at time and, in time, he learned to shower by himself. In ABA we do this for all our clients in their programming.

While you’re home with your child with autism, pick a few goals that are really important to you–ones that will bring pride or joy to your child. These goals can be new communication (pick 2-3 words/signs, communication cards), play goals with siblings, play goals alone, eating goals, or self care. Think about things you’d like your child to be able to do. Observe your child and write down all the steps they would need to know in order to accomplish the full goal. From there, you’ll pick the first step of the goal. Teach, teach, teach until that first step is learned. After you see success on the first step, move to the next. You may not get to the full goal by the end of Shelter in Place but your child will be learning!

Comment on our Facebook post your questions about goals and we’ll reply!

Tip #4: Celebrate Success

It’s so easy to become frustrated with each other during Shelter in Place. I mean, we’ve all seen the Shining… Staying in place can be filled with wonderful family moments, as well as some pretty real human moments. To help your child with autism know what they are doing well, make it a point to praise them! Try to find 10 positives a day to praise your child. Knowing that they are doing something correctly gives your child the confidence to continue their positive behaviors. And hey, while you’re at it, maybe thank your husband or wife for dumping clothes in the hamper not the floor.

Tip #5: Remember Functions of Behavior

Over the course of the winter, I wrote about the functions of behavior. I explained how everything happens for a reason and how in ABA we use four categories to explain why behavior happens. These categories are attention, escape, access to tangibles/activities, and automatic. During your time at home with your child, if a problem behavior occurs start to observe it the best you can to find the function. Here’s a quick guide:

  • Attention: Parent is busy-problem behavior occurs, parent provides either positive or negative attention
  • Escape: Parent requests-behavior occurs, parent removes demand
  • Access: Child requests an item or activity-behavior occurs, parent gives access
  • Automatic: this one is complicated, please reference my previous blog here

Once you notice what your child wants with their tantrums or problem behavior, it’s important to do two things. First, try to be preventative and fill them up with what they want before the behavior occurs, when feasible (for escape this is lots of breaks/attention & access is self-explainable). Then, if the problem behavior still occurs, do not give your child the consequence they are seeking. You don’t want to reinforce bad behavior. Stay consistent and sooner, rather than later, your child will realize the behavior isn’t working and it will go down. Also, remember to teach language skills to help your child request their needs more safely!

Tip #6: Give Yourself a Break

Life is disrupted for pretty much everyone right now. It’s easy to start your day with a plan only to have that plan change–sometimes only minutes into the day! It could be from work, your child’s particular mood at the moment, or that you yourself are just having a bad day. Try hard not to judge yourself and instead provide grace. Say kind things to yourself when you’re struggling and make sure you’re carving breaks out for yourself. These should be things you love to do. Mine look like naps, a kid-free hour, and running. If I’m overwhelmed I look to when I can schedule a me moment in. I hope you can too.


ABC’s & 123’s Don’t Really Matter Much to Me

Posted on: March 11th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been sharing some of my favorite parenting practices, practices that I believe have a direct impact on positive development. In writing these blogs, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about my take on academics and young children. In a world that has growing expectations concerning what children should know, I’m more than happy to write my spin. That being said, I have to admit that my opinion on this topic stems from my grandma.

As a child, family was really important to my dad (it still is). He made a point to see his parents and to keep us connected with our aunts, uncles, and cousins. One way he kept my sister and I connected with my grandparents, who lived on a farm about an hour away, was to leave us with them for a week every summer. This was my favorite week of the year!

During the week on the farm, we would help take care of the animals (well, mostly me!) garden (again, me ) and learn to sew (mostly my sister). We got this amazing exposure to a slower pace of life and to learn about my grandparents’ take on the world.

My Grandma Virginia was the matriarch of the family and a force to be reckoned with. There was really only one opinion that mattered: hers. I loved her. Originally my grandma went to college to become a teacher but met my widowed grandpa who had two small children. Her life quickly changed when they wed. They had four more children of their own and she spent her years raising them while my grandpa worked as a traveling minister. When all her children were grown (all 6!) she went back to get her master’s in special education, which was right around the time I was born. She then went on to teach 6th grade and special education.

Learning About Education

In talking to me about children and education, there was something my grandma said to me that has always stayed with me. She told me that when she went back to college she was amazed by how many new theories had been created and how expectations had changed yet children were still just children. To her, this new world of education was based on adults wanting to “make a system better based on their own take,” versus really just following a child. She was concerned about the new level of academic work being pushed at a kindergarten level that then, of course, lead to the age of standardized testing.

Now, mind you, I was born in 1987, which was the year my grandma got her master’s. It was most likely the mid-90’s when she shared this opinion with me. But sitting here this morning, writing this to all of you, I can’t help but feel she was onto something.

I’ve now sat across the table from hundreds of parents with children who have autism and are worried that their young children are behind academically. In speaking to these parents, I have learned they are concerned with things like their children being unable to sit in a group, or solo, for a long period of time, not knowing shapes, colors or ABC’s, and not being able to read by kindergarten. I also know my mom-friends of young neurotypical children have the same concerns. These parents want to make sure their children are set up to be successful at school. This is a great goal, but, if you ask me, the academics really don’t matter in early childhood. Here’s why.

Childhood Development: More than Academics

To me, in regards to education, I have one skillset to emphasize to my children before they go to school; love to learn. That’s it. As I’ve written about before, children are naturally curious and ready to take on their world every single day. This thirst is what will drive them to learn just about anything we ask of them later in life. At an early age, forcing rote memorization of facts (colors, numbers, letters, shapes) doesn’t match the level of curiosity children have; it confines them to a small space versus the world. In doing table time work with small children, we’re teaching them to follow a rule (sit/see/do) versus teaching them to learn. Please don’t get me wrong; sitting at a table and doing work is super important as a child gets older but up until age 5 or so I really don’t see a benefit.

When a child is little I want to see them sit to eat, read books, play, and with family around 5 to 10 minutes at a time. Going potty is also a time to sit. If a child can sit through these social scenarios and understand the expectation, awesome! I really don’t expect more than that before age 5. The reason for this is children are natural movers! They learn through exploration and don’t have an attention span longer than their age. Asking a child under 5 years old to sit and “do homework” is really just an expectation of the institution versus something developmentally appropriate. Now, I know A LOT of educators might read this and not agree; that’s OK, that’s your right. I can tell you, however, that by working in a preschool with young children with autism and by watching my own children that I strongly believe in what I’m saying.

Children learn in their world. If we, as educators, parents, and therapists, begin forcing academic behavior and content before a child shows interest (between the ages of infancy to 6 years) then I do not believe we’re helping them get ahead. What I have seen as a huge benefit in development working with young children with autism and my own children is to just follow their interests. This means play, play, play or read, read, read! And if there are opportunities to teach during moments of play or reading? Go for it! It’s totally OK to ask for letters, shapes, colors and so on while playing or reading. By doing this, we’re teaching children that learning is exciting and to love to learn! There’s no pressure in this way of instruction and children learn to seek out this type of interaction. It reinforces curiosity & learning. This is what I want for my children and, more so, what I would want for a child with autism.

Encouraging Childhood Curiosity

If children are curious about adult interactions and finding new interactions within their world, the rest (like academics) will come. Really! For children with autism, learning the value of social interaction is a key component of their treatment in ABA (applied behavior analysis) therapy. What I don’t want to see in a young child with autism before the age of 4 is being brought to a table to learn and memorize information as the primary part of their therapy. I want to see them working with their therapists through play with only a small part of therapy reserved for focus and tabletop work. In my children and other neurotypical children, I don’t see any value in tabletop work before age 5 unless a child initiates it.

Children are magically curious, with an appetite to know more each and every day. What my grandma noticed when she returned to college all those years later was an increase in the expectations from institutions yet no change in the child. In her words, “we don’t need to reinvent education.” It’s been some time since my years on the farm and my grandma has since passed on but today I feel close to her and in complete agreement. Let them be little, let them be wild, let them be a little wild!


Straight Talk about Technology: Parenting and Screen Time

Posted on: March 3rd, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

Growing up, my parents were very structured and very strict. From a child’s perspective, I had a laundry list of things I did not agree with and regularly challenged (sorry Mom and Dad!). I can still relate to ways in which I was raised that still don’t resonate with me as an adult. This is not to say my parents were bad people, we just had very different perspectives.

That being said, one thing I thought was a top injustice of my childhood was my limited TV exposure. I know I felt on the outside when it came to what other children my age were allowed to watch, both in content and length. Now, as an adult, I’ll humbly admit “Mom & Dad you were right.” I do not believe in exposure to TV before age two and believe in continuing to control exposure through all of childhood. This is my belief as a researcher and a mama.

Limiting Exposure to TV During Childhood

Photo of a toddler with snack cupSo, why do I have such a strong belief in monitoring exposure to televsion? Why do I feel so strongly about not want my children exposed to television at an early age? Why do I want TV used with control and boundaries as my children grow up (Dametrious can tell you how unfair his screen time limit is!)?

I believe, and research supports my belief, that the use of technology in children under the age of two has a direct negative impact on language development. Per Welcome to Your Child’s Brain; “U.S. babies of seven to sixteen months who spend more time in front of the screen know fewer words. Two or more hours per day of screen time before the first birthday is associated with a sixfold increase in the risk of language delay. Even Sesame Street Viewing by babies correlates with language delay, though this program has lasting beneficial effects on three-to-five years olds.”

To elaborate, repeated exposure to technology builds new neural pathways in our brains teaching them to look for instant responses at a speed the natural world cannot keep up with. This can enhance symptoms of ADHD and autism, create antisocial behavior, and start an addictive engagement with technology. In sum, technology is built to teach us to engage with it and not the world around us.

Raising Children with Little or No Screen Time

For these reasons, I choose and teach to limit technology with all children, my own included. I know reading this might trigger some mom guilt. Trust me, I feel it too! This is why I think it’s important to talk about children and screen time.

As a working mom of young children, there is chaos at my house at any given moment. There are times every day where I feel I’d just like an easy out. An out that makes my children sit quietly so I can do, well, anything. TV is a huge temptation to use as a pacification tool. For me, however, the “sit and zone out” quiet time TV provides is not worth the cost on a daily basis.

When children are in front of a screen they are not interacting with their social world, period. This means that all their beautiful, developing synapses, synapses only available to them for their first three years of life, are going unused. When a TV or screen is on my children are not learning and many critical social and lingual milestones may be delayed. As their mama, knowing what I do, I just can’t stand in the way  of my children when it comes to development.

Substitutions for Screen Time

So, my opinion is that any lengthy screen time is not an option for young children. What do I do to distract my children in stressful situations? First I have to tell you that limiting or eliminating screen time is definitely a lifestyle choice. Not using screen time as a tool means I have a lot of messy moments in my house.

For example: Every morning when I wake up around 6AM my husband is leaving for work, which leaves the task of getting three children ready for the day solely up to me. My youngest, Declan, nurses first, followed by Henry and Declan playing in my room and bathroom while I get ready. They take EVERYTHING out and turn my room upside down. Specifically, Henry enjoys “ice skating’ by putting lotion on his feet in my bathtub or maybe shredding cotton balls for his dinosaurs to eat.

My brain can get overloaded with all their quick little interactions with the environment of my bedroom or bathroom. A bouncy seat with Sesame Street on TV sounds SO nice. But I know if we start the day that way, all the beautiful energy and curiosity in the world will switch to a pattern of behavior to crave technology every morning.

So, Henry ice skates, Declan turns everything upside down, and I do my hair (while taking a lot of deep breaths). I play this scenario throughout our days together because being home with small children alone is HARD WORK. Whether it’s getting ready for work, being home during the day, bedtime–you name it–single parenting is no joke. If you throw in children with different abilities, like autism, and life may feel totally overwhelming. For me, keeping technology rules in our home is really helpful for dealing with the feeling of being overwhelmed; it gives me a structure to lean on every single day.

Screen Time Rules for Kids

With all the above being said, I still believe that TV and screen technology in general can be OK in moderation. But screen time must be my choice not my children’s. I have to admit, it’s been a real balance test for me since my husband and I introduced TV to Henry at 2 years old and I’m constantly fretting over his exposure. Declan still has not been exposed (minus seeing his brother set up for movie night on Sundays) at almost a year old.

TV rules at our house are keeping movie nights to Sunday night outside of special events like my husband wanting a boys night (Star Wars is out on Disney Plus). We also limit Henry’s access to 20 minutes a day or, sometimes, every other day. Up until Henry was 2 ½, there was almost zero daily exposure to TV. If I know I’m going to need a minute to myself, I plan 20 minutes around me, not him, for TV time.

We also allow zero screen time on Ipads, unless it’s a long trip or public place where we really need Henry to sit (Acceptable example: getting an Xray at the doctors. Bad-example: going out to eat). Every once in a while, I cut myself some serious slack, usually due to extreme outside stress, and use TV outside of our family rules. Because life happens. Just remember not to use every excuse you can to break the rules!

I know it’s a lot to digest the WHY of limited screen time from a practitioner’s standpoint. As a mama, I know reducing or eliminating screen time is not the easy route, trust me. But I chose this route for my children because I want them to be curious, messy, loud, and in love with everything that goes on around them!

If I make a choice to make TV part of their day or not, I’m making a choice to teach them to disengage from the screen world in front of them. And I think in the growing age of technology we could all be a little messier & engaged.


Thirty Million Words, How a Small Thing Goes a Long Way

Posted on: February 18th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

This past week I took a break from blogging as my family grew by one. My husband and I were blessed to win custody over a dear 14-year-old boy who has been a long time family friend. I appreciate the grace shown by my readers that allows me to use this space to welcome Dametrius home.

Listening to Your Children

Two weeks ago, after writing about Mom Judgement, I promised to start sharing a few of my favorite parenting practices. As I’ve said before, I believe children are one of the earth’s greatest gifts and because of that belief, I am intentional about how I parent Declan, Henry, and now Dametrius. My greatest intention with all of my children is to stay present with them. I want them to know that their voice and needs are important to me. That they are sacred and loved.

Photo of mother talking to babyThis leads to what I believe to be a powerful parenting practice: Talking to my children. As a mama, it’s so very easy to have my day dictated by what I believe to be my things-to-do list, all while hustling past my children and husband. I’m a woman with a big appetite for life who thrives in creating content and networks that empower others. If left to my own devices I would be working on around 20 projects at any given time. Things like going to the gym, practicing yoga, and cooking in my kitchen. I can easily keep myself busy and entertained all by following my own agenda. In having children, I made a choice to shift how to do things in order to make space for them.

One way that I make space for my children is by taking time to talk to them. I found this method through the work of Dana Suskind MD, in her work, “Thirty Million Words.” Dr. Suskind was a pediatric cochlear implant surgeon who was frustrated by the different success rates of language retention among deaf children who received cochlear implants.

What she found through her research was that children from lower-income families heard, on average, 30 million words fewer than children from higher-income homes. She also found that “how” lower-income parents spoke to their children was more corrective in nature while higher-income homes were more affirmative in nature. In the sum of her work she states, “it all came down to how well the brain had been nourished with words.”

Feeding Your Child’s Brain

This message for me was loud and clear. How much and what we say to our children matters. Their little brains thrive just in being spoken to. From there, of course, we build their moral compass by what we say. To give them an advantage ‘academically,’ all we have to do is talk. So talk I have.

As soon as I became a Mama to sweet Henry, I spoke to him all day long well before he could understand. I’d explain what I was doing, where we were, and have conversations with him even when his responses were coos. I still do this with Declan. “That’s really cool, tell mama, then what happened?” As Henry got older I just kept talking. I talk about his day, his routines, his rules, his feelings, and so on. With both boys, I make a point to model back to them what they say to be throughout the day. With Declan of course this is sounds and now a few words! With Henry this is affirming what he’s saying. It can look like him telling me, “Mama I see a big dinosaur with Dana!,” and I say back, “Wow that’s so cool you saw a big dinosaur at Dana’s house!”. In doing this with both my boys I’m making a point to increase the number of words they hear from me every day but also to make them feel heard. I want them to know how important a tool language is.

Saying the Right Things

Now I know some of you might think this is overkill but most of us are already doing this! I don’t set “talk time,” for my children. I just talk to them as though they understand me and as though their contributions mean something to me. I let them know language matters. In both my boys I’ve seen first-hand effects of this. Henry’s language is beyond his age. Henry began speaking full words at 10 months, counted well by one-year-old standards, and, at his two-year check-up, spoke over 200 words and phrases (the developmental benchmark is 10 words). Declan is just now ten months and has said 5 or 6 words already! While a piece of this is who they are I also know from the research that how much we speak at home is directly contributing to their positive language development.

If you are already speaking to your child as an active parenting practice and still see a gap in their language there is a good chance there’s something else going on. It could be a speech delay or if this presents with other symptoms it could be autism. Both of these things while they can cause worry are treatable. It’s not anything you, beautiful mama, have done wrong it just means your child needs some extra help. So if you’re talking to your children and don’t hear language by 18 months please don’t be afraid. Just be aware that it may be time to talk to your doctor about looking into some testing to see what’s going on.

Speech Therapy & Treatment for Children

Once you have an answer you have a course of treatment. Almost every child can learn to speak, if they aren’t it’s just about getting them access to treatment. For speech delays, it’s speech therapy and as I’ve said before for autism it’s Applied Behavior Analysis.

I’m sharing this practice because I feel as parents we have a huge weight on us to do everything possible to help our children, “get ahead.” However, what our children really need is for us to be present and speaking to them, not making up preschool curriculums for our homes. It’s a small thing I’m doing that’s going a long way.


Mom Judgment and Letting Go

Posted on: February 3rd, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

Last week, I wrote a lot about my journey into motherhood, which took me in and out of the throes of perfectionism. I like to tell people I’m a recovering perfectionist. I say this knowing that, in my mind, there is the best way to do anything, the absolute way not to do anything, and, of course, the middle ground. The rules I came up with are mine alone and therefore mine to release, but I believe they lead to the root of a much larger issue: mom judgment.

What is Mom Judgment?

Years ago, when I was deep into my spiritual journey to find my best self, I began to read a book called, “A Course in Miracles”, as one of my favorite author’s Gabby Bernstein cited it. Being a researcher by nature, I had to learn the source of Gabby’s teaching versus just following her interpretation. One lesson that hit home with me from the Course was “What we judge in others we first judge in ourselves.” Whoa.

Photo of parents with young child tying shoesMy first reaction to this was to challenge it. I started to run through things about myself that I judge and things I judge in others. Time after time I was able to find a root standard that I either hold myself accountable to be or not to be. At the time, my judgments were more related to body image, work ethic, and how I engaged with the world. If I did anything that was the opposite of my judgments I gave myself grief. If I saw someone doing something I wouldn’t do, I would judge them. In writing this I know I may come across as unkind. I promise you, however, that this is not my intention. I am human and I will fight to give myself the grace I would give to others. The teaching from A Course in Miracles was true.

Judging Yourself and Others

Last week in my blog I wrote briefly about the silent competition I was having with other seemingly perfect moms. To unpack this type of perfectionism (and yes, my own judgment) I had to go back to the teaching from A Course in Miracles. Remember the quote; “what we judge in others we first judge in ourselves.” What I found is that as a new mom I had a list of “good mom,” and “bad mom,” categories. While these categories started with me wanting to be a really good mom what happened was that every time a mom would give me a suggestion I would instantly compare that example to what I considered good or bad! And boom, there you have it, my mom judgment was born.

My mom judgment used to look something like this; I’d be out with a friend just chatting about Henry and we’d get on the topic of, say, screen time. That friend would share with me the amount of screen time they allowed their own child to have and I’d scan the response and decide how good of a mom I was because my answer was the same, better, or worse.

I could take that example and dice it a million ways across child-raising topics. Talk to me about formula, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, reading to your child, when to toilet train, sleeping at night, naps, food, school–you get the picture–and I will scan my own moral compass to sort them. Writing this, it’s almost embarrassing to type I did judging like this for a decent amount of time. It’s also incredibly honest and I believe true for all moms to some capacity.

Being Your Best Parent

We as moms are all so caught up in being the best parent that we exhaust ourselves deciding if we are, in fact, doing it correctly. As social beings, the only way we have to assess this is through comparison, so we get stuck in the trap of judging other moms. But really, whether it’s you or me judging any other parent, what we’re really doing is judging ourselves.

Let me say this to you loud and clear. You and I are raising our children to the absolute best of our ability. There is not a right or wrong answer about any given child raising topic outside of abuse and neglect. Even in those cases, we can all give a little compassion to the parent, whose behavior is completely out of line, but is clearly a person suffering in their own right.

I believe on any given day we are all doing our absolute best given the resources we have. That means if you choose to formula feed until your child can eat but I choose to breastfeed until my children are three, mama, we are both amazing. If you choose mac and cheese but I choose organic vegetables, rock on–our kids are fed. Want to allow unlimited screen time but I do like the French and limit mine? Totally cool. We probably have a different view on media as a whole. Also cool!

In the next few weeks, I’m going to share some of my favorite parenting practices. This doesn’t mean that they’re for all of you and that’s OK. But maybe, maybe, you’ll find something helpful that you’ve never thought about before. It does not matter what choices we make for our children so long as they are born from love.

What does matter, and I believe needs to change quickly, is the need we feel to so strictly judge ourselves and then take it out on other moms (silently or not). Beautiful mama, you are doing the absolute best you can and your only grade card is love!

Keep an Eye on Your Judgment of Others

I try to actively practice non-judgment. What this means is I try to notice when judgmental thoughts are coming up. If I notice a judgment thought popping into my brain, I give it a silent wave and send it on its way. That doesn’t mean I don’t struggle to stop comparing, but it means I’m not willing to live with the judgement of others in my heart.

If I see a mom buying a toy for a screaming child at the check out (something I wouldn’t do), I smile and offer to help load her bags. If a mom shares an opinion I don’t agree with, I ask to learn more or just let it go. And when a mom starts to mom shame another mom, I change the topic fast. Join me in this! Help the struggling mama you see in public, send a little love to a friend who parents differently than you, and show compassion to your fellow beings who are showing up for parenthood the same as you and I. We can change the conversation we’re having with ourselves and the world by just letting judgment go.

Breathe easy beautiful ones, you’re doing the best you can. Me too.


FAQ About Behavior Change

Posted on: January 21st, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

In taking the last month to talk about “why” behavior happens, we focused on figuring out why your little someone engages in behaviors that are disruptive to you and your family. If you’ve taken the approach of beginning to look at the environment and changing how you interact with your child based on these articles, I’m guessing some questions are popping up.

Over the past twelve years in my profession, I’ve noticed recurring themes surrounding behavior change. Ultimately, I decided to make an FAQ covering some of the most common questions I get concerning changes in behavior. I hope that using this format will serve you well!

Behavior Change FAQ

A: This is 100% normal and to be expected. Let me say that again; if you change the way you interact with your child during a tantrum, etc. their behavior will go up in occurrence before they come down. In my field, we call this extinction. Why extinction? A behavior (or behaviors) you previously gave in to/reinforced are no longer working. The reinforcement is gone. Think about the dinosaurs! In reaction to this change, your child will try harder to get the old behavior to work, hence they go up... temporarily! This can last a day up to a couple of weeks. Stay the course. As Newton would say, “what goes up must come down.” Stay consistent and these bursts and behaviors will disappear.
A: Absolutely! Remember, we are all looking for things throughout our day to either fill ourselves up or remove ourselves from uncomfortable environments. If you pack almonds as a good morning snack you’re less likely to drive through the McDonald's starving when you're starving at noon. In the same way, if someone is asking too much of you (maybe a boss like me!) you’re more likely to shut down and disengage from work. Our children work in the same way. They have a perfect little recipe for actions that fill them up with what they love and removes them from what they don’t. Take notes for a few days on how often/long your child vies for your attention, asks for items (especially food), or complains when you ask them to do something. Using the number of times that your child either requests these things or protests your demands you’ll see how often they want attention, items, or escape. Using this schedule will increase your little one's attention/items a little and decreases the number of their demands by a bit. This isn’t permanent but can be a big relief quickly!
A: I’m hoping at this point you’re considering us friends so I’m going to be really honest here. The answer to this question is a firm, “No.” As a fellow mama, I know this is hard to hear because sometimes you’ve lost your shit and just need to let your little one eat skittles in bed after a tantrum. But here’s the thing; When you only sometimes reinforce a behavior (called an intermittent schedule), you actually strengthen the behavior! This means when you give in intermittently you are more likely to increase future tantrums, etc. A way to be gentle on yourself with this is to choose your battles wisely but be consistent 100% of the time when you decide a behavior is no longer tolerated in your home.
A: Words, waiting, tolerance to the word 'no' and doing something else! Children (and, let’s be real, adults too) engage in problem behaviors because they are missing a skill. I’ve never met anyone (excluding the criminally insane) who enjoys engaging in maladaptive behaviors. People generally want to do good things and be recognized for them. You can help your child at any early age to speak up about what they need, how to wait for what they want, tolerance to 'no,' and how to entertain themselves. Usually, I’ll prompt using words if I know my son Henry can have what he is tantruming for (a break, attention, a snack). Once Henry uses his words I'll honor his request. If Henry is tantruming and cannot have what he wants I either use waiting or tolerance to, his “Nos.” When we’re working on “Nos,” I model for him to tell me how he feels, i.e. “I’m mad!” Lastly, developing independent skills is a lifesaver because it teaches our children that we as parents are not the keeper of all goods. Eventually, children can actually navigate their environment joyfully alone!
A: Go back to the data! Record what happens before and after the behaviors you’d like to decrease for a couple of weeks. Then, take a look at the consequences (the after). Using the data you collect, count how many times your child was engaging in maladaptive behaviors for each function. The highest counted action in your data is the 'maintaining consequence.' Use this function first to work on the behavior (ex: it’s an escape, so you need to work on the follow-through of demand). The runner ups are the secondary functions that you just need to keep an eye on.
A: Once again, we’ve gotten close (as author and reader) at this point; the honest answer is no. When a behavior is reinforced by one person and not another, something called behavioral contrast occurs. This means the behavior goes up around the person consistently saying 'no,' as the child is testing to see if they will give in. The family, caregivers, and school all need to be on the same page with behaviors.
A: This is a hard one for me to answer because my gut says, “anytime you need relief!”, but I know many families are looking for when they should seek professional help. In regards to problem behaviors; if you have created a plan, been consistent with that plan for a month (or longer) and problem behaviors are still occurring--I would recommend asking for help at this point. A professional eye is most likely needed to uncover the more complicated patterns of behavior.

More on Behavior Changes in Children

When we’re talking about therapy for your child, I choose to stand my sacred ground. I know many parents don’t agree with immediately taking action and want to wait to see if their child will grow out of developmental delays. I also know many parents who agree with getting help as soon as possible.

My answer to both parties is as soon as you notice your child is behind in language, social skills, or physical delays go and get an evaluation. Find out what therapy can help your child. Remember, my stance is these are all symptoms that can be treated but without diagnosis and therapy there can be long-lasting effects for children. If a child does have autism I want to see them by the time they are 2 years old in ABA clinic and home-based therapy.


Automatically Maintained Behaviors and Beyond

Posted on: January 15th, 2020 by Jessie Topalov

The last three weeks I’ve written about how your child’s behavior is maintained by attention, escape, and access to tangibles. If these topics resonated with you, it is most likely your little sweetheart is engaging in problem behaviors, big or small, to get an outcome within their environment. In my field we call these socially mediated behaviors. The last function of behavior, the one I’ll be discussing in this article, is automatically maintained behaviors, and it’s the trickiest of the bunch.

Here we go. We all have needs that only come from within us, physiologically speaking. The most basic examples are hunger, thirst, feeling tired, having to go to the bathroom, and sexual behavior (we’re not going there, this is a kids blog!). In short, each and every day our body has needs and throughout the day these needs fluctuate between being “full” and “empty.” What this looks like for adults is planning our meals, when to grab a drink of water, how much to sleep and so on. Honestly speaking, this what a lot of moms out there are neglecting to plan for because we’re so overwhelmed by planning it for our children.

Fulfilling the Physiological Needs of Children

photo of toddler snuggling siblingWhen it comes to children, fulfilling physiological needs is essential and the second most important thing in their development. Nurturing emotions is number one, but we’ll save that for another time. Through any given day your baby, toddler, or child becomes hungry, thirsty, tired and so on. As parents it’s our job to first figure out these needs during infancy and toddlerhood. As they get older we teach our children the skills to take care of themselves. For the purpose of this blog, automatically maintained behaviors are important to note for two reasons.

The first reason is to help you, as a parent, know “why” your child is throwing a tantrum etc. If you’ve been reading my blogs and gone through the three other functions and are still saying, “OK but my kid is still screaming and none of these things are happening,” there is a good chance your child has a physical need that needs to be met at that moment. When children are tired, hungry, or thirsty they almost always show it in crabby behavior. For Henry, this looks like whining, being more stubborn than usual, and crying easily. These behaviors have nothing to do with anything he wants; he’s being irrational because his body feels off. With Declan and most other babies this just looks like crying. As a parent it’s important to know when your child is being fussy or when they need a meal/nap vs. giving them a teaching moment like we’ve talked about with the other functions. Additionally, it is important to not blame all of your child’s naughty behavior on being tired or hungry. Knowing the function tells you and me, the parents, how to respond. The second reason this is important and much deeper.

The Unique Needs of Children with Autism

Children with autism often have the most difficulty with automatically maintained behaviors. The reason for this is most children with autism have speech delays as well as heightened sensory awareness. From an early age children with autism will often present delays in speech milestones and may look as though they are in their own world. As they move from infancy to toddlerhood their needs change the same as neurotypical children. But children with autism often do not have the language to request what they need or want. For parents, this means a constant guessing game of if their child is hungry, tired, in pain, needing attention, want a toy etc. Additionally, having heightened sensory awareness means that children with autism can either overly enjoy or get overwhelmed by the sensory world. This can manifest itself in ways like getting caught up with a breeze, or how their hands move the air, and even go as far as disliking certain textures and sounds. It is a beautiful, but tough struggle.

Parenting the Best You Can

Children with autism are born perfectly fine. Let me say that again. Your child with autism is perfect. What is hard for your child, however, is understanding the social world and it’s not their fault. What is helpful for a child with autism is learning to adapt to our social world. This means learning language and how to navigate a social tribe (humans). For parents of children with autism this can be tough. But please, dear ones, remember: asking for help is a strength inside all of us. If your young child does have autism I am here as a resource and friend. I also want to help normalize ABA therapy to help more young children and families. Using ABA has made the struggles I’ve written about move from a steep mountain to a manageable hill. It’s not scary therapy, I promise 🙂