Executive Function

What is executive functioning? As parents, it is important to understand that executive function is one of many components that is in-development in the early years of life. As our children grow, they slowly develop the ability to make plans, organize their ideas, follow directions, and manage time. This process can feel slow and arduous. However, it’s important to know that executive functioning is still developing throughout the teenage years and into the early 20s.

Today on the podcast I am joined by Dr. Mark Bertin, a development pediatrician and executive functioning expert. He’s sharing more about this topic , his work with patients, and his books for parents.

Show Notes/Links

Hi, it's episode 194. And today we're talking about executive functioning, which may sound complicated, but we're going to break it down and simplify it. And it's something that I think every parent needs to know a little bit about. Hi, this is Denaye. I'm the founder of Simple Families. Simple Families is an online community for parents who are seeking a simpler more intentional life. In this show, we focus on minimalism with kids, positive parenting, family wellness, and decreasing the mental load. My perspectives are based in my firsthand experience, raising kids, but also rooted in my Ph.D. In child development. So you're going to hear conversations that are based in research, but more importantly, real life. Thanks for joining us.

Welcome to episode 194. And today we're talking about executive functioning, which I know I know can sound complex. And you wonder if you even need to know about this. The truth is executive functioning is something that is often very much associated with ADHD, attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder, and that's for good reason because kids and adults with ADHD tend to have delays or deficits in executive functioning. But executive functioning exists within all of us. Our executive functioning skills serve as a type of brain manager in childhood. It helps our children develop self-management skills like coordinating and planning and following directions and time management. Now, these are things that all young children and some older children also struggle with because much like the rest of child development, executive functioning is developing slowly, yet surely as they get older, but that doesn't stop us as adults from getting super frustrated.

When we ask our kids wants to get their shoes on and they can't seem to make it happen, or we give them simple directions and they can't seem to follow them before we get any further into today's episode, I'm going to bring you a 62nd word from today's sponsor. The sponsor for today's episode is Native and my husband and I have both been using native long before they even started sponsoring the podcast. Native is a natural deodorant. Now, if you're anything like me, you didn't come to natural deodorant very quickly. I tried a lot of options, a lot of things that didn't work and went back and forth between natural and conventional for a long time, particularly when we lived in Texas and it was like a hundred degrees half the year. Ultimately my husband introduced me to Native and I figured if it worked for him, it would probably work for me.

And yes, in fact does all seasons of the year, not just in the winter, but even in the summer when it's especially hot. So I invite you to try it out for 20% off your first purchase. Go to nativedeodorant.com and use the promo code "simple" during checkout, again, go to nativedeodorant.com and use the promo code "simple" during checkout for 20% off your first purchase. I want to start this episode off by saying, I am not an expert in executive functioning. It's a topic that I've been learning more about. And I went to a training last year with Dr. Mark Burton on this very topic. So, I think we could call him an expert on executive functioning. So, I thought bringing him on today would be a great thing to hear from his point of view on what executive functioning means and why we all need to understand a little bit about it as parents.

Dr. Burton has a few different books, but there are two that I have read and that I do recommend pretty frequently. So for anyone who has a child who has been diagnosed with ADHD, or has symptoms of ADHD, I highly recommend the book mindful parenting for ADHD, a guide to cultivating calm, reducing stress, and helping children thrive. I love to reading this book by Dr. Burton because it starts to integrate a mindfulness perspective into parenting children with ADHD. In this book, Dr. Burton does an amazing job of breaking down executive functioning and explaining the role that it really does play when there's a delay or a deficit and you're challenged with ADHD. So I read this book first after his training and I loved it and I've recommended it a lot. But then I found he actually has another book called how children thrive, the practical science of raising independent, resilient, and happy kids.

And this is focused more on a mainstream audience. It's not focused on parents of kids with ADHD, but I love this book because it helped to view common everyday parenting challenges through the lens of executive functioning, which I've never seen done before. I'm going to link both of those books up in the show note at simplefamilies.com/episode194. Before we get any further into today's episode, I want to tell you a little bit about Dr. Burton and his background. He is a developmental pediatrician, which is a subspecialty of pediatrics and something that he does a little bit differently is that he integrates a mindfulness practice into his work with his patients. And in reading Dr. Burton's books, I felt like they really did align well with simple living and minimalism. So I'm glad I got the chance to pick his brain and talk to him a little bit more about his work without further ado here's today's episode.

Denaye Barahona: Hi, Dr. Burton, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me.

Dr. Burton: Oh, thanks for inviting me. I'm glad to be here.

Denaye Barahona: So, I shared with you before we started this call, but I actually found you earlier this year, I attended one of your trainings in Manhattan on executive functioning, and I really learned a lot and went on to read two of your books and I've been wanting to pick your brain ever since.

Dr. Burton: Great Lot. I appreciate it. Thanks. Looking forward to it.

Denaye Barahona: So my first question, which is kind of off topic, but I wanted to ask, are you a minimum?

Dr. Burton: I don't know. How would you, how would you define a minimalist?

Denaye Barahona: Do you follow the minimalism movement? So much of what I read of your work really aligns with simple living and minimalism. So, I was just curious of how you viewed yourself.

Dr. Burton: I actually haven't come across the term as a, as a lifestyle, but I think in general, you know, I do appreciate keeping things simple. And I think often part of the challenge of the modern world is just we're being swamped by information and options and things to do. So I think in general, it's just easier if we come back to what we find important and just focus on that.

Denaye Barahona: Right. So, tell me about you and about your practice.

Dr. Burton: I am a developmental pediatrician, practicing just outside of New York and New York city. And,uand I'm doing that for quite a while and one of the things I think that I do this slightly different way practices for families that are interested, I integrate mindfulness into sort of the rest of evidence-based care because they just find it a very useful way to support kids and families in just staying resilient, you know, doing some of the hard things that we all have to do sometimes. Yeah. So I think that's a good short answer to that I think.

Denaye Barahona: What type of clients do you typically see in your practice?

Dr. Burton: First of all, not everyone knows what a developmental pediatrician does. Soit's a subspecialty in pediatrics working only with kids who have challenges around different aspects of their development. There's actually two halves to my field. One half is more focused on the neurodevelopmental issues and then what I'm practicing is called behavior and development. So I work with a lot of kids with ADHD and autism and learning disabilities. You know, it's a very sort of integrated long-term approach to care. Trying to, when you work as a developmental pediatrician, it's supporting families through some of the challenges going on at home or making educational decisions or managing behavioral issues. You know, as a physician, I can also do some of the evaluation and treatments that are more medical. So, you know, I really feel like most of the time I'm working more like a psychologist than a physician.

Denaye Barahona: Right. And I can see that there is so much overlap, especially because you're working. I mean, the, the child is the client, but the whole family is in many aspects too.

Dr. Burton: Yeah. I don't think you can really separate those. And I think that's often under discussed in pediatrics in general. So, so clearly the child's the reason everyone's there. That's why, you know, there's nothing more stressful for parents than when kids are struggling in different ways, but between what kids are capable of at different ages, you know, so that it's not like a child is the one who's going to take the lead in their own educational plan and the stress that parents are under.

Dr. Burton: I think it's really only appropriate to feel like, you know, we're working with whole families, you know, so that it's, you know, it's, nobody's, it's nobody's fault obviously when kids are having different issues. So I don't mean that in a directed way, but I think it's important to support parents too. And when parents are feeling more resilient and grounded and have a better understanding of what's going on, you know, that's only going to help their children.

Denaye Barahona: Absolutely. And I in the beginning of my career, I was working more with children directly in more traditional psychotherapy and play therapy practices. And I very quickly, even in my early twenties, learned that you can drop the off for an hour a week for therapy and make a teeny tiny bit of a difference. But the real difference happens with the parents in the home.

Dr. Burton: Yes. And I think that's a very you know, that's a foundational starch intervention, especially understand that many of your people listening to your podcast are parents of younger kids. And it's an important part of understanding early childhood development. I mean, children, clearly, aren't going to remember, you know, longer term plans, even over a few days or a week. Sometimes if you're working with them around some sort of challenge they're having. And also so much of their learning is just about reinforcing routines and immediate feedback. And, you know, even one of the things that comes up a lot, for example, when I'm working with ADHD is emotional reactivity as part of ADHD, a lot of outbursts and things like that. And even in a situation like that, where it's certainly none of the adults, you know, they're not causing that. It's not their fault that some, that our child is having difficulty managing emotions.

Dr. Burton: One of the most direct ways to help teach children is just through parent-driven interventions is just teaching parents different ways to react to that, or respond to that in different ways to steer behavior towards something more appropriate and productive. So, so like you're saying, it's not just a matter of supporting parents. It's also just sort of a reflection of typical child development at that age. You know, it's way more likely to be effective because I think, we say the same thing. Like I always say like, you know, in therapy, but really young kids, by the time they hit the parking lot, they may have already forgotten, but when I'm in therapy, so you need to include parents in the discussion or we're just going to lose out.

Denaye Barahona: Yeah. Absolutely. So I read an article a few months ago that I wanted to get your feedback on. And I think it kind of reflects say a larger issue at hand within our society. So this article was looking at the amount of time that kids spend in structured activities versus unstructured activities. And the researchers found that the more time kids spend in structured activities, the poor, their self-directed executive functioning was. So, I know executive functioning is an area that you think everybody needs to know about it. It was really the prevailing theme throughout your book, how children thrive and it's, it's intimidating. So can you, I know you do a great job of breaking it down. Can you help us all understand what is executive functioning and why does it matter for every parent?

Dr. Burton: Yes, yes. I mean, I think it is, you know, I think it's a concept that, you know, my goal and even talking about it is just simplify things for people. So it sounds like this really wonky, scientific word, it really means that children develop their own self management skills across a very gradual developmental path. It's kind of like language. Although there's a few important points about it that are really different than other aspects of development. So, I'll get to that second, but what it means initially is that at each stage of development, there's different skills we can expect the child to have, you know, these executive function skills are kind of like the brain manager. It's sort of like the part of the brain responsible for coordination and planning and long-term thinkingone of the same directions,

Denaye Barahona: Following direction would you say that?

Dr. Burton: That's definitelypart of it, following directions, I'm really, it's almost like anything you can put there word management too, probably has an aspect of executive function to it.

Dr. Burton: You know, kids have to learn to manage their attention. They have to learn to manage their behavior and then as they get older, they have to learn to manage time and learn to manage projects and learn to manage their emotions. And all of these things have an aspect of executive function to it, but it's important to just reflect on like what would be appropriate at different ages, but that really changes a lot. So in preschool, executive function is mostly about beginning to focus on tasks that are harder and beginning to reign in your behavior. I think sometimes the easiest way, because you can't measure executive function like a number, the easiest way to look at it often is a series of transitions. You need to make, you know, you go into preschoola toddler, they're basically, you know, you wouldn't expect a toddler to sit in a classroom for any length of time and they're still learning, you know, how to manage their tantrums, their own emotions.

Dr. Burton: So, they don't have tantrums and there all these pieces of it that are, you know, what you would expect of a two to three year old, but then by the time preschool ends, you need to be able to put in enough self-management to be in a classroom and hopefully not an overly structured classroom, but now you're a kindergarten or a first grader. And then when you look at the next step of executive function, you know, it's gradual, but it goes from being like a kindergarten or first grader to an eighth grader, you know, what does an eighth grader have to handle one? Now you have to manage projects and your schoolwork and your social. Life's gotten more complicated and, and this is different than just the facts you need to know. And that's a whole other discussion, but it's just that ability to, you know, just sort of supervise and manage all these different things that are going on.

Dr. Burton: So when you think about executive function in that age group, it is in many ways the foundation of classroom learning, but you have to be able to organize information in your head and keep track of what's pertinent and, you know, either memorize what, you know, sort of learn what's pertinent or take notes on what's pertinent or all of these things where executive function-based reading involves executive function, writing involves executive function, your social life, you know, coordinating, social life, all of that. And then you think of the next step. And it's again, it's that concept of going from eighth grade to 12th grade, you know, by the time you're the being high school, clearly your self-management skills, you don't have to be a whole other step. And then one of the main differences in how we understand child development overall has to do with executive function was it turns out that the path of self-management skills mature since you're in your late twenties.

Dr. Burton: And it may not be one of the topics we're going to get into in a lot of detail today, but for anybody who's going to have a teenager one day, it's important to recognize that teenagers, executive functions 10 years away from being mature. And I think that's one of the main problems we have going on sort of societaly right now is we're exposing teens. We're expecting teens to live like adults in many ways, certainly in terms of how they handle the internet and smartphones and social media, but really most them are 10 years away from being fully mature. And that's a, yeah, that's a really important detail to note, teenagers need more independence, but you can't expect them to be making grown-up decisions yet because they're not growing up for a very practical reason. So, that's what executive function looks like over, over childhood. And there were all these different threads to it having to do with, you know, the nuances of attention to the nuances of behavior, but the most important thing to recognize.

Dr. Burton: And then I'll pause is that these early childhood executive function skills I've been going all the way back to preschool have been correlated with lifelong success. So strong executive function, early childhood correlates with academic success, social success, better health outcomes, better financial outcomes. It's pretty crazy research because it's really just measuring it in early childhood once predicts all these adult outcomes. And then the other, you know, more important part because I think it's all about just making things as easy and practical of just, if you can understand all this, you know, these are the skills, these are the, this, we just need to meet children where they are, and to help them develop these skills often strips away a lot of the stuff, the extras that make life, you know, way more challenging than it needs to be.

Denaye Barahona: Right. And I think as parents, there is this belief that we should provide our kids with all these structured activities, whether it be like an art project that is perfectly articulated from Pinterest or enrolling our kids in soccer and baseball and ballet and all this stuff. Right. So how talk to me about executive functioning and structured activities and how you foresee finding a balance there and what do kids really need?

Dr. Burton: Well, I think with all the pressure is so this to come back to the article and what you're talking about, you know, we're always being pressured as parents. You want to do everything you can for a child. And sometimes I think what that needs to mean is coming back to what we really value as parents. It almost comes back to your comment about being a minimalist because you know what our children really, really need. I mean, certainly in early childhood, in preschoolers, what they most need is, you know, an affectionate, warm household and some limit setting. And then from the point of which it actually supports executive function in and of itself, but then really the reason play as a whole evolved for children, open-ended free play with other kids is because it helps develop social skills and executive function. So there is research suggesting that kids who go through preschool programs, for example, that emphasize, open-ended play outperform kids who go through more academic structured programs by early elementary school.

Dr. Burton: So that, and when you've talked about what you're talking about in terms of scheduling at home, you know, as, as sort of open-ended, as it may seem, and we're not really doing anything specific, sometimes we have to re reframe in our minds, the fact that, you know, play is a developmental task for children. In essence, you know, we need to prioritize that as much or more than almost anything else, particularly in early childhood. So, children who have a lots of opportunity for play, I think coupled with lots of exposure to languages, and books, you know, that may be all they need as long as, you know, like that's it, you know, everything else is extra. And I think the way we're all living nowadays, sometimes you almost have to, you know, schedule that and it's in essence, you know, you're looking at how much structured time is, okay.

Dr. Burton: You know, the answer is I sometimes call it scheduling backwards. It's like looking at what do we want to prioritize first? You know, how much time during the day are we dedicating to just open-ended time and creativity and allowing for some boredom and family time and play just keeping it all open-ended and then, you know, activities are awesome. It's great to, you know, find somebody, you know, expose kids to lots of different interests and, and, and, you know, keep them in the activities that they're really enjoying getting something out of. But there's no benefit to over-scheduling them and over structuring their time. And, you know, in essence that's might start cutting into the things they really probably are going to enjoy more. Probably you're going to enjoy more and might be way more vital developmentally.

Denaye Barahona: Yeah. And I think it just, it goes against so many things that we hear from society all the time, because commercially play, you know, play is free. It doesn't cost them anything. It doesn't make anybody any money. So that's not the stuff we're seeing on TV. Right. I mean, well, I mean, if you, into the YouTube shows where kids are playing with toys, like they're playing with toys, but they're also selling toys, right?

Dr. Burton: Yes. It's all about sales and I just, as a side note, I mean, there's actually a research saying that when kids see when they, even toddlers watch play with marketed choice, they're more likely to pick those toys, you know, that day and free play, like it's influencing behavior, even that young. And you're totally right. I mean, every message we're getting is we need to buy the next thing and do the next thing. And, you know, maybe even community-wide, there can be this pressure of like my child's doing these six classes, how many is your child doing? And it's really important, I think, as a parent to just ground ourselves in what we know and what we feel is best, you know, that pressure to just be perfect and to accomplish everything and control everything, you know, it has no end point because it's not really.

Denaye Barahona: Yeah. And it's, yeah, it's something that I think that we want to check all the boxes and we want to feel like we're providing our kids with every opportunity possible. And that is, you know, investing all of our time and money into their enrichment sometimes even if that's not necessarily what they need. And I think that like your voice and my voice are not quite loud enough to drown out all of the other voices that we're hearing in marketing and commercials.

Dr. Burton: True. I mean, and it's sad because I think in the end most of what children need, it doesn't cost anything at all. You know what I mean? There's a baseline of what they need, obviously like food and the shelter and like the there's, I mean, I'm not saying like, you know, there's the baseline of security we all need. And then beyond that you know, I think the most effective thing we can get somebody, as I know in early childhood is probably like a library card, you know, and to set up a home that, you know, has some consistency and just exposing kids to play in books, you know, they don't necessarily need anything else in early childhood. Really everything else is kind of supplemental. I mean, you know, there's obviously an advantage to exposing kids to lots of things young, but it doesn't have to be compulsive or over-scheduled.

Dr. Burton: And then really, you know, when we're talking very early childhood like preschool those kids aren't even really supposed to be doing academics yet. Developmentally. I mean, if that's part of what you mean by structured activities. I mean, one thing we're talking about I think is over-scheduling in general, you know, which can be anything you know, too many sports activities are just too many structured adult led activities, but the other half of that is, you know, this kind of understandable pressure, you know, I think you know, there's a big expose' somewhere this week about how, you know, the entire push for educating children is failing in this country.

Dr. Burton: And part of it is just not understanding what really works, you know, early childhood academics aren't really needed in large part because most kids in that age aren't ready for academics. And if you have a child who is, that's great, you know, run with it, this is all just a big bell curve, but the average preschool, or what preschool is about is setting kids up for success when they reach school. And that means largely learning strong executive function skills and lots of exposure to language and books and then they're going to do fine in school. Right.

Denaye Barahona: And it's, it's hard. I see, actually in the one area I see this cropping up a lot is in daycare centers a generation ago, a daycare center would have been named Mary's play center. And today it's called Mary's early childhood Academy. They're actually changing the names to sound more academic and sound more rigorous. This actually happened to a center really close to our house recently. And it's open from six weeks on. So parents, you know, you have a baby actually had a friend shortly after I became a mom. I had a friend who had her child in an in-home daycare and was loving it, very nurturing. But when he turned six months old, she said, you know, I think he should go to school. And I said, well, what do you mean school? And she said, you know, like his friends are going to school.

Denaye Barahona: And when she said school, she meant daycare. And they're learning things like sign language. And it was interesting to hear her perceptions of this idea that, you know, if there is a school out there, I want to send my kid to it. Even if he's only six months old, if it exists, it must be because kids need it. Right. If a class, if a soccer class for an 18 month old exists, it must be because kids should start soccer at 18 months. I think that's a hard thing to reconcile in your brain as a parent.

Dr. Burton: Yeah. Although sometimes I feel it's like the emperor's new clothes. It's like, if you talk to any individual parent, I think many of them see through that. But then as a community, it's hard to be the only one not participating in it. And we all need to look through it because in the end it mostly just creates stress. I mean, families are over-scheduled and then since the, you know, the middle of the bell curve for kids that age is that they're supposed to be preschoolers, which means they're supposed to be eating paste and, you know, running around in circles on the soccer field instead of really participating. And, you know, Martha Denckla has done research, showing that, you know, the average boy shouldn't really be doing, shouldn't be expected to have fine motor skills for writing until they're almost six, you know, and you know, all of these things accumulate to just creating a lot of pressure, because they're going to be a lot of kids who are destined to do brilliant things in life, who at four and five really should just be playing, you know.

Dr. Burton: And it doesn't mean anything about their future really, and trying to push them one step ahead of where they are developmentally is impossible. Kids have to go through development gradually. It's just what they do, you know. So, there will be a point where they're ready to start learning writing skills, but that doesn't mean they have to do it at four and one of the things,you alluded to, I actually don't remember if it was in the conversation right before we started,right when we started, that's really important to recognize is when our expectations are off. And that actually leads to kids who look like they're behind when they're not, and all the way up through, you know, false diagnosis of ADHD and conditions like that. Because our expectations, the bar has gotten too high for typical development.

Denaye Barahona: Right? I had a friend a year or two ago who had a child who was finishing up preschool about six months away from entering kindergarten. And the preschool teacher recommended that she get OT services for handwriting because his handwriting wasn't as pristine as she would like it to be for a preschooler. And I was just, I don't know if I said the story, I said it in my head was isn't kindergarten where kids are supposed to start learning how to write

Dr. Burton: And, and even there, and just early. Absolutely. You know, the bar has changed there too when my generation were kids. Our, maybe I'm not sure, but when my generation where kids kindergarten was still a play-based school year, you know, it really first grade was when writing skills started reading skills started in, you know, in all seriousness, in sort of in earnest and kind of pushing kids to actually learn, you know, kindergarten was considered a foundational stuff like a transit that's when you learn how to become a student in essence, and again, many, many kindergarteners, that's what they should be doing at that age. It's all if they're supposed to be taking the next step academically familiarity with letters, familiarity with all these things and you know, but not necessarily doing lots with it yet. And that's okay. You know, that's how it should be.

Denaye Barahona: Do you see a lot of kids in your practice that are coming in as identified as potentially ADHD by teachers or parents when they're in kindergarten and they're not performing at the level of requirements for kindergarten, first grade?

Dr. Burton: There are a lot of kids who come in with just like, it actually goes all through schooling. So, absolutely you see kids who, you know, the stress level is really high, but the expectations are just way ahead of where that individual, that child is wonderful.

Dr. Burton: They're just not quite there yet in terms of those skills, for sure. And then it continues all the way through school, because I think a lot of the trends in education as a whole are about pushing kids to accomplish more sooner in terms of projects and busy schedules and, and self-advocacy, and all these things that are executive function-based, you know, you're not supposed to have a lot of self-advocacy skills in elementary school. You're supposed to be learning how to self-advocate in elementary school. You know, you're supposed to still be involved with a lot of direct instruction from adults on what's necessary. And that's, you know, that's, what's going to help children thrive at that age.

Denaye Barahona: Yeah. And I think as, as parents, we get trapped in this idea that we want to help our kids as much as possible. And sometimes that means we end up stepping in and doing everything for them and not giving them the space to figure things out for themselves. Do you see that much in your work?

Dr. Burton: Yeah. I mean, I think the pendulum swings both ways often in my field and it's like, you know, the middle road is often what's going to make the most sense. And certainly you know, as children, you know, there's this balance on the one hand, you can only expect someone to be at their own, you know, where they are developmentally. They can't make these huge steps. But on the other hand, part of learning is making mistakes is screwing up, is trying things out. And that middle road between what's often called helicopter parenting and being too hands-off, you know, the analogy I've been using a lot recently as to me, it feels like that moment when you're teaching someone to ride a bike and you're having to hand on the back of the bike, you know, and you're letting them go as far as they can.

Dr. Burton: And at some point you're waiting for that moment where you can just let go of the bike, you know, and they're going to ride. And that's what a lot of teaching kids to manage. You know, almost any situation is like, you know, whether it's behavior or school, it's like, yeah, you know, they need an opportunity to get out there, make some mistakes. We can't protect them from everything. This ties back to our bigger topic today. I mean, what we can guide children towards resilience, you know, we can guide children towards being able to manage life themselves. What we can't do is predict everything that's going to happen or control everything. I can have them, and it doesn't have any benefit at all. When we, when we overly shelter kids in those ways, they don't learn how to manage, you know, their own emotions. They don't learn how to manage failure or challenges.

Dr. Burton: So we want to give them that opportunity to get out there and really live life, even at home on a very simple level. And this comes up sometimes of, you know, the ability, if you were in a loving, warm, fuzzy home where everyone, you know, like a supportive place, and then you bang up against some sort of limit, you know, that's a good thing, you know, as long as it's not oppressive, that's an opportunity. You're learning how to manage frustration in a safe place.

Dr. Burton: So that next time you're on the playground, maybe you can manage frustration more skillfully, you know, so that all of this to me, you know, just comes back to that same message over all of like, you know, stick with what we know works, stick with what you trust as a parent. And the rest will fall into place. You know, we can't control everything. We can't provide every bit of education. We can't prevent every mistake from being happening from happening and we shouldn't.

Denaye Barahona: Right. And one thing that I think differentiates your work from a lot of things that read is that you have a huge, huge focus on parental wellbeing. And is that something that you think has been embraced within your, your practice in the families that you work with? How do parents react when they bring a kid to you and say, I need help with my kid. And then you sort of turn it back on them and say, I need to help you.

Dr. Burton: Well, it's not that it's not embraced. That's not cool. It's embraced. I think everyone appreciates it when you notice their struggles and notice their point of view. But I do think it's a relearning of, you know, of how, as a parent, clearly our kids come first and, you know, in many, many ways, if not entire, you know, in some situations entirely like our needs have to be put aside a little bit, but it's important to recognize that when we feel stronger and more resilient, that benefits our kids, we're gonna, we're going to, you know, present you're, we're just gonna live differently moment to moment, and we're going to make decisions more clearly. And we're going to stick to our plans a better when our feet are solidly on the floor too. So that, you know, on the one hand, it may seem, you know falsely, it may seem a little selfish to take some time in the middle of a, you know, family, stressful moment to come back to our own wellbeing.

Dr. Burton: But within what's possible within what's realistic, you know, it's not like we got to go, you know, often vacation every other week or anything, but within what's possible, you know, finding that sort of bare minimum almost of what keeps us strong as a parent has profound benefit. I mean, we'll be happier parents for it, for sure, but that really has much bigger implications. And so that around ADHD, as an example, I use most ADHD has been shown. I mean, it's common sense, but I guess we haven't said it yet. So, you know, ADHD is in essence what it means to have a profound delay in executive function, you know, so that it's sort of long outgrown its name. So on a medical level, what's going on is your self management skills are years behind. You're not independent as your peers. You can't manage your emotions as well as your peers yet.

Dr. Burton: And eventually you may catch up, but apparent, but clearly that's usually demanding and exhausting for parents. And the research says that parents of kids with ADHD are more anxious or more at risk for anxiety and depression and marital stress. And it goes on and on and on. And then someone comes along and starts giving this list of stuff you need to do to help manage your child's ADHD. If you don't take a moment sometimes to gather yourself, and sort of rally your own resources, you know, how are you going to manage a tough school situation? How are you going to stick to a new behavioral plan? How are you going to make the hard decisions that are, you know, integrally part of managing ADHD? It's just, you know, I think it's sort of common sense that we sometimes have to take that time or attention to do that so that we can come back to that challenge.

Dr. Burton: But the same thing goes, I think in different ways for every parent, it's not like there's any family where everything is going perfectly. I don't think, you know, everyone has their stresses. Everyone has their challenges. And if periodically you come, we come back to just the one or two things that help us feel grounded and seeing with a little more clarity what's going on, our whole family is going to benefit. So I think as a whole, that often gets overlooked. You know, I don't think that's addressed often enough, you know, behavioral management is a great example of like, you know, it's sort of, most people understand that that kind of consistency is useful, but then how we all have a hard time, you know, sticking to what we know in essence. And some of that has to do with taking care of our own resilience.

Denaye Barahona: Right. You have a quote in your book that says stress itself often leads to inconsistent limits and a general state of overindulged children. Yes. You can have a whole box of cookies for, for all I care, as long as you let me finish this phone call, which I think every parent can resonate with that, right? Like you just need to get something done, just deal with it. So that stress really compounds and it impacts your actions and your words and everything that you do with your kids.

Dr. Burton: Totally. You know, I think a stress is inevitable and being stressed as a parent is inevitable, but when we're caught up in it yeah. That I appreciate your pulling the quote, but you know, that's just part of day-to-day life. When we're knocked off balance and reactive, we're not at our best. And we sort of grab that, whatever habit we have that, you know, we typically fall back on and that makes it really hard to change a habit or to stick to a new limit or to stick to what we know is best. I mean, of course we know best. I mean, parents are always like, we're all doing our best all the time by definition in a very straightforward way, like who wouldn't. And then all this other stuff gets in the way, because life is challenging quite often. So, in that moment where you're just trying to get something done and your children won't let you, but you've also been trying to set up strict your screen limits, for example, you know, it takes a lot of balance and resilience as a parent to find the space to, you know, just stick to what our intentions are instead of getting caught up in kind of happen reactivity.

Denaye Barahona: Right. Do you have kids yourself?

Dr. Burton: I do.

Denaye Barahona: Are they, what age range are they?

Dr. Burton: High school or an elementary school kid.

Denaye Barahona: Okay, and were you practicing before you had kids?

Dr. Burton: Medicine or mindfulness?

Denaye Barahona: Well, developmental pediatrics.

Dr. Burton: I was, yeah, I've actually grew up around the field of special education and went into pediatrics kind of assuming I was going to do this specialty on some level. So initially I tried doing it as a general pediatrician, but the sadly, but you'd think every general pediatrician would want to focus on child development. Just the pacing didn't work for me. It was just, it wasn't a life. It just didn't work for what I wanted to do. You know, I want to spend a lot more time with what I was doing. So, then I went from there to this sub-specialty so, yes. So I've been in this longer than I've had kids.

Denaye Barahona: So, how do you think becoming a parent has impacted your role as a position?

Dr. Burton: Well I think I'm always learning from you know, on the, I'm trying to think how to answer that in sort of vaguely concisely. I mean, I think you're always learning from having kids, you know, regardless, and certainly you know, one of the, it in some way, it's almost the same topic we've been talking for the last few minutes of like, it's one thing for any of us that have lots of knowledge and it's another thing to try to like, make something work with that and implement it day to day. And it's required a lot of flexibility in coming back to, you know, imperfection and knowing one thing and life is going in different direction and all of that. So there's, you know, there's constant learning going on because of that, for sure.

Denaye Barahona: Right. And I ask that because I have a lot of audience members who want to know all this stuff, they want to get everything right. The perfectionist, whether or not they'd like to admit it, admit it to themselves. But I always like to be really clear that I do know a lot about child development and child behavior, and I get a lot of things wrong and that's, and it's, it's not striving towards perfectionism and not trying to get everything right. It's literally everyone is doing the best with the tools that they have.

Dr. Burton: Yeah. I think, you know, that's a whole, that's a whole other discussion and we haven't really touched onmindfulness specifically, but I, you know, I think that's a really important message for parents because in the end, you know, there is no perfect. It comes back to one of the things you said earlier today of there, there is an intrinsic message to the marketing world and to what we're being sold, that there is perfection, you know, even if they're not blatantly saying it, they're trying to sell us some at some picture of how things should be, but life's messier than that. And certainly being a parent, you know, I think there can be a real value to just coming back to over and over again, that, which is part of the practice of mindfulness, that recognition that there's a big difference between our perfectionistic thoughts and reality it's just reminding ourselves like, no, I actually am.

Dr. Burton: You know, that, that went off the rails, but I did everything I could, like there was nothing, I, you know, it didn't go like I wanted it, but it went, I didn't inherently do anything well or poorly. It's just another moment in life that didn't go, like I wanted. And that's fearful and anxiety provoking as a parent for sure. But it can be useful to just reassure ourselves, you know, there's a there's a whole body of, I think, a very practical research for parents coming out of a field in psychology called self-compassion, which is related to mindfulness, but it's become kind of its own research topic. Kristin Neff is best known for it and it's a whole, and like a lot of stuff, you know, if the words sound funky, you know, it's really about finding your own meaning in it. So don't worry about the words I'm using as much as make it practical for yourself.

Dr. Burton: And really what this research refers to is the fact that we often have internal habits, internal dialogue that is way harsher on ourselves than we would ever be with anybody else. You know, so that if we make a mistake with our kids, we're just slammed by doubt and criticism. And if our best friend makes the exact same perceived mistake, we would give nothing but reassurance. Like what else you did everything you could, it's going to be fine, it'll work. And that, that disparity turns out to affect our mental health affect our decision-making affect our resilience and problem solving starts to change how we treat other people even, and you can, this is not exactly what we're talking about, but it's a more specific practice, but whatever, by any means necessary, however, we can do it if we can, what Kristin Neff and a lot of other people have started to show was if we can start to shift that inner dialogue to one, that's our own inner dialogue to one, that's more like we would treat somebody else.

It's often really fear provoking at times because we're very attached to the idea that it's, it is our perfectionism that drives us places. And it turns out most of us actually are more nuanced than that because we wouldn't tell anybody else to be perfectionistic. And actually your motivation tends to improve when you allow yourself space to sort of put the effort in and make mistakes. And that's an, and that's a major shift for parents to be able to do that, to be able to recognize like, yeah, I am just doing everything I possibly can and it's still not going perfectly because there is no perfect.

Denaye Barahona: Yeah. And I've been talking to my audience recently about this idea that in many ways we, everything is the lines are blurry now. Like if you look at Instagram, for example, if you're scrolling through an Instagram feed, you're seeing pictures of your friends, your family members, pictures from your favorite clothing store, all of those images are all being intermixed. It's really hard to parse apart. What is actual real life versus what is staged? What is a photo shoot? You see a picture of a family from a clothing store where they've spent lots and lots of money on the sets and the clothes and the design and the hair and makeup and everything. And you're just kind of scrolling and everything is starting to the lines are starting to blur. And I think with social media, and we're also seeing the highlights of all of our friends and family members, right? The best stuff,

Dr. Burton: Social media, correct. Social media is already completely curated. And I think it's making life miserable for parents because of that. There's actually a concept in teen child development around media developing called social media jealousy, which is unless you really, really take the time to think about what you're looking at. You're sort of unconsciously comparing yourself to what is a highly skewed world. You know, there's no one's posting on Facebook, the day-to-day bad pictures and stresses and things that they, the moment of yelling that they didn't mean. And the fact that they had to go back home because they forgot to bring lunch. And, you know, I mean, there's a few people who make jokes of it and all, and that's great, but generally speaking, you know, it's a very, you know, perfectionist, curated view of the world and, you know, and we don't want to be doing that comparison. You know, that's not what real life is like.

Denaye Barahona: Right. And I think so often it's happening to us without us even realizing that we are falling into that trap. Right?

Dr. Burton: Yeah. I mean, it's all about intentionality. It's all about just noticing what's actually driving us and trying to be clear. And even that, I feel like, I mean, I just want to, this is a little bit of left turn, but I just want to come back to something was, I think it's a it's related and important, but I think you know, some of this is beginning to sound, you know, it's a little, open-ended some of this too is just recognizing that among all the things that people are selling us and spinning us in the blogs and all the information that's swamping us, what we lose touch with is just the basics of what work in any situation. And that also causes stress, you know, so that, you know, there's so much, I sometimes I'm almost afraid to say this now this has become a, such a charged topic, but I you know, I sometimes feel like in my field, I was immersed in the concept of fake news, like a decade before it became just normal in life, because there's been always been so much misinformation about child development and vaccines and all these other things.

Dr. Burton: And that causes stress too. I mean, there's a great practice of just whenever you catch yourself, you know, believing something, just consider for a second. Like, is it true because we're led to believe so much. And then sometimes we need to sort of sift through like, huh, like, where's that coming from? You know, one of the most common one, I mean, I can go and I can touch on several controversies fast, and then we can look for what the comments are afterwards. But you know, there's never been a study linking vaccines to any issues in child development that are on the market now, like of the present, like they've been studied backwards, forwards, and in between, you know, there's nothing, there's no apparent. There's no logical reason to be worried about that anymore. And on the other end of things, just from a behavioral point of view, you know, timeouts are necessary for most families. They're practical. They're dispassionate when they're done well, they're not cold, you know, and they've been studied for a long time. There is no valid research suggesting that timeouts are harmful. And yet that is a common perception online right now.

Denaye Barahona: Yeah. And I read an article recently about timeout and we don't do a lot of timeouts and I actually have a whole podcast episode on if you're going to do timeouts, how to do them. Right. Because I think that, that you can do them. Right. And you can do them when I say write effective or ineffective. But I read an article about how you should never do timeout. You should only do time in which basically means you go in the room and you spend the time with the kids. And I think to myself immediately, my first thought is like, what about your other kids? Like my kid just hit my other kid and I'm in the bedroom with the hitter. What about the other kid who was just injured? Who's in the other room unattended, possibly unsafe because he's unsupervised, you know, I think that there's so many other pieces to this, right? It's like this idealistic perfectionist, like you can be there, you can be completely present and fix all the problems for your kids.

Dr. Burton: And to go back to where we started today, but this relates to executive function, you know, in preschool, there's something called a time window, which is the ability to tie now to before and later, like it doesn't exist yet, practically speaking in preschool. So if you want to steer behavior, it has to be about a lot of immediate feedback. And so that means, you know, when the behavior happens, we have to, in some way, steer the kids towards hopefully preferentially, be, try to lead with steering them and with through like more positive feedback and things towards what they need to be doing, that it's a learning ability.

Denaye Barahona: Yeah. And I think it's really easy as a parent to know what to expect out of your child in the earliest months of life, like six months, they should set up check one year, they should walk, check. But then after I would say the first words, I think it becomes a little bit more blurry and more abstract as to know what to expect of kids at different ages. And there's still so much variation from the ages of two to three unit four that it's not as easy as just checking a box. And I think a lot of parents struggle with knowing what's typical. What's not typical. What should I expect?

Dr. Burton: That's true. It does get confusing. But again, I think sometimes it's more straightforward than it seems. I mean, honestly, that's why I put together how children thrive, because I think one of the things that most defines what you can expect from kids at different age is understanding executive function. Again, it's understanding in terms of independence and self-management skills, you know, what does this age group do, and what do they require? And it's not talked about enough. It's a relatively new body of research. I mean, executive function only 20, 25 years ago. It was felt to be a fairly fixed it's like, you just, this is what you had. And now we know it evolves a lot, but I think understanding that evolution, you know, really just helps simplify a lot. You know, my preschooler probably needs this because therefore, you know, and, and then in school, they just a lot about giving them opportunities for independence, but you know, how much, and that's a lot of that has to do with understanding what they should be capable of from a self management point of view. Right.

Denaye Barahona: And your book mindful parenting for ADHD is the book I recommend to anyone who comes to me asking for help or thoughts about maybe their kid has ADHD, has symptoms of ADHD. I send them to that book. I think you do an amazing job of explaining executive functioning in the beginning of that book. I think you have a whole chapter, at least a chapter, maybe a section on it. So, anyone that's looking for a resource on that, I really love that. I thought it made a lot of sense to me from a practical standpoint, understanding a concept that can be a little bit tricky otherwise. So, I've been, I've been recommending that book for some time now. And then I just recently found out that you had the, how children thrive book, which is actually more of a mainstream approach it's intended for parents of typically developing kids, right?

Dr. Burton: Yeah. That's, that's much of what we've been talking about today is in how children thrive. So the idea I mean, just to one follows the other, I mean, ADHD is an executive function disorder, a self-management disorder, and that's a lot of what I focus on from that perspective and that first book and the neuro one is really trying to make it accessible and useful to parents at a kids of any age. You know, it's that concept of just knowing, you know, what different age groups, you know, should be expected to how we can build executive functioning, different ages really I think in simplify things for parents across the board.

Denaye Barahona: Good. So do you have any, I'm going to put the links to your books in the show notes. Do you have any other resources that you'd like to send people to?

Dr. Burton: Well, I have a website that, I mean in and of itself to be a resource. So a developmentaldoctor.com is my website and I have a section on general child development and ADHD and mindfulness. It also links to some of the classes that I have and that I've been doing. There's one a really, it's a 10 part series related to how children thrive that's available. So, that's probably the simplest thing to do is just, there's a whole bunch of available on that website.

Denaye Barahona: Okay, great. Well, I will link that up in the show notes to developmentaldoctor.com. Great. Well, thank you, Dr. Burton. This has been great. I think I have, I feel like I have so many more things I need to ask you, so we'll probably have to have you back on for another round.

Dr. Burton: I appreciate that. Thanks so much for having me.

Denaye Barahona: Thank you. Thanks so much for tuning in. I'm going to put the links for you to find Dr. Burton and his books and website all in the show notes. So go to simplefamilies.com/episode194, and you'll find those links there. Thanks again for being a part of simple families. And when you have a moment, please leave a rating or review in iTunes that helps the show to reach more people. I'll talk to you soon. Have a good one.

Denaye Barahona

Denaye Barahona is a loving wife and mama of two. She's a therapist for moms, an author, and the host of the top-ranked Simple Families Podcast. Denaye holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has been featured on the likes of The Today Show, Netflix, The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple, Forbes, and numerous other media outlets.