Interview with Cooper Parenting’s Child Development Expert, Mariel Benjamin
A new online parenting platform, Cooper, will uncomplicate any aspect of raising children. If your family is struggling with potty training, tantrums, or sleepless nights, Cooper understands it and has experts who can help. Cooper enables parents to thrive with their research-backed, data driven strategies shared by highly educated parenting experts who intimately get to know you and your family. They offer parenting groups, one-on-one coaching, 24/7 chat service, virtual events, and workshops.
Mariel Benjamin is the Director of Groups at Cooper, holds a Master’s degree in social work, and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over 15 years experience supporting families. Mariel spent over a decade working at the Parenting Center at Mount Sinai in New York City. Mariel is also a mom of two!
Can you tell us how you become a child development expert?
I’ve had the privilege of working in the parenting space for 10+ years. I started at the pediatric ward of Mount Sinai in New York, where I became passionately interested in parenting. In 2014, my interest in parenting had only grown and at that point I joined the Mount Sinai Parenting Center. They focused on educating doctors on how to help parents, parent. The Parenting Center has grown considerably since that time and it continues to support parent-child relationships.
How does having all this expert knowledge impact your home life?
Knowing and teaching a topic is different than living it! I have a healthy idea that there isn’t an answer for everything. I believe great professionals are always learning, always realizing we don’t have all the answers, and are always striving to expand human knowledge about their areas of passion.
What do Cooper Groups do?
I work on research, present what we know from this research and then troubleshoot solutions with parents in small work groups. Cooper will also personalize solutions for private clients. Practitioners and many talented people will look at the work we have done and readjust a treatment or expand our understanding of a child development solution.
We wanted to talk about an area Cooper sees come up in work groups, sensory issues. What are sensory issues/sensitivities and how common are they?
Sensory issues come from difficulty integrating incoming information from your senses, basically your brain is overwhelmed by the signals from your senses. There are eight senses that can be impacted; visual (sight), gustatory (taste), tactile (touch), auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell), vestibular (balance), proprioceptive (movement), and interoceptive (internal). Sensory issues can vary for different people, you can be hyper or hypo sensitive. A common example is to find the touch of a fabric tag on the back of your neck to be irritating. Some people can move past the feeling, while others will be impacted the entire time they have to wear the item and will feel discomfort for that duration.
In terms of commonality, that can be hard to decipher since sensory issues are often overlooked or mis-labeled. If you have an accompanying developmental issue, the likelihood of sensory issues also occurring is almost as high as 80%.
As a parent/caregiver, how can I identify if my child has sensory sensitivities or issues? What do I look for?
This can be a challenge because sensory issues can look very different for each person. It can be anything from putting water onto their faces, to complaining about the feeling of clothes against their skin. Sound is another common issue, where a space is too loud and overwhelming. Sometimes, we see children hugging too hard or the opposite and completely hate having to be touched. Observing your child in their environment and how they respond to things is key to understanding and preempting what might cause an issue for them. What do they do in over stimulating situations? When do they reach their limit? If an issue keeps arising, with getting dressed or washing their face, it is worth stepping back, looking at the bigger picture, and realizing they might have sensitivities to a daily event. Try not to label your child, but rather observe what is difficult for them and go from there. Eventually, you will get to a place where you know more specifically what is happening and when to get additional support.
Preschools have become so much better at making referrals earlier for children in their care. It is worth speaking with your child’s caregivers and ensuring they are watching for early childhood sensory sensitivities.
Another thing to note, children can sometimes act out at home more because they call on all their resources to help make it through their day at school. Sometimes parents will hear a different report from their teachers than what they see at home. It can be an indication that they are using all their skills to get through the day and are exhausted by the time they get home. That is when we need to be extra supportive as parents.
How can Cooper Groups help me with my child’s sensory issues?
In terms of helping families with sensory issues, Cooper is a great community to join. We provide support based on research-backed expertise. Again, a lot of kids are misdiagnosed with something like a behavioral issue, but we can help realize that the child is just so distracted and overwhelmed with a sensory issue. It can be difficult to isolate a sensory issue and even more difficult for parents to realize how to help their child. Cooper works with you along your parenting journey and is designed to help you handle minor daily struggles or find solutions to a big picture challenge like sensory development. As experts we can help you understand how your growing child functions on the inside, so you can better understand them from the outside.
If parents suspect a sensory issue, where can they go?
Start with your healthcare provider. Bring the evidence you have to them, whatever leads you to questioning whether your child has a sensory issue. From there you can see a local Occupational Therapist that specializes in sensory issues. There are a few specialized Occupational Therapists who are trained specifically in sensory support. Throughout the country, there are sensory gyms popping up to address children’s needs, so we are seeing it become more common, talked about, and, in some places, easily supported.
Do they always need to be addressed? Or is it typical for them to go away on their own with age?
When and if sensory issues begin to impair your child’s daily function, they should be addressed. You would not want to make them struggle throughout their day or be so distracted that they cannot learn. Once you have been diagnosed an Occupational Therapist will show your child ways to be adaptive. Sensory sensitivities can definitely be outgrown. Depending where the severity is on the spectrum, it might be something that requires management with additional diagnostics. In my work groups, I see a lot of children saying the same thing about clothing tags. A lot of them can outgrow that with the proper tools. However, when that annoyance affects their day-to-day life and limits them from being able to live normally, that is when you need to see a professional.
As a parent/caregiver, what are the best ways to help kids through sensory issues?
The most important thing is to be sensitive to your child. Take a moment to think about what it feels like for them. Be empathetic and know the feelings your child is having are very real. When you can, support and make accommodations for them. If it means not wearing specific socks that irritate them, make that adjustment. When you need to go to a family gathering knowing it will be too loud for your child, give them headphones, have them sit at the back of the room, or stay only a short while.
It can be a struggle when your day is full and everyone needs to get out the door. Anticipate your battles and help balance the issue. If your child is having a tantrum because of having to wear socks, validate their feelings, help them with a solution and remain calm. If we are not regulating our own feelings, they cannot borrow our calm. In every sense of parenting, it is the hardest thing to stay calm when your child cannot self-regulate. Be their beacon of light in that dark moment. Know that you do not need to sit in that situation forever, especially when you need to move forward with your day. Let your child know you will also help them move forward with their day too. If you need to, share the adjustments you’ve had to make for your child with your neighbors or the school so your community can help support you both as well. It’s hard work to help kids survive in a world that won’t always be sensitive to their every need. As parents, we can identify the solutions that will help our children move through their day more easily, more comfortably, and ultimately more happily.
After giving birth to my first child in Copenhagen, Denmark, I was assigned to a “mom group” by the hospital. All the new moms in my group had children within the same month as me, at the same hospital, and all of us were expats in Copenhagen. The hospital organizes the first meet up and leaves us to maintain these relationships going forward. There were five of us. I didn’t know it then, but these women were a beautiful gift. We now live all over the world, and 8 years later, we continue our WhatsApp group where we check-in with one another, seek advice, vent, lean on each other, or relay interesting information. I’ve since had three more children in North America and never received a similar support system. When I was introduced to Cooper, I couldn’t help but see the similarities between my Copenhagen mom group and their Cooper Groups, with only one major difference and bonus: experts overseeing the group along this parenting journey. So often my mom group would sort through parenting books or the internet trying to help one another with a problem, but with an endless stream of information available on the internet it is difficult to know which offers the best strategies. I think Cooper strikes the perfect balance between providing a support network with their groups, while also giving you the option to get more personalized, focused, and expert advice on specific parenting struggles.
After interviewing Mariel, it was clear to me that one of my children has a sensory sensitivity. I had an inclination that there was more to his dislike of clothing tags and socks. It would take my son over 5 minutes to get his shoes on, after carefully pulling and adjusting socks so he couldn’t feel the seams. Many mornings he would be left frustrated and, even after careful adjustments, rip off his socks seconds before walking out the door. This was fine until we were replacing his shoes every month because of how smelly they would become after wearing them so many times without socks. I immediately implemented Mariel’s tips to help his sensory sensitivity. I found sensory socks, which are socks without any seams, and have almost eliminated his morning struggle of putting on his shoes. In the rare instance he gets upset, I remain calm, so that he too can remain calm as he learns to cope with a sensory sensitivity.
Clothes that ease these sensitivities are a blessing for parents who strive to make getting dressed (and staying dressed) more enjoyable for their children. Meems is dedicated to supporting families and continuously finding new methods to best help with these types of challenges. One way that we’ve tried to support families through these types of challenges is by highlighting the “The 3 F's” of each item on every one of our product description pages; the Fabric, Fit, and Function. The fabric is rated on a scale of “standard,” “soft,” and “super soft” so parents can better assess the feeling of the clothes online. Fit is where Meems lends expertise to sizing considerations across brands. It can be frustrating when different brands have drastic variations in sizing, making it hard to determine what best fits rapidly growing children. Lastly, function helps indicate where children might be uncomfortable, especially with a sensory sensitive child. Highlighting whether the product has zippers, snaps, velcro, embellishments, etc., helps parents make the most informed purchasing decisions.
Meems understands shopping online can make it difficult to predict what will actually work with an individual child, even with all of this information at hand. So Meems is out to make returning items seamless as well, including a free return shipping label with every order. As a parent who shops on egg shells because I can never be sure how my child will feel about a seam, I appreciate all the extra effort Meems puts into the online shopping experience.
It takes a village to raise a child, and having a community of fellow parents, alongside child rearing experts is the best foundation you can give your family. I love that Cooper has their finger on the pulse of the ever-evolving pursuit of childrearing. As Mariel noted, experts realize they do not have all the answers, but instead are constantly seeking out ways to improve how we do things and our understanding of specific situations. Cooper is doing just that, building strong communities and ways to further our knowledge on the best parenting methods.