Why Recess May be the Most Important Part of the School Day

By: Dr. Jan Hittelman

There’s a big difference between skills and abilities. While we are born with certain natural abilities, skills are learned and require practice to develop. It is important to remember that our children are not born with good social skills, but learn these skills through modeling and practice. There are numerous research studies that highlight the importance of healthy social skill development and their impact on academic development, school success, as well as success later in life. Conversely, children with poor social skills are at increased risk of difficulties in interpersonal relationships, peer rejection, poor academic performance, signs of depression/aggression/anxiety, and are at higher risk of involvement in the criminal justice system as adults. Social skill deficits can also impact school safety and have been a factor in the recent rash of school shootings.

In addition to focusing on developing good academic skills, we must also prioritize our children’s development of healthy social behaviors. Important components of good social skills include: nonverbal communication skills, empathy, problem solving skills, and conflict resolution skills. Here are some strategies parents can use to promote healthy social skill development:

  • Importance of good role models: A lot of what your child knows regarding social interaction is learned at home, not just from parents but also from siblings. Making conscious efforts to discuss, practice, and reinforce prosocial skills can make a huge difference.
  • Provide opportunities for social interaction: Ensure that your child has plenty of unstructured time to play and interact with others, as well as involvement in structured afterschool activities, will provide them with the critical opportunities for practice.
  • Teach Problem Solving Skills: Help your child develop problem solving skills by following these simple steps: Identify the problem, brainstorm possible solutions, predict the probable outcome for each solution, and choose the one that has the highest probability of success; if it fails choose another solution.
  • If needed, consider enrolling your child in an effective social skills group: Find a licensed therapist in the community who offers structured social skills training for your child’s age group.

Perhaps we need to start thinking about the four “Rs” in education: Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic, and Relationships. I’ve never met an elementary student who didn’t feel that recess was too short or a secondary student who didn’t wish that they had less homework in order to socialize more with friends. Maybe they’re onto something.

Conquering Stress in Just Ten Minutes!

Conquering Stress in Just Ten Minutes!

By: Dr. Jan Hittelman

In 2007, the Foundation for Integrated Research in Mental Health reported that three out of five visits to doctors’ offices result from stress. Chronic stress makes us more susceptible to disease. Research has shown a link between stress and a wide variety of serious health problems including: hypertension, strokes, heart disease, diabetes, ulcers, neck or lower back pain, even cancer and possibly Alzheimer’s disease (Medical News Today 9/30/13). According to a survey by the Better Sleep Council, 65 percent of Americans lose sleep as a result of stress. The American Psychological Association noted that stress has been linked to all six of the leading causes of death in the United States—heart disease, cancer, lung and liver diseases, accidents, and suicide.

The good news is that we can easily manage stress by practicing simple techniques that take just moments to do. Here are some examples of what you can do in the next ten minutes to significantly reduce stress:

Visual Imagery: The mind is very powerful and if we focus on a very relaxing image, the body eventually experiences it as though we’re really there. To see for yourself, try this simple exercise:

  1. Identify a place where you’ve been that was very relaxing (e.g. a beach, the mountains). If needed, make one up.
  2. List everything that you might see, hear, smell and (tactilely) feel in this special place.
  3. Rate your current level of stress from “0” (not stressed at all) to “100” (very stressed).
  4. Find a peaceful place to sit, close your eyes, take a deep breath in and breathe out slowly.
  5. Try to imagine all the details that you listed in your mind’s eye, while periodically repeating the deep breathing.
  6. After about 10 minutes, slowly open your eyes and re-rate your current level of stress. Notice how much more relaxed you feel.

Deep Breathing: In our hurried world, we tend to breathe too shallow and too quickly. Try this simple breathing technique:

  1. Focus all attention on your breathing.
  2. Take a deep breath in through your nose, holding it for just second.
  3. Purse your lips and breathe out slowly through your mouth.
  4. As you exhale imagine all the worry and stress going out of your mouth and leaving your body.
  5. When your attention wanders, gently return your focus to your breathing.
  6. Repeat one more time.

You can combine these approaches for an increased relaxation response. By practicing these techniques daily and encouraging family members to do so as well, everyone will benefit both physically and emotionally.

The Grieving Process: What is Normal and When to Seek Help

Written by: Miki Fire, PsyD

For many people, the process of grief is one of the most challenging and painful experiences in our lives. Whether it is grief following the death of a loved one, the ending of a relationship, the loss of a job or a home, the death of a pet, or even just the experiences of loss that come with the myriad endings we face each day, the experience of grief can be overwhelming.

Grief is one of the most common of human experiences, although it can feel absolutely strange and frightening. Grief impacts us on every level of our being; emotional, psychological, physical, mental, spiritual, and social. We may experience feeling of overwhelming sadness or anger; we may literally feel like we are going crazy; we may feel like we can’t breathe, can’t sleep, can’t eat; we may feel numb and disconnected from the people in our lives; we may even feel like life is not worth living. In some ways grief itself is like a vicarious death and we ourselves feel like we’re dying. These are just a few of the many different ways in which grief moves through our systems.

Many people wonder: Is what I’m experiencing normal? You may have heard that there is a normal process to grief and that there are specific stages of grief that everyone goes through in a specific order. The truth is that when it comes to grief, there is no one defined way that every person experiences and processes grief. Some people may feel the different emotions we associate with the classic stages of grief model described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969 (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), but not everyone feels these exact emotions, nor do people feel them in this order or only once. In addition, these experiences only describe the emotional/psychological levels of the experience, but not necessarily all of the other ways in which grief is experienced, like for example on the physical level.

When it comes to grief, your grief process may look entirely different from someone else’s, and whatever you are experiencing is normal. Really.

People often ask, “But, do I need to seek help?” When it comes to grief, seeking “help,” can often be incredibly useful, no matter where you are in your grief process. Seeking help does not need to be seen as a last resort, but potentially an integral part of the process. Many people come into therapy feeling like they have somehow failed because they were not able to “get through it” alone. In actuality, seeking support, whether that means reaching out for the support of friends and family or seeking the guidance of a therapist or support group, does not need to be a last resort option, but can be seen as an important tool in processing your grief in a healthy way. Grief is a completely normal, universal, human experience and in this way it actually has a way of moving through our systems quite naturally, if we let it. But, most of us have lots of reasons why it is hard to just let the process do its thing, and outside support, can be useful in helping us see where we might be impeding the process and making things harder on ourselves.

In addition to using outside help to support a normal grief process, there are some additional situations in which seeking help is recommended. The following are a few of these situations:

  • If you feel that you are at risk of hurting yourself or another person.
  • If you do not feel you are able to attend to your basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter.
  • If you feel unable to attend to the basic needs of your children, or any other people or pets that are dependent on you for their basic needs.
  • If you are concerned that the ways you are coping might be hurting you (e.g. excessive alcohol or drug use, self-harming behaviors like cutting or burning, etc).
  •  If you do not feel that your grief process has in any way changed after what you consider to be a reasonable amount of time, and you feel like it is debilitating your ability to engage in important areas of your life, such as work, relationships, etc, and you are unsure of how to move forward.

In addition to therapy, which can be incredibly helpful for processing the experience of grief, there are many different types of support groups specifically designed to help individuals in the grieving process. Groups can be one of the most effective supports for grief because of how powerful it can be to recognize that you are not alone in your experience.

 

Grieving is a process that can take a very long time. Especially in the beginning, it may feel like it will never end. As cliché as it sounds, time does heal in many ways, but even when years have passed and there is a sense that the grief has really moved through, there may still be moments where the sense of pain and loss comes flooding back; like anniversaries of various kinds or important life events. This too is completely normal, and you can trust that having been able to live through the early days (and months and even years) of grief, even in the unexpected moments when the grief returns, you will have the capacity to be with it and get through it. Although it may be hard to believe this if you are in the early stages of coping with a loss, grief is incredibly powerful in its ability to change and even transform in positive ways. The process is not an easy one, but it is a profound and universal one; it is an experience that we all go through in some way at some time, and that changes us forever.

(If this blog resonates with you in any way, or if you have any additional thoughts, suggestions or questions in regards to this topic I welcome any comments!)

 

Pet Loss: How to Help Your Child Cope with Grief

Pet Loss: How to Help Your Child Cope with Grief

By Jenny Key, LCSW

My earliest memories center on our lively, red-haired family member, Donovan. He was the star of our summer outings, ate too much birthday cake, and made holidays chaotic.  He was my constant companion and first adventure buddy.  I recall vividly, despite my young age of four, when I realized that Donavan was missing.  I walked into my mom’s room as she was making her bed and asked where Donovan had gone.  Like most moms, she struggled with how to tell her child the beloved family dog died.

Be Authentic

Coping with pet loss can be a difficult, yet cathartic time for families.  It is often a child’s first experience of death.  Parents struggle with if, when, and how to involve children in this process.  Instincts tell you to protect them from the pain of pet loss, while logic argues that they should understand that death is a part of life.  The grieving process is unique for each family member, but when approached with openness and patience, it provides an opportunity to become closer.

There are many factors to consider when helping children cope with pet loss.  First, remember that you are working through this together. As the parent, you are the guide and model, but it is okay to admit your own feelings of grief.  Parents often want to hide their sadness in order to keep from burdening children.  In most cases, being transparent with your emotions will give them permission to share theirs.  Be mindful that your son or daughter may react differently to pet loss than you do, or even than other children of similar age.

Age Considerations

Parents seek to understand age-appropriate ways to incorporate children in the illness and death process.  Although developmental stages are helpful, your gut will tell you how much they are ready to know.  Most children from the age of two will have a sense of grief that comes with pet loss. While they may not be able to comprehend death as a permanent state until after the age of seven, you should be transparent and truthful.

Most of you can recall a story like Donovan’s: mom panicked and said the pet went to live on a farm.  Children sense that this explanation is not plausible, which causes them confusion or perhaps more distress.  Because they are learning about the permanence of death, they wonder why a part of the family was taken away.  They also may link their actions to the pet’s removal from the house.  Reassure your children they were not the cause of the pet’s death.  For younger ages, provide enough information so they understand their friend was sick.  With older children, give more details as necessary.

Children often react in ways that seem idiosyncratic or inappropriate, but this is especially true for teens.  Some may act out or express anger in situations not directly related to the loss.  Parents want them to confront their feelings directly by talking about the death. If your child is not ready, offering patience with their emotional ups and downs will better serve them.   Refrain from having a timeframe for grief resolution.

Create a Memorial

Make your home an accepting environment for all respectful reactions to grief.  Some children may accept death readily, having no reaction.  For others, reactions may come at a later time.  Involving your children in a memorial can help them find peace.  Ask them to do something in memory of the pet, like make a collage together or pick out picture frames for a pet corner in your home.  Invite them to write a letter to your pet saying goodbye as a way of helping them express their feelings.

Finally, when your family has suffered a pet loss, allow for extra time together.  Going for a drive, taking a walk, or similar activities promote conversation naturally.  Respond to their thoughts with validation, seeking to know more. If they choose to be silent, soak up the extra moments with your family, feeling gratitude for the time shared.  A pet enters into your life for a few precious moments and teaches your children about unconditional love, but their lessons stay in your family’s heart forever.

 

 

Hot Under the Collar

8 Common Anxiety Symptoms and a Few Ways to Begin to Cool Off

By Rachael Bonaiuto, LPC

When you have anxiety, it’s easy to feel like others don’t understand what you’re going through. Anxiety itself can make you feel as though you’re suffering from symptoms, worries and concerns that are not only pronounced – they also feel inherent. Despite how personal this anxiety is to you, the truth is that anxiety is surprisingly common. I witness anxiety symptoms in most people I encounter on a daily basis – clients, students, friends, and family – in the store, at the bank, even at a red light.  Anxiety is uncomfortable at best, and can become paralyzing and defeating.  And it is common…. so incredibly common.

You are at home, preparing to go to a dinner party with work colleagues. You don’t want to go, you dread it, you think of reasons not to go, fantasize about your favorite elastic-waisted pants and the flavor ice cream that would accompany the movie night you’d rather have. You finally surrender to going, but begin to notice tightness in your chest.  As you stare, hot and bothered, at your closet of ‘not quite right’ clothes, your neck begins to hurt and the pain causes even more fear. You snap at your partner, who gently reminds you that you need to get going. You ignore the texts from co-workers asking you if you’ve left your house yet. You can barely breath and you are frozen.  You are experiencing anxiety and it is profoundly challenging.

So, what are some common symptoms of anxiety? Below are eight typical symptoms of anxiety and a few ways to manage this persistent condition.

  1. You feel constantly worried, tense and on edge
  2. You are plagued by fears that you know are irrational but just can’t shake
  3. You avoid situations/activities because they cause you nervousness & stress
  4. You have difficulty thinking, speaking, and following conversations
  5. You experience pain, stiffness, tension, pressure, soreness, or immobility
  6. Your body temperature increases or decreases without external reason
  7. You feel chest tremors, pounding heart, and/or labored breathing
  8. You don’t feel like yourself, detached from loved ones, emotionally numb

Many common anxiety symptoms show up in your body. You may first experience a knot in your stomach, and then you realize you are totally freaked out about an upcoming presentation. You feel a rapid heartbeat and tightness in your chest and later notice that you are completely anxious to drive in snowy weather.  Your jaw is clenched and your breath is constricted just before you unleash the pent up worry and resulting irritability toward your child.  If you can begin to notice the signals from your body that suggest you are anxious, you may find opportunity to take pause, check in, and navigate what you need in the moment.

Here are a few body-oriented tips for how to deal with anxiety:

1.     Pause:

  1. Find pause through breath. Inhale. Exhale. Feel your belly rise and fall. Notice the air come in through your nostrils and exit out your lips.
  2. Find pause through your senses. Pause to notice what you see. What do you hear and smell? Can you feel your clothes against your body? Experience your feet in your shoes, on the floor. Can you taste the salt on your lips or the flavor from your most recent meal?
  3. Find pause through movement. Go for a walk. Put on your favorite song and dance. Shake it out. Stretch your arms wide. Spread your legs and feel your feet rooted into the earth. Put your hands on your heart or give yourself a massage.

2.    Check In:

  1. Notice what is happening with your breath, senses, movements
  2. Notice, without judgment, what thoughts and feelings you have
  3. Simply observe what is happening in your inner landscape
  4. Scan your body for tension, tightness, fear, irritability, disorientation

3.    Take care:

  1. Ask yourself what you need? Remind yourself (or have someone else remind you) that it is okay to have needs.
  2. If you are having trouble accessing what you need, take another pause, a longer pause, lie on the earth and feel it beneath you.
  3. If you are in need of support, ask for help – from a friend, a loved one or a professional.

Anxiety can negatively impact your quality of life – the way you show up for others and for yourself. Knowing the common symptoms of anxiety can help you recognize when you or a loved one is experiencing unease. When you realize you feel anxious, it can be so valuable to pause, check in and take care of yourself in the moment. Building a deeper understanding of the symptoms and an awareness of what is happening in your body can provide access to your available resources through breath, sensation and movement. When you have access to your internal resources, you can also appreciate more deeply when you need additional support and when you are able to navigate your internal terrain on your own. This self-awareness provides empowerment, freedom and a deeper sense of compassion for self and other. Most importantly, if you are experiencing significant anxiety, seek professional help. Psychotherapy can be very effective in providing relief from the debilitating symptoms of anxiety.