Transitioning Through Life

By: Dr. Jan Hittelman

As parents, we all share in our child’s roller coaster ride of transitioning up the educational ladder from preschool right up to college. How we transition from one rung to another can be the difference between success and failure. This month’s newsletter focuses on transitions, with great advice inside for helping both elementary and secondary students experience success.

In addition to focusing on transitions like moving up from elementary to middle school, or middle school to high school, our children, as well as ourselves, are all going through constant transition, whether we are aware of it or not. The word “Transition” literally means “The process of change” and transitioning successfully is really about how we adapt to change. While it is difficult to be fully aware of it, from moment to moment, everything is in a constant state of change: our bodies, technology, our planet, everyone we know, everything that exists. At the same time, many people are actually resistant to change, typically because there is comfort in what’s familiar, along with a fear of potential negative outcomes. Moreover, when we struggle with transitioning, it is often because of negative expectations, worries, or fears, like the elementary child panicked about being able to open their locker in middle school. What makes things even more challenging is that most of us have a tendency to focus on the negative more than the positive. Thus negative expectations come naturally and positive ones take effort. The good news is that with just a little effort we can make small shifts in our expectations from negative to positive, which can cumulatively have a profound impact on our ability to successfully adapt to the ongoing transitions in our lives. Our dreaded anticipation of future challenges around the next turn can be transformed into seeing life as an adventure as we head forward into the great unknown.

If you want your child to be confident and successful with transitions, what better way than to model it yourself. Take time to point out the fun and adventure in things. Get into the habit of talking about positive potential outcomes in response to life transitions and brainstorm, with your child, ways to help make it so. Resisting change is like resisting life itself. The more time we take to stop and smell the roses and try to reflect on the changes going on around us, while embracing future possibilities and the blessings in our lives, the better we will be able to enjoy what is, and look forward to what will be.

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.

Three Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness Parenting

Three Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness Parenting

By Debbie Mayer, LCSW

Mindfulness parenting is all the rage these days, and there’s good reason for it.  The general idea behind mindfulness is the ability to practice being present and aware without judgment.  Now, combining this approach with parenting is not necessarily what you might instinctually think to do.  ‘You mean, you want me to be more present when my child is screaming at me?? Those are the times I want to check out most!’  If you are able to tune into your experience in the moment – such as feeling overwhelmed, judging yourself for the fact that your child is upset (“If only I would have…then he wouldn’t be acting this way”), finding that you are checking out (“I wish she would just stop yelling all the time” vs. “wow, she’s really feeling overwhelmed right now”) – then you are already practicing mindfulness!  As awareness increases, so does an ability to focus on being more present, which can result in your child feeling more heard and respected as well as you feeling less focused on what’s driving you crazy.

As a parent myself, I can easily find focusing on what I think might need to get done and get lost from what is presently happening.  Just the other night when my child was having a more challenging night going to bed, and I was exhausted from a long day myself; I found my thoughts drifting off to what I wanted to get done that night. Fortunately I caught myself in this pattern, and stopped to pay attention to the present moment.  What was my child asking of me?  What was my child’s emotional need in this moment?  How could I be more present for my child and support my child during this challenging time?  What I found was, the more I was able to be fully present with my child, the more calm the environment became as an experienced sense of understanding was incorporated into our interaction.

While mindfulness parenting encompasses many aspects I’m going to explore a few areas specifically: being able to slow down to heighten awareness, increase a connection with your child, and letting go of judgment.

Let’s first look at the idea of slowing down to increase your sense of awareness. This can be supported by asking yourself questions like: What is going on around me? What sounds do I notice? What am I feeling? What is my child feeling? When you are able to recognize that your thoughts are drifting off away from what is happening in the present, you are better able to be attuned to your child’s needs and meet your child where he or she is.  The more ‘distant’ you are, the more your child may be expressing himself in ways to seek your attention.  When you are able to connect and be truly present, your child will know and respond in ways that acknowledge you are there. When you are present with your child you can often experience a sense of slowing down life, being in the moment, not the past or future, but there actively with your child.  This can happen at nighttime like how I shared above, during playtime in the day, at meals, in the car, at the grocery store, in a museum, or at the park.

Another benefit of incorporating mindfulness practice into parenting, is increasing a connection with your child.  When you connect deeply with your child on her or his level, where your child knows you are present and desire to be there, your child is experiencing being valued, loved, and respected.  Attachment theory teaches us how children’s sense of self is increased when they have a relationship where they experience being safe and feeling secure. Mindfulness parenting goes hand in hand with this notion; when you are placing your attention in the present moment you are able to enjoy singing a song with your child, delighting in them running on the soccer field, feeling the cold of the snow together, or laughing together as you bite into yet another piece of burnt toast.  These connections are building blocks for your child in building a healthy sense of self-esteem, and in time feeling confident in abilities for school, peer relationships, sports, future romantic relationships, employee interactions, etc.

The third area I’ll talk about here is practicing mindfulness parenting without judgment.  In discussing the many benefits children can receive through mindfulness parenting, there is also the support we provide ourselves.  Mindfulness parenting can help you not only practice increasing your awareness to the present, but also to not judge yourself. Practicing letting go of thoughts such as: My child is upset, I should have… or I’m no good at this mindfulness thing, I keep thinking about all the things that need to get done. The reality is thoughts will drift in and out, that is natural. When we treat ourselves with kindness verses judgment we are more likely to treat our children that way too.  I am having a hard time being present right now, that is ok.  Let me tune back in to what my child is doing… or I realize now that I could have handled that situation differently, I’ll talk with them to repair that situation. Judgment can come from voices in our past (parents, teachers, friends, experiences), however being able to free ourselves from those to truly be in the moment with our child is an invaluable experience for both parent and child.

I challenge you to find one way today to incorporate an aspect of mindfulness parenting with your child. Find a time where you notice that you are smiling and connecting with your child, where you find your thoughts drifting off and you say that’s ok but now I’m going to tune back into being here, where you feel overwhelmed and need to take a break, or you find an activity your child enjoys and spend time noticing what it is about the activity that truly makes your child happy. And remember, practicing mindfulness parenting is just that, a practice! Feel free to welcome the days it’s easier and the days it’s more challenging. Practice at your own pace, and explore how mindfulness parenting fits for you and your family.

Debbie Mayer, LCSW helped create the content for this page. Debbie is a licensed clinical social worker who has been helping families with parenting issues since 2002. Debbie has specialized training to work with very young children, including infants, and their families.
Book Review: The Whole Brain Child

Book Review: The Whole Brain Child

Book Review: The Whole Brain Child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your Child’s developing Mind (2011)

Authors: Daniel Siegel, MD and Tina Bryson, PhD

By Mia Bertram, LPC

The Whole Brain Child, is a must read for every parent and caregiver. This valuable resource offers easy ways to help nurture the parent child relationship while understanding ways to foster a child’s emotional development.  Neuropsychiatrist, Doctor Bruce Perry and parent expert Doctor Tina Payne Bryson offer effective parenting strategies that are backed by cutting edge research on brain development and speak directly to the child’s brain. The author’s use of cartoons, personal stories, hands on techniques and strategies to help implement and understand what may feel like otherwise overwhelming material about the brain and neuroscience. They even offer quick reference sheets to put on the fridge for easy review as well as ways of helping teach children about their own brain that are fun and easily doable. By paying attention to the everyday moments with your children and practicing and integrating these strategies both within the good and tough times will help foster happy, successful children who feel good about themselves and enjoy their relationships.

Not only is having an understanding of the brain essential in your relationship with your child, but also the authors convey the importance of integrating the different parts of the brain and its impact on creating more balanced, meaningful and creative lives. Understanding the different parts of the brain- left, right, up and down creates a way for us to conceptualize where a child is coming from, what their perspective is, and how to work with these parts so integration, awareness and connection can take place. Such conceptualization allows us to have appropriate expectations, language and understanding during the challenging moments we have with our children. It helps, according to the authors, to move from surviving to thriving in our relationships and day-to-day functioning.

In times of challenge and struggle, Bryson and Siegel teach us to connect and redirect with our children. Appealing to both sides of the brain is important and there is a formula to follow so that integration and connection take place. In times of big upsets and emotional charge, initially responding to the emotional right side with empathy and understanding creates emotional connection.  Once the big emotions have settled and the child is calm, the logical and linear left-brain can come on line. This is where redirection, and discipline can take place, helping the child form an understanding of their experience. Such connection and integration strengthens relationship, emotional development and the developing mind.

The authors provide 12 strategies to help nurture the child’s mind, create connection and promote healthy growth.  Using the body and movement to help shift your child’s emotional stare is great in the “Move It to Lose It Strategy”, along with the “SIFT” game that helps bring awareness to sensations, images, feelings and thoughts within. Teaching children how to shift feeling stuck in emotional states in the “Let the Clouds of Emotions Roll by” helps children understand that feelings are simply states and not traits. The “Name it Tame it”, helps children work through taming intense feelings through storytelling. Additional strategies include helping to work through memories while exercising control, engaging in focused attention and “Engage Don’t Engage” which appeals to the logic and planning of the left-brain rather than the emotions.

I think every parent, caregiver, teacher, counselor, or anyone involved in the life of a child could benefit from reading and learning this valuable information. The whole brain approach to parenting creates deeper connections and greater understanding of our children.  It is a resource that I offer and sometimes require in my practice.  It normalizes our experiences and offers strategies on how to work with our children, creating moments of challenge into triumphs and mistakes into opportunities.  The information presented within is user friendly, accessible and valuable. More importantly, if utilized and implemented can help create children who are more self aware, emotionally attuned, congruent, resilient, and evolved.