#ASKWISE – “My daughter has been waking up in the morning complaining of a stomach ache, and we can’t figure out what is going on. We don’t think it is physical because she eats fine, and has had a recent check up. Could it be something else? She seems overly worried about things lately, and now I am too!” ~Mom of 9-year-old daughter
Understanding how your brain works – and the brain of your child – provides a great frame of reference for talking with your kids about self esteem and managing big feelings like anxiety, depression and fear.
The brain is made up of billions of cells called neurons. These cells have nerve endings called synapses and dendrites. Nerve endings release chemical and electrical signals to communicate with each other – kind of like the way that beach lifeguards signal each other to spread a message.
This brain communication forms “roads” in the brain called neuro-pathways and is the basis for how the brain works. When you first learn something, the “roads” are like dirt trails that get stronger – more like super highways – the more you think about or focus on that thing. This is how a habit is formed – and we call this brain training.
Our friends at www.self-esteem-experts.com share this example to illustrate this process:
“Learning to ride a bike – At first you must pay attention to stay balanced, keeping your eyes on the road, holding onto the handlebars and steering in your desired direction. Then the more you practice, the stronger your bicycle riding pathways become.
Eventually you are able to get on your bike and ride without thinking. You’re operating on automatic. A strong brain pathway has been created as though new brain software has been uploaded and is seamlessly operating in your mind.”
What does bike riding have to do with self-esteem, and responding to big emotions? The brain works in the same way to build a strong brain pathway to our thoughts about ourselves and the world around us, as it does for riding a bike. As our thoughts are formed from the messages we hear and believe from friends, coaches, teachers and parents, the thoughts become more and more automatic.
“People don’t like me.”
“I never say anything important.”
“Something is wrong with me.”
“I can’t handle this.”
These thoughts operate like a habit, and like any habit, the brain has to be RE-TRAINED to change the thoughts. When we change our thoughts, we can change our feelings and actions.
Stay tuned for strategies and activities for developing new brain pathways in your kids – and maybe yourself too!
Amy Fortney Parks, PhD – Practice Owner: The world is a confusing place – and there is a lot of sadness. There are often situations (and opportunities) when we want – or need – to talk to our kids about BIG sadness – depression. And you may be worried about saying the “right” thing. We tell parents at The Wise Family that just having an honest conversation with a child about BIG feelings might provide super support.
Here are 3 tips to help –
Use “kid friendly” words – Make sure that the words you are using with your kids are easy to understand. Words like “depression” might be too complex for young children, but may be appropriate for tweens and teens. We use “big feelings of sadness” to explain depression sometimes. Before you launch into any conversation, make sure your kids/teens understand the language you are using.
Be positive, and honest – When you are talking about depression, the goal is to support sharing and conversation so discuss the seriousness of this illness, along with the availability of support and care. If your child asks about something you can’t answer, tell your child that you don’t know, and make a list of questions to discuss with a mental health professional – and follow up.
Be a good listener – Allow your child/teen to talk openly and express opinions and thoughts. These might not align with yours, but avoid interrupting or punishing your child/teen for their feelings. All feelings are ok – it is the actions that we want to help guide.
And while talking about depression with your family is very important, it does not replace the need for a mental health professional in your life. Find someone that you can trust, that also connects well with kids. If you need help finding someone, reach out to us here.
Dominique Adkins, EdD – Therapist for The Wise Family: Depression comes in many forms. A teen may act out, cry, get angry, or take risks. The variety of manifestions of depression can lead to the emotional needs being overlooked. Teens’ busy schedules, the need to strive for perfection, constant connection with electronics often prevents them from being fully aware of their emotions. Additionally, there is often a tendency to avoid difficult moments and feelings which only prolongs the suffering. Each moment in life is temporary. Mindful awareness of each emotion not only reduces the suffering but increases awareness of the positive. I encourage teens to designate time to spend quietly and alone with their thoughts and feelings so they can mindfully and non-judgmentally notice what they are experiencing each day. This mindful moment helps teens to slow down, recognize, communicate their needs, and proceed in a way that supports them in the moment. Let’s partner with teens to increase communication about feelings and help create these daily mindful moments!
Amanda Beyland, LCSW – Therapist for The Wise Family: Talking about how we feel is usually a difficult task for all of us but kids especially can have a difficult time communicating how they are feeling. We’ve had years of practice when it comes to our emotions which helps us pinpoint how we’re feeling and why that may be. Sometimes, with kids, these big emotions come with big reactions that cannot always be connected back to how they are feeling. While the kids are unsure about exactly how they are feeling, we as adults are trying to figure it out too! Sometimes people jump to assumptions about how someone may be feeling based on how they are expressing themselves but that isn’t always the case. Yelling doesn’t always mean we’re angry just like crying is not always due to sadness. In order to understand how we’re feeling we have to talk about it and embrace all of our feelings; not just the easy ones!
Sadness can be especially hard to talk about because it isn’t always something that is understood. Someone may be sad for a reason that someone else wouldn’t be able to relate to but that doesn’t make the sadness any less real. Acknowledge your child’s sadness for whatever it is! They may be sad about forgetting their favorite stuffed animal at home which may sound silly to us but is sincere for them. Reassure your child that sadness is an emotion that everyone experiences at some point in time, you can even share with them a time that you felt sad. This will help to normalize the feeling for the child and help them to become more comfortable with feeling sad. Don’t rush them out of their feelings but talk to them about what might help them feel better.
Kasey Cain, Resident in Counseling – Therapist for The Wise Family: Depression is one of those terms that is used regularly. It is not uncommon during an average day in a school or office for me to hear someone say “I am so depressed!” As an adult, when we hear a child say this, it is difficult to know if the child is expressing a feeling of sadness in the moment, or a more recurring feeling that may be getting in the way of his or her life. Even as adults we often have difficulty understanding, expressing, and managing our feelings.
One of the first steps towards helping your child manage depression or other uncomfortable feelings is to be open with your feelings. Children watch all that we say and do. If we can learn to express our feelings in a healthy way or at least note when we realize we perhaps acted out, then children will model our behavior. It is important to remember that there is no such thing as a “bad feeling.” There are pleasant feelings that we like to have and others’ that are more uncomfortable. All feelings are natural and worth exploring and understanding.
Another step towards talking about sadness is to begin early and in “low threat” ways. The optimal time to talk to your child about being super sad is not when he or she is already sobbing. These conversation can happen any time. When reading a book, watching a movie – heck, even commercials can bring out strong emotions. Take any moment as an opportunity to learn about the complexity of feelings with your child. Expand their feelings vocabulary so your child understands that sad, lonely, gloomy, disappointed, and depressed are variances of similar feelings. And, remember, none of them are bad, because they can use these feelings to learn new, healthy coping mechanisms and increase their resilience. You will be surprised at how much you learn too!
Lynlee Tanner Stapleton, PhD – Evaluator for The Wise Family: One of the first steps to effectively managing depression in children and teens is better understanding how it is likely to present itself. Many adults assume that depression looks like the stereotypical episodes of obvious sadness, crying, not wanting to leave bed, etc. But in young people, depression is just as likely to appear as heightened irritability and “testiness”, a loss of interest or pleasure in things they used to enjoy, more negative ways of thinking and seeing the world, and/or physical symptoms like persistent changes in appetite, weight, or activity level.
These are often dismissed as your child being “difficult” or “just being a teen” but may mask deeper concerns. If you notice these signs, begin to gently ask more questions, making sure to avoid a judgmental or dismissive tone, and expect that your efforts may be rebuffed at first (or second or third…). A child dealing with depression is likely to think you will never understand or she is unworthy or unable to be helped. Gentle, supportive listening and persistence are key. While mild symptoms may improve with time, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help, as depression is often chronic and recurrent. And indications that your child is having thoughts of death or self-harm should always be taken seriously, with a focus on ensuring safety.
Depression can seem scary and strange, but with some preparation and support from others, you and your child can weather the storm with effective help.
Because sometimes we just need to be reminded of how comical the parenting journey can be.
Can anyone relate to this scenario? 🙂
Photo by Brigitte Tohm on Unsplash
We wrote last week about teens (and pre-teens) expressing curiosity about gender differences, and non-traditional approaches to sexual orientation. We got such an overwhelming response from families asking questions, that we thought we would share a bit more with you, as well as some (of the many) excellent resources.
Teens often ask us, teary eyed and anxious, how they should share with their parents that they are considering adopting a non-traditional lifestyle. We like to use that term, rather than ‘alternative’ because it feels more accepting of the decisions being considered.
As an early career clinician, I would sometimes be skeptical when teens asked these questions and struggled to identify what – if anything – might have “caused” this to happen. I WONDERED how you could “know” that you were bi-sexual or gay if you had never had a sexual experience. And I also wondered if the teen would “grow out of it”.
Families would also WONDER about things like, “Did I do something wrong?” or “What will people think of my child? Of me?” or “How will my child manage a potential future full of bullies and shaming?” Sometimes families would experience a sense of relief knowing that something had been bothering their child for some time, and that this was it.
Most often, however, we would all have some combination of all of these feelings. My job was to support the child in sharing a very scary personal truth, AND to support the family in being open to really HEARING their child (which is different from listening, FYI).
Author and therapist, Dr. Michael LaSala, of Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child, offers these 6 suggestions that we use with families at The Wise Family –
- Take a deep breath – Generally good advice whenever first confronting a challenging situation, right? And be grateful that your child is talking with you, and sharing this intimate part of themselves.
- Find someone to talk to – but not just anyone – Find someone that is open-minded, and accepting of LGBTQ+ people. A trustworthy confidant will allow you to vent, but also can help correct some of the misperceptions absorbed from society, such as gay people are lonely, unhappy, promiscuous, unable to have children, and doomed to an unhappy life.
- Then find someone else – a professional – Professionals like social workers, psychologists, or psychiatrists have an ethical code requiring them to be knowledgeable, respectful, and supportive of all people (although, just to be sure, you might ask the therapist about his/her options of LGBTQ+ people and lifestyles.)
- Contact Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) (www.pflag.org) – This national support and advocacy group is primarily for parents of LGBTQ+ people and has hundreds of local chapters throughout the US. Having a group of people that have been in your shoes, and managed to get through the tough times can really help.
- Get educated – Check out the resources below, and ask questions wherever and whenever you have the opportunity. Then help your child’s school, teachers, and the community get educated too!
- Let your child teach you – Know that your son or daughter came out to you, most probably because they love you, and want a more open, honest relationship. Respect that, and allow them to teach you about LGBTQ+ people, and also about acceptance and love.
If you’ve read this far that means you are willing to take the initial step and get yourself information. Check out the resources below and reach out to us at The Wise Family fore more! Parenting is a journey with a lot of potholes and detours – and there are also some gorgeous scenic overlooks along the way.
Don’t miss them, and Be Wise.
Resources to check out –
Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child. (LaSala, M. C., 2010) New York: Columbia University Press.
Love Ellen, A Mother Daughter Journey (DeGeneres, B., 1999), New York: Ross Weisbach Books.
Mom, Dad, I’m Gay: How Families Negotiate Coming Out. (Savin-Williams, R. C., 2001.) Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
We have the opportunity, more and more, in our counseling practice, of supporting young people that are curious about nontraditional gender identification – and nontraditional approaches to sexual orientation. It is a confusing topic for even the most in-the-know parent (or therapist) so we thought we would share this article from PoshSEVEN with you to give you some orientation to the language and resources available around this topic.
Contact us if you’d like to discuss this topic with us, or if you have anything additional to add – this is new territory for many so we all have something to learn! You may also schedule a time to chat HERE.
Amy Fortney Parks, PhD – Practice Owner: Do you ever wish you could have Mary Poppins come to your house to talk to your kids about “tough topics”? Topics are tough, no matter the age of your child, whether they are 5, 12 or 18. And topics tend to get tougher as your child(ren) grow older. Being able to talk to your child about subjects that are hard or uncomfortable is a beautiful gift in which you as the parent can give to your child. Not only that, but it also equips and prepares your child to develop and use these social skills in the future…
Dominique Adkins, EdD – Therapist for The Wise Family: Tough topics and teens can be a challenging combo. Teens are constantly wanting freedom from parents to prove that “I know what I am doing.” This desire to be independent must be acknowledged while keeping communication open and clear regardless of the topic. The sooner the tough topic is tackled the better. Before discussing a tough topic, I encourage parents, teens, and young adults to determine their individual goals and to speak from their experience. It is also important to remember that tough discussions will not always go as planned so we must listen and breathe before reacting. Finally, be mindful of nonverbal communication such as tone, body language, and facial expressions. These small gestures can have a big impact on achieving a resolution, an understanding, or a compromise.
Amanda Beyland, LCSW – Therapist for The Wise Family: When kids are young they often turn to their parents (or another trusted adult) for guidance and this can mean answering some tough questions! It’s natural for kids to be curious, no matter how uncomfortable the questions may make us adults. When these questions are asked, it is important to provide answers, even if it isn’t the easiest thing to talk about. When we avoid the things that are difficult to talk about it only causes kids to become more curious and they may seek answers from sources that may not be reliable. Keep your answers simple, straightforward, and try not to make a big deal about it, just answer the question like you would any other.
The questions usually start somewhere so ask your child what they already know in order to get a better understanding of where the question is coming from or what the child’s concerns may be. You may find that your child just needs some reassurance if their question stems from something he or she may be worrying about. One answer may not be enough, so be sure to leave the door open to future discussions. Once your child feels comfortable talking to you (and knows you’ll give them an honest answer) they may continue to have questions. Kids are resilient and their responses to the tough stuff may surprise you, so don’t be afraid to be honest with them!
Kasey Cain, Resident in Counseling – Therapist for The Wise Family: I have spent the majority of my professional career working in pre-schools and elementary schools. Over the years, I have noticed that adults avoid talking to children about a variety of tough topics because they think the children are not ready for or can’t handle the information. While I certainly believe adults must consider what is developmentally appropriate for children to hear and talk about, we cannot use this as an excuse to avoid challenging conversations. In fact, when we avoid conversations because we are uncomfortable, we do a disservice to our child and our relationship with them.
I remember speaking to the mother of a 5th grade boy. As a single mother she was nervous about talking with her son about puberty. She asked me if the school would cover that information so she didn’t have to and if I could follow up with her son to see if he had any questions. Of course, I had the ability to talk with him, however, I talked with this mother about the possible long-term benefits of her having this conversation. Sure they might both feel uncomfortable in the moment and blush or giggle, but her son would realize that he could talk to his mother about awkward topics. I would not always be available to have these conversations, but as his mother, she would be a constant, supportive presence in his life. This is just one example of the hundreds of times I have encouraged adults to have difficult conversations with their kids.
I am fond of saying “little ears are everywhere.” This refers to the fact that kids are smart and are paying attention. You may think you are having an “adult conversation” away from kids, but chances are they have heard bits and pieces of it or are picking up on your non-verbals.
Kids are smarter than they get credit for. They also have the ability for great resilience. Let’s foster this resiliency but approach the tough conversations head on and show children that we are here to listen, talk, problem solve, etc. As Jeanne Phillips, more commonly known as “Dear Abby”, once said “Sometimes the most important conversations are the most difficult to engage in.”
WISE TALK with Dr. Amy
A lot of people ask me how to motivate your kids. I think that motivation is really about two things. It’s about confidence and it’s about competence. So if you have a kid or a teen who is feeling incompetent in class, ask them the following questions to dig a little deeper:
- Why do you feel like you are struggling in school?
- If you feel you don’t understand the material, how can you get more information on the subject matter and/or instructions?
If they are feeling like they’re struggling or they don’t understand something, then one of the ways to help motivate them is to clarify their competence – figure out what’s going wrong and help them figure out a way to reach a solution. (Guide them on this part – don’t just do it for them!)
Then the other part of it is confidence – When you see a kid that’s unmotivated, quite often it’s one of two things: lack of confidence or competence. The confidence piece is when you see a teen or a kid that maybe doesn’t feel really good about themselves or is questioning their own values or their own self-worth or where their role is in the family. Depending on what it is, sometimes you have to clarify those things for kids so that they can feel more confident.
If you think your teen’s lack of confidence is turning into anxiety, take a look at this blog post on how to reduce chronic anxiety.
We have some exciting groups coming up in the next few months – About building confidence and learning more about mindfulness and movement. Be on the lookout for more info. in the coming months!
Welcome to 2018!
We are rededicating ourselves at The Wise Family sharing insights, strategies and expectations about some tough topics that we, as both parents and clinicians, find ourselves talking about an awful lot with kids. This week’s article, written by our friends at Common Sense Media, is a guide to setting up some parental controls on that new iPhone or smart device that your kids got for holiday gifts. (Read the full article HERE.)
When I talk to parents about electronics individually and in workshops around the country, the #1 thing I hear parents say is, “I can’t figure that out.” Basically, that is a cop-out – a parenting cop-out. Electronics are here to stay – and they have some great value. And access to electronics can also be incredibly addictive, and dangerous (we’re going to be talking about that too this year.) As a parent, it is your responsibility to be fully aware of what your kids and teens are doing on electronics. And if you aren’t go to your kid’s school – or the “Make Me a Genius” bar at the Apple store, and find out.
We pay closer attention to the Halloween candy kids get trick-or-treating better than we do to what kid’s are doing with their electronics.
Here are some tips to get started on understanding more about electronics, and there is plenty more on the big world of the Internet where that came from. If you don’t know something, do what the kids do – Google it! Or call us at The Wise Family – we are happy to help!
Amy Fortney Parks, PhD – Practice Owner: Welcome to the close of 2017, and the opening of a brand new year – 2018. We are so privileged at The Wise Family to have such amazing clinicians who draw both from personal experience, and scientific research to support their insights into setting intentions for the new year! Enjoy their thoughts below, and don’t forget that the holiday season is also an opportunity for magic to happen – invite magic to happen in your life, and in your family this season!
Amanda Beyland, LCSW – Therapist for The Wise Family: As another year comes to an end, it is the time that everyone begins to reflect on their year: the good, the bad, and even the ugly. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in all of the things that need improvement, so make sure to also highlight the positives changes that took place throughout the year. When we think about the progress we have made, we are acknowledging the areas we had success in!
When it comes to making resolutions as a family, everyone needs to have a say. Families can get together to talk about, and reflect on the past year in order to start making their resolutions. Each family member can share something they are proud of and something they may want to improve upon. Some of the younger members in the family might have a hard time with this so it’s ok to help them! Think about the things that your children can do now that maybe they couldn’t have done earlier in the year; reading a chapter book, riding a bike with no training wheels, or learning a new sport or instrument. We’re not looking to point out flaws, just places where there is room for improvement. Make sure the goals for the upcoming year are doable, and remember, change doesn’t happen over night!
Dominique Adkins, EdD – Therapist for The Wise Family: With the New Year fast approaching, we have the opportunity to look back at 2017 and look toward 2018. This mindful reflection helps us to align with our purpose and integrate the successes and lessons of 2017 into our intentions for 2018. After reflecting on your intention, write down each intention in a prominent location so the intention will be set deep within your mind and heart. Then discuss your intentions with your family and cultivate a family intention. During your upcoming holiday celebrations set aside time to discuss your intentions for the New Year. Be sure to continue to communicate with your family as a way to support and hold each other accountable. Finally, take time to meditate and check in with these intentions throughout the year. Always remember to be encouraged and that any moment can be a fresh start to your life!
Kasey Cain, Resident in Counseling – Therapist for The Wise Family: New Year’s is the time when many people reflect on their past year and plan for their hopes and dreams for the upcoming year. This often comes in the form of a resolution. Whenever I have friends, familiy, or clients that reflect on past goals that were challenging for them, I talk about two different things:
- It takes 66 days (more than 2 months) for a new behavior to become automatic, and
- Think “W.O.O.P.”! I am referring to Dr. Gabriele Oettingen’s process that has been shown to reduce stress and support people in achieving their goals. W.O.O.P. stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. It is a quick, evidence-based practice that can help you and your family reach whatever goal you are trying to set.
To the first point – this number comes from a study done at Univeristy College London published in the European Journal or Social Psychology. I find it helpful, because so often, if families try to begin a new routine such as weekly dinner or daily story time, they quickly become frustrated if their goal has not been met by February. Knowing the 66 days allows families to set appropriate expectations.
Change takes time. Expecting perfection in whatever family goal you set is unrealistic. Welcome the belief that the journey is the destination. In working towards a family goal, you are learning together. Family traditions and practices are often passed down from one generation to the next. If you begin something and it sticks, most likely it will stay for years to come. Happy New Year!
Lynlee Tanner Stapleton, PhD – Evaluator for The Wise Family: The new year usually brings to mind renewed commitments and resolutions on how to improve on challenges and shortcomings. But don’t let your end-of-year review end so soon! As you take time to reflect on the past year, make space for gratitude and forgiveness. Numerous research studies show how cultivating gratitude can have a host of positive effects, from improving your mood and sleep, to reducing stress and physical complaints, to enhancing and expanding your relationships. Letting go of resentments and practicing kindness toward others (and yourself!) for past transgressions also brings a wave of physical, psychological and social benefits.
It may be tempting to focus your energy on all the things you want to “fix” or the big changes in store for the new year, especially in our “work hard, do more, reach higher” world. But turning your attention to the successes and blessings that surround you can be a powerful antidote to the stress that this mentality can create — and maybe even help reap many of the same desired benefits in a more satisfying and sustainable way! It’s also a great way to set a kind and compassionate example for your family during this season of giving.
Until Next Year, Be Wise!