Helping Children Grieve

Even very young children are aware of loss and have their own process of grieving based on their understanding. Because children look to their caregivers to learn how to process their losses, caregivers can inadvertently shut down a child’s ability to grieve when they assume the child does not know or is not reacting to the loss.

Children’s television and literature cover common topics of loss like changing schools, moving away from a friend, and losing a pet. With these kinds of losses, caregivers can leverage the child’s understanding of how their favorite characters went through their loss.

The most common temptation for caregivers is to help move the child through the process. Resist the urge to tell the child how much nicer it will be at the new school or that they will make more friends soon. Help the child learn how to be sad in appropriate ways, express their anger at the situation, and find ways to honor their loss.

The topic of death, particularly parent or sibling death, is not common in children’s media. Unless you purposefully seek out these books, you are not likely to find them at your local library or bookstore. Grandparent death is a more common topic, but again not always available on the shelves.

A key difference with parent or sibling death is that you as the caregiver are likely processing your own grief through the process. It’s very different from helping a child deal with their emotions through changing schools since you as the caregiver are not also changing schools.

Children need to know that it’s okay to express their grief with you, and they often want to know that the loss matters to you too. Younger children often want to tell the story of their loss over and over, and this can be an opportunity for you to craft a story together of what you have lost and how you are grieving together.

Book Review: Hunt, Gather, Parent

Hunt, Gather, Parent

I grabbed this book from the library because I read parenting books like a starving person might go after food. As you may know, I’m not a parent myself, but I’ve been a nanny, a preschool class teacher, and now a therapist who has spent a great deal of time working with children and their parents.

Side note: I became a therapist partly (mostly) because even as a child I naturally gravitated to the relationship books. Imagine an elementary school kid passing over the fun books to grab a fat stack of dating, marriage, and parenting books. Anyway, I’m fairly certain I’m in the right career path.

The book promises to give a new look on parenting strategies based on those found in more traditional cultures around the world. But unlike most other books on traditional parenting, this author wrote the book with the goal of translating these traditional techniques into something usable by fully modern parents. It’s refreshing to see how these skills are used in tiny villages and how the author then uses them back in San Francisco.

If you’re like me and devour parenting books for breakfast, you’ll recognize many of these skills like allowing kids to follow their natural helpful instinct, managing your own anger and frustration so things don’t escalate, and giving kids space to practice growth on their own.

While the skills may not exactly be new, the presentation is fresh because the author was (and is still) in the middle of raising a toddler. The author’s description of her own childhood experience of growing up in a yelling home shows her struggles to adapt to parenting from quiet and calm. Readers who come from a similar childhood home may relate. But even for those of us who grew up in peaceful homes, it can still be a struggle to keep a sense of calm in the face of a screaming, crying, hitting toddler. And yes, this book goes into managing that kind of kid.

The narratives are engaging and worthwhile reading, but for parents needing immediate help (or for readers needing a quick reminder), each section concludes with a helpful boxed summary with practical tips to implementing these new strategies.

Interested? You can find the book here on the publisher’s website.

Need parenting help as you work through this book? Many parents use therapy as a space to get coaching, support, and education as they manage their own unique families. Contact me for any questions or to get started.

Parenting Teens by Parenting Toddlers

Parenting teens is a lot like parenting toddlers. Their process of individuation through saying no, isolating, or outright rebelling is frustrating and difficult to work with. And how you work through this process with your teen affects how they will grow up.

Toddlers and teens may not seem like they have much in common, but developmentally, they’re going through a very similar process both biologically and psychologically.

Toddlers are going through the process of individuating, or discovering who they are aside from their parents. You may recognize this as the main task of the “No!” phase. While infants are generally happy to go along with their caregivers, toddlers are learning that they have their own preferences and individuality. They’re becoming more aware that others are separate people with their own thoughts, emotions, and preferences.

Parenting toddlers in this phase requires patience and gentle boundaries. You want your child to explore and grow while still making sure they are safe. Most parents are familiar with how to support toddlers through the difficult phase of individuation. But even though teens are very similar to toddlers in their needs for individual development, parents are often reactive and fearful about the teenage years.

Teens are going through the exact same process as toddlers, although they aren’t small and cute anymore. They may or may not be saying, “No!” out loud, but they are separating from their parents either through isolating and withdrawing or joining with outside social groups. After puberty, many teens look more like adults than children, so it can be hard to remember that they still need the patience and gentleness their parents gave them as young children.

Consider these scenarios:

  • A two year old doesn’t want to stop playing with her toys to go to the store with her family. When her parents insist, she throws a tantrum.
  • A sixteen year old doesn’t want to leave her bedroom to go to her cousin’s birthday party with the family. When her parents insist, she refuses to go.

It’s hard for most parents to treat the sixteen year old with the same compassion and patience as the two year old. We expect tantrums and explosions from toddlers, and most parents know how to hold quiet boundaries while they cry and throw things until they are able to calm down and get back on track. But the sixteen year old has the same needs as the toddler in this case- to establish herself as an individual with her own preferences. She wants to be heard and respected. The parents have the same task as well- to help her express her thoughts and feelings so she feels heard and supported while maintaining adult control and ensuring the toddler and teen follow the rules and expectations of the family.

Parenting teens ideally should look a lot like parenting toddlers. Parents need to learn how to navigate teen individuation with the same patience, modeling, and safety with which they navigated the toddler years.

With that in mind, here are 3 lessons from parenting toddlers you can use in parenting teens through their second individuation phase and managing their withdrawing, sulking, and rebellion.

  1. Safety first. Too many parents of teens get caught up in the trap of focusing on power and control instead of safety. The goal of parenting is to raise an adult, not to maintain control forever. When a baby is learning to walk, we expect them to fall down and make sure their environment is safe enough they can fall without injury. Likewise with teens, as they learn how to make adult decisions, we can expect them to fail at times. Let them fail without stepping in to help, but make sure they are able to fail in a way that doesn’t injure them.
  2. Don’t take it personally. Your teen’s rebellion is not a challenge to your parental authority but their way of testing boundaries and developing independence. Neither isolating nor arguing are about you as the parent, they are a way for your teen to explore their identity apart from you.
  3. Keep seeking connection. Nearly every teen I’ve talked to in therapy has told me they wish they could talk to their parents about big things in their life. They want to talk through major life decisions with you. They want to process their feelings about their friends, about drugs and alcohol, about cutting and suicide, and about self-esteem. Teens often test their parents by bringing up small issues to see how you will react before they’ll risk venturing into deeper waters. If you want to keep communication open, watch how you respond in the little things to make sure they will feel safe talking about big things.

About Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are common. Learn about the three types of anxiety and the best ways to treat them in this introductory post.

Anxiety

Along with depression, anxiety disorders are the most prevalent of all mental health problems. The majority of people, sometimes estimated as high as 80%, will experience clinically significant anxiety during their lifetimes.

What Causes Anxiety?
There are a number of possible causes for anxiety. The three general categories are environmental, biological, and psychological. A serious anxiety disorder may involve one source or several. Different treatments will be more or less effective depending on the reason for your anxiety. Talking with a therapist about your anxiety can help you identify the reason for your anxiety and how it can be treated.

Environmental anxiety comes up when you are in a stressful situation. Outside stressors from your personal life, work, school, or home can result in clinically significant anxiety. When you deal with the stress, either by managing the situation or increasing your coping skills, the anxiety usually diminishes or goes away. Therapy can help you find ways to manage your environment to reduce stress. A therapist can also help you develop skills to increase your internal resilience to stressful situations that you can’t control and come up with things you can do to manage your feelings of anxiety in those situations.

Biological anxiety is caused by neurochemical imbalances in your brain that result in you feeling anxious even though there is no apparent reason for the feeling. These imbalances can happen for a number of reasons, and they can be treated by re-balancing your neurotransmitters through medication. There are several different kinds of medications that can be effective, and your doctor or psychiatrist can walk you
through your options. You may also benefit from therapy even with medication because when you experience anxiety, you can learn negative thought patterns that may continue even on medication.

Psychological anxiety is the result of your thought patterns. When you focus on anxiety-provoking thoughts, you begin to feel anxious. The feeling of anxiety reinforces the negative thought patterns which results in feeling even more anxiety. This kind of anxiety is treated best with therapy, though you may need medication to help break the cycle of negative thoughts before therapy is effective. Therapy can help you change the way you think to help you feel better.

Any questions about anxiety you want answered by a therapist? Leave a comment below or send a message and we may feature your question in a future post.

Who Owns Your Feelings

Do you find yourself saying things like “You make me so angry!” Stop blaming others for your emotions and take control of your own feelings.

In therapy, we have an idea called the locus of control. 

Locus means “position, point, or place,” and your locus of control is basically the place where your emotional control comes from. Your locus of control can be internal or external, but everyone has one.

Having an external locus of control means that whatever is controlling your emotions is outside of your own self. An external locus of control makes statements like “You make me so angry!” or “I get sad when you don’t listen to me.” Do either of these sound familiar? An external locus of control relies on others to feel okay.

An internal locus of control means that you are the one in charge of your emotions no matter what happens around you. You are able to respond appropriately to events, but you are able to choose how you feel. If the two statements above were reworked to have an internal locus of control, they would acknowledge the same emotion with a different reaction.

The first statement “You make me so angry!” could turn into a direct request- “When you come home late, please text me so I know you’re okay,” or “Please clean your room the first time I ask. If you can’t clean it by lunch, we’ll donate the toys you can’t find a home for.” The statement “You make me so angry!” doesn’t tell the other person what needs to be different. It’s also inaccurate. You are the only one with control over yourself and your emotions. Nobody else has the power to make you angry, only you can do that. In addition, nothing gets solved. An internal locus of control acknowledges that you’re feeling anger in response to the situation, whether it’s because your partner is late or your child isn’t cleaning their room, but instead of reacting in anger you’re able to proactively ask for change that can resolve the situation.

The second statement is one I hear a lot from parents. They’re trying to emotionally manipulate their children or partners into behaving the way they want. The problem is, we can’t control others and most people resent being manipulated. “I get sad when you don’t listen to me” doesn’t teach your child or partner to listen to you, it only teaches them that they can easily control your emotions with their actions. An internal locus of control sees the sad feelings that come up when others seem not to hear you, but it doesn’t blame others for your sadness. Instead, an internal locus of control would say something like “This is really important to me and I’d like to talk to you without the TV on” or “When we need to leave the park, I’d appreciate it if you would come and help me pack up the toys when I ask you, especially when I’ve given you a five minute warning.”

During the process of therapy, I teach people how to move their locus of control from external to internal. This is especially important for people who are sensitive to the emotions of others or who tend to overreact to situations.

Say to yourself, “I am in charge of how I feel.” Try to notice when you make statements that give others control of your emotions. With your observations, pay attention to who has control of your feelings if it’s not you. Many times, we have a certain person we give control to. It’s usually a parent, partner, or child- someone close to us who knows how to push our buttons.

Carefully consider how you are going to take back control of your emotions. When you are feeling calm and separated from the situation, look back and try to figure out what you really want and come up with a way to ask for what you need without giving up control of your emotions. Whether you need better communication, firmer boundaries, or just some peace and quiet, you are the only one in charge of your emotions and you are the one responsible for making sure you get your needs met.

Just like you can’t control others, they can’t really control you- it just seems like they can sometimes. Others can’t read your mind to know what you want out of a situation, you need to ask for what you want in a way that doesn’t blame them for what you’re feeling.

Protecting Your Children From Predators

With all the news about sexual abuse in schools, how can you keep your kids safe?

This morning, I opened the news to see that yet another sexual predator was caught. This time it was a woman- a school administrator at a local private school. A few months ago, a male teacher was reported. Before that, a female teacher. Before that, a special education aide.

School is not necessarily a safe place, but your children are legally required to attend. And unless you pull them out of school and decide to homeschool your children, you have to trust the administration and staff to be decent, non-abusive people. As we have seen, both public and private schools have problems with sexual abuse.

So what can you do as a parent or caregiver to make sure your child is safe?

Talk to them about abuse. Sit down with your child and tell them that there are adults out there who hurt children and touch them on their private parts or ask the kids to touch the adult’s private parts. Make sure they know that they should tell you if it happens to them or someone they know and it’s never something to keep secret.

Tell them that those adults are wrong to do that to kids, that it’s never the kid’s fault, and we can’t catch the bad adults without kids telling someone when it happens.

Tell them that abuse can happen from strangers, but also from adults at school or other children or even from family members. It’s not okay no matter who is the abuser.

Tell them that the bad adults know what they’re doing is wrong and they lie to kids to make them too scared to tell. Bad adults tell kids that nobody will believe them if they tell, or that the adult will hurt their pet or friend or sibling if they tell. Make sure your child knows that those are lies- that when a child tells a good adult about abuse, the abuser is the one who gets in trouble and that the good adults will make sure the child’s pets and friends and siblings are safe too.

Tell your child it’s okay to talk to you if someone does something that makes them feel uncomfortable. Tell them that you’ll believe them and mean it. Believe them even if they name someone you think wouldn’t be an abuser- abusers often groom the parents as much as the kids, making themselves into someone you’d absolutely trust with your children.

If your child does say that someone abused them or someone they know, call the police immediately. You don’t have to verify their claim, confront the abuser, or even be certain that it happened. The police will work with child protective services to conduct an interview of everyone involved. Their interviewers are trained in how to ask children about sexual abuse, and the police will make sure the kids are safe until the investigation can be completed.