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.

Dementia Caregiving- Loss Before Death

A diagnosis of dementia in a parent can feel like the beginning of the end. Many caregivers describe the day of diagnosis as the day that they truly lost their parent. It’s an isolating feeling, being with your parent while actively missing who they were.

The changes can highlight these losses. Caregivers are often struck by the sheer difference between their memories of their parent and the current reality. It is incredibly painful to watch a kind, loving person turn nasty during their sundowners and become vicious in their verbal attacks. It is differently painful to watch a strong, independent person become hesitant and withdrawn in their confusion.

The change in role can be difficult to navigate as a parent becomes dependent on their children for caregiving and decision making, and the caregiving child becomes tied down by their parent’s increasing dependence often after many years of living apart.

The issue of caregiving can break families apart as siblings either try to pass the buck to avoid the responsibility or each clamor to put their opinions in the ring and get the care decisions to go their way. As a caregiver, you may feel swamped by hearing from others what you “should” be doing from people who are not willing to lift a finger or send money to help.

All the while, you as the caregiver are navigating the day to day realities of providing care to someone with dementia. It’s not just an opinion to you, it’s your life and reality, and it can feel insulting for someone who isn’t in your situation to think they know better than you what you need to do.

At the same time, you are not just a caregiver. You are a person worth time off, breaks from caregiving, and your own separate life from your parent. There is such a pervasive myth that caregivers should be quietly dedicated to solely providing gentle care to a parent who calmly accepts our aid with gratitude. The reality is so different as you know.

Caregiving can last for years, and too many caregivers come to the end of their parent’s life resentful, burned out, lonely, and isolated. If the totality of your life has been given over to caregiving, you may reach the end of your time at a high risk for suicide.

It is vitally important that as a caregiver you stay connected to your community whether that means staying employed, keeping up with your needs, maintaining your hobbies, and nurturing your relationships. You are important in so many ways, not only for what you are doing for your parent, but in terms of your own intrinsic worth.

Dementia derails the entire family, but mostly the caregiving person. You are essentially losing your parent as you see the person they were giving way to the progression of the disease. You are at risk of losing yourself as well, as you are asked to do more and more for your parent. Family disagreement over the care process fuels the sense that things are breaking apart.

Caregiver support is so necessary. As a caregiver, it is important that you prioritize yourself through the process. Therapy is one possibility for support, and there are also so many groups available for you to get to meet with peers going through the same thing.

Seeking Connection

We had a connection crisis long before social distancing and shelter in place. For years, sociologists noted that our reliance on digital media as a means of contacting and connecting with others was problematic.

But even then, most of us worked outside our homes. Even if our friends and family were digital connections, we at least had to see our bosses and coworkers in person.

The disconnect in digital connection comes from the safe distance we feel from others when we interact online. Think about the comments section of any social media post- people are more likely to get into inflammatory arguments online than in real life. The screen insulates us from the humanity of the people we’re talking to and gives us protection from immediate consequences of saying something insulting. We don’t have to see how we hurt others, and we can’t get hurt in return.

Not that most of us are internet trolls, but the same principle applies when we try to connect. It’s harder to feel personally connected to someone on a screen because we’re used to screen people being fake people- actors on a show for our entertainment. Even if you are looking at someone you know and love, it’s hard to feel as personally connected when it’s digital.

This is a result of perception and training. The good news is it’s possible to work toward feeling connections even across screens and across distance. The bad news is that it’s hard. If you haven’t had distanced relationships before the pandemic, learning this new skill will take focused mental effort. It will be exhausting at first.

There are three key skills you can use to foster a sense of connection despite distance and digital interference.

1. Be Present. When you start a call or meeting with a loved one, take a moment to be present with them. Being in different locations, we each have environmental distractions that, if we were together, could be shared. But across distance, they only serve to divide us. Mentally set aside things outside your connected space and focus on the conversation.
2. Be Attuned. Notice their nonverbals. This can be more challenging on a phone call or with low video quality, but since most communication is nonverbal, this is a key point of connection. In person, we pick up on so much of this unconsciously, and it takes more effort in a digital format.
3. Be Honest. If you’re struggling to feel connected to someone in a particular format, ask for what you need. Some people feel most connected in email which allows for long-form expression. Others feel most connected over a phone call so you can hear their voice. You may enjoy video chats with friends but feel stressed when it’s with your parents. Be straightforward and ask for what you need.

Building Resilience

We all know we should build resilience, but how? Learn three ways to build resilience before things go wrong and three ways to enhance resilience in a crisis.

We all know that resilience is the factor that allows us to deal with life’s ups and downs. And we all know that resilience is a skill that can be built up. But not everyone knows exactly how to build resilience. I’ll give you some key steps to take to build up resilience before things feel overwhelming as well as some extra things you can do when you already feel overwhelmed.

  1. Be socially connected. One of the things I look for as a therapist is if my clients have at least 5 people or groups they can look to for support. For children, peer support is nice, but I’m looking for at least 3 adults and 2 peer age kids. Support doesn’t have to mean telling them about your deepest fears and worries. Support from one person could be a casual friendship where you go for walks or out to coffee. Groups like AA, NA, or GriefShare are a great source of support.
  2. Practice self-care. The idea of self-care includes fun things like treating yourself to a nice dinner or a spa day, but it also includes routine care for your body and mind like exercise, sleep, and taking a bath or shower. Develop a basic self-care routine that incorporates exercise and hygiene with occasional additional treats.
  3. Practice mindfulness. This could include journaling, meditation, art, or any other form of mindfulness. The goal is to learn how to recognize your thoughts and emotions from a distance, separate from your self-identity. Mindfulness also has a core of non-judgment. It doesn’t help to beat yourself up for “being anxious,” but it can help to recognize when you are having an anxious thought or experiencing anxiety in your body.

These three factors- social support, self-care, and mindfulness- are the basis of developing resilience. By practicing these skills when you’re feeling good and things are going well, you’ll improve your ability to use them when things aren’t so good. Here are three additional things you can do to increase your resilience during a time of stress or overwhelm:

  1. Disconnect from devices. News media and social media can contribute to your sense of stress. Taking a break can help you clear your head and focus on yourself.
  2. Reconnect with your goals and values. Sometimes, a sense of stress is a signal that we’re going in the wrong direction. Check in with yourself to see if anything in your environment- work, relationships, living situation- is contributing to your feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes, stress is a part of moving toward your desired goals and remembering why you are choosing this path may give you the strength to carry on.
  3. Talk to a therapist. When things become more than you can handle, a therapist can teach you skills to navigate the situation. A therapist provides a neutral, outside perspective which can be helpful when friends and family all have their own opinions on what you should do.

What skills do you use regularly and when you feel overwhelmed by stress? Is there anything that’s worked for you that I missed? Is it time for you to talk to a therapist about your situation?

Curiosity and Defensiveness

Defensiveness is a natural response to feeling threatened, but it can be hard on relationships. A posture of curiosity allows you to empathize with the other person.

Most of the time when people start therapy, they are approaching life- relationships, change, work- with a defensive stance.

A defensive stance is natural. Our responses to new situations are usually fight, flight, or freeze. The instinct of self-protection is key to our survival. It’s important, and we can’t completely ignore it.

But when we carry this defensiveness into familiar situations and routines, it can create relational problems. You may have the experience of feeling defensive at work, perhaps you had a bad week and now the boss wants to talk to you- or in your close relationships, when your spouse is washing the dishes angrily and you’re wondering what you did wrong this time.

I’m sure you know the feeling of defensiveness. Your breath is shallow and tight, you start to notice the tension in your neck and chest. You may start to feel something in the pit of your stomach.

When you’re feeling defensive, your body tightens and closes up to protect you from danger. Often, people who feel defensive show it by crossing their arms and leaning back. Your thoughts and emotions close up too. Your mental focus is on analyzing possible threats and making sure you have a way out. Emotionally, you may balance your fear by getting angry or crying.

In contrast, imagine a picture of curiosity. When you’re curious, you lean forward to look. You may reach out with your hands, you may move closer. Your thoughts are open, your mental energy is exploring. Emotionally, you are prepared to discover.

Curiosity defuses closed off defensiveness. Imagine the earlier scenarios. You’re called into your boss’s office after a terrible week at work when everything seems to have gone wrong. Your spouse is angry at you and you don’t know why.

If you go into these situations defensively, you’re looking for threats. And when you look for threats, you’ll either find them or connect the dots to create them. Humans naturally look for patterns, whether they’re there or not.

It takes effort to overcome the natural sense of fight-flight-freeze when we feel like we’re in danger. And of course if you’re truly in danger, you wouldn’t want to shift to an open and curious posture. But in relationships, whether at home or at work, curiosity helps maintain your connection to the other person. You’re able to take a step back and look from the other person’s perspective. You can only empathize with them if you’re first curious about them and their needs. And you can only admit your mistakes when you’re not trying to protect yourself.

In difficult situations, like when you’re sure your boss is going to want an explanation for your bad work week, defensiveness works against you. If your boss sees you justifying poor work or blaming others for mistakes, they may not feel confident that you would be able to do things differently in the future. In contrast, if you can admit it was a down week and take responsibility for your part in the problem, your boss may develop trust that you are aware of the situation, your part, and possible solutions. Curiosity shows you’re teachable.

And when your spouse is angry, defensiveness calls up all the ways they wronged you. Defensiveness is ready to attack or blame. Curiosity recognizes that they are feeling angry and is ready to listen to their perspective. Curiosity can hear the unmet need behind the anger and is willing to work to meet it.

So how do we shift from defensiveness to curiosity? The first step is recognizing defensiveness when it comes up. Notice the physical sensations. Notice your thoughts and emotions. Then challenge those thoughts by shifting your focus to the other person. Wonder to yourself what they might be thinking or feeling. Change your physical breathing patterns. Deep breathing calms your vagus nerve. Stretch your body to break out of any tightness. Notice any tension and deliberately tighten and then relax those muscles.

This shift takes time, especially at the beginning. If you notice yourself getting defensive, take a break. Give yourself a few minutes alone to get into curiosity before going into a situation where you usually feel defensive. If you can, ask for a break. Start with easier situations before trying to get curious around a hot button issue.

What do you think of the idea of curiosity? Do you notice when you’re in a posture of defensiveness? How do you think defensiveness and curiosity have played a role in your relationships?

If you find that your relationships have been severely affected by defensiveness or you aren’t able to shift into curiosity, therapy can help. Even a few sessions of guided curiosity can help you create new patterns of relating.

Couples in Conflict

Do you feel like you and your partner fight a lot? Not at all? Check out this definition of healthy conflict and see how you measure up.

Many couples wonder if they’re fighting too much or not enough. There are many pop psychology articles that make wild claims about fighting- you need to fight to be healthy, you should never fight before bed, fighting in front of kids is bad for them.

But most of that is not true, or at least not validated by science.

According to research by the Gottman Institute, 69% of conflict is not going to be resolved. Many conflicts are created by personality differences that don’t go away.

So how often you fight isn’t the most important thing. What matters is how you deal with conflict and how your conflict affects the relationship.

What does fighting mean for you and your partner? Your family of origin and the way they handled conflict informs what you think of about what it means to fight. Many couples who say they don’t fight really mean that they never yell- so for them, yelling defines a “fight” versus a “disagreement.” Take a moment to think about how you and your partner were taught about conflict in your family of origin and how you have followed or deliberately chosen not to continue those patterns.

If conflict is inevitable in relationship, couple’s therapy doesn’t mean helping you fight less. Instead, therapy helps you unpack your generational patterns of conflict and teach you ways to intentionally have conflict well.

What is a good conflict? Healthy conflict respects each person’s opinion and hears their values. At the end of the fight, your relationship is still strong. In the end, you’re still friends. You can hear and honor the other person’s stance even when you disagree. You are able to speak calmly about the conflict, not getting heated, accusatory, or shutting down. If you find yourself not able to keep calm, you can ask for a break and your partner respects your request.

Does this sound like the way you and your partner fight? If not, couple’s therapy can help you learn new skills to handle conflict well in order to maintain your relationship and allow each of you to thrive.

Life Rhythms

A rule of life helps keep you in tune with the natural rhythms of the world. Therapy can help you find the balance and live into your values.

Traditionally, creating a Rule of Life has been a key component of spiritual growth and direction. These rhythms are not only helpful for spiritual growth, they are also a good foundation for your mental and relational health.

Rhythms involve opposites. These patterns of life include solitude and companionship, rest and work, knowledge and experience, prayer and service, action and meditation. Notice that these go back and forth between active effort and passive refreshment.

Life involves ups and downs. The idea of rhythm is natural and normal. Many people struggle to accept both sides of life, particularly the low points. Creating a life rhythm gets you back in tune with the natural rhythms of the world.

I hear from many people that they wish things could always be good, that they could always be happy, and that they could be more outgoing and positive. But this isn’t realistic and sets you up for disappointment.

It takes effort to get in tune with yourself to see what you need. You will have times of expansion where you do feel social, active, and capable. There will also be times when you feel a need for rest, for stepping back, and for quiet solitude.

Notice this solitude is different from the isolation that often comes alongside depression. This is where discernment is important. If you feel like your desire to be alone comes from depression, your true need is social activity. Soul-refreshing solitude balances times of activity when you give from your strengths.

If you feel like your life is out of balance or if you feel pressured to keep up action and positivity without rest, go back and read the list above. Notice what words you are drawn to. Use your discernment to see what you truly need.

I can help you discern your values and find balance between action and rest. Through therapy, we can look at your patterns of life and examine how it is affecting you, your relationships, and your spiritual life. Then we can gently restructure your schedule to allow you to return to the natural rhythms of life.

Couples Counseling for One

Couple’s therapy can still be effective even if your partner doesn’t want to work with you to change the relationship. Individual therapy with a couple’s focus is possible and effective.

You may know there’s a problem in your relationship, but your partner isn’t willing to go to therapy with you. Does this sound familiar? If it does, there is hope.

Most people think of couple’s therapy as sessions with all partners in the session where they learn and practice skills to improve the relationship. While this may be an ideal for couples to transform their relationships, it’s certainly not uncommon for only one person in the relationship to want to go to therapy and put in the work for change.

Being an individual doing couple’s work can feel awkward or strange. You’ll learn communication skills that your partner isn’t learning along with you. When you go to practice your new skills, they may respond in a way you didn’t want. It can feel devitalizing and demoralizing.

But even if both of you attend couple’s sessions, these scenarios may still happen. Skills you both learn and practice with the therapist may be difficult to bring into your home. This is a normal part of growth and change.

It only takes one person to change a system. As an individual, your work in therapy can transform your relationship even without your partner participating with you. It may take more work on your part, but it is not only possible, it is effective!

I use the Gottman method with couples, and it is also a valuable resource for individuals to learn to change their relationships. If you are feeling disconnected from your partner, wanting better communication, or looking to revitalize your relationship, you can!

Reach out today to start the process of building a solid foundation for your relationship to grow and flourish.

Therapeutic Journaling

Keeping a journal can be very beneficial for your mental health, but not all journaling gives you the benefits you’re looking for. If you want to make the most out of your writing time, try these tips to make sure your journal is a therapeutic part of your day.

Know your focus. Journaling for therapy benefits is different from simply keeping a daily diary. Dedicated therapy journals should focus on the issue you’re dealing with. If you’re trying to be more outgoing to improve your dating life, your therapy journal should focus on your thoughts, feelings, and dreams about dating as well as reminiscing about past dates, family attitudes about dating, and your ideal dating life.

Keep it secure. One of the major drawbacks of traditional journaling is that your intimate details are open to the world. Whether you lock it up, hide it away, or use a private online journal, it’s important to keep things secure. Journaling for therapy is most beneficial if you can be completely honest and get everything out, but you won’t want to do this if you’re worried about someone else getting access. Find a secure place to keep your journal so you can get the most by being the most honest.

Stay in the habit. Just like traditional therapy is most effective when you go weekly, therapeutic journaling is most beneficial when you practice often. Regular journaling is the key to noticing trends in your thoughts and emotions. This is most important if you’re using journaling to help track depression or anxiety. The more you can observe yourself and your processes that might be fueling your negative emotions, the easier it will be to learn how to interrupt those processes and overcome the cycle.

Check in with how you feel. For the most part, therapeutic journaling is highly beneficial. But if you notice yourself feeling more angry, tense, or sad after you spend time writing, you might be using your journal time wrong. If your journal is just a repeat of the negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences you had in your day, it might easily make you feel worse by the end. This is a sign you need to change up your focus. Instead of writing down why everything is the worst, use your journal space constructively to challenge your negative thoughts and reframe them to something more positive and helpful.

 

Was this helpful? Look out for future series on journaling tips just for anxiety, depression, parenting, and relationships!