How to keep from getting flooded

 Helping our children (and ourselves) navigate the emotional impact of the Boulder floods

The floods that took place in Boulder and throughout Colorado last week changed the lives of so many in our community, perhaps forever. While the immediate danger seems to be over and we are on our way to picking up the pieces and rebuilding, I want to take some time to acknowledge what we have experienced and the emotional impact it may be having on us.

It is clear that our amazing community is flocking together in a powerful way in the aftermath of these historic floods. This is the connection and gratitude that a powerful event such as this can bring to light—we are all in this together. It sometimes takes an event such as this to guide us into acting congruently with that truth. Simultaneously, however, I am seeing a lot of trauma responses that indicate a heightened level of fear pervading our community. Some of us have been in “go-mode” throughout all of this, working around the clock to help others (or ourselves) clean up basements, clear out mud and debris, organize clothing drives, find housing etc.  We have willingly sacrificed health, time, energy and more in order to remedy the situation and/or help others. Others of us have totally checked out and are going through the motions of our day-to-day existence while numbing out to the reality of the devastation that has happened around us.

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However you choose to respond to it, the heightened level of fear and anxiety that is in our collective field is having an impact on you. I see it in the children I work with—parents bringing them in saying, “I don’t think she’s too perturbed by it.”—when in session the child demonstrates deep and intense feelings of fear and overwhelm directly related to the flood. I see it in myself and my friends—giving and helping until we become run down, overwhelmed or depleted, no longer being able to serve anyone effectively.  In order to move through this experience without losing ourselves, it’s so important that we acknowledge the emotions and energy that are around us. And for children, it is all the more important that we talk to them about the floods since it has impacted them directly and significantly.

Here are some tips and strategies for communicating with children about what’s happened. And some important strategies for all-around self-care in the aftermath of a traumatic event:

*Stay in your body. Feel your feet on the ground. Breathe fresh air.

*Self care is not selfish. We don’t have to be martyrs and it can’t all get done at once. Take time out to be kind and gentle to yourself.

And specifically when talking to children…

*Let them know the truth of what has happened in an age-appropriate manner.

*Talk to children about the feelings that you’ve had throughout all of this and where you feel them in your body. Let them express their feelings to you.

*Listen.

*Let your child know that he/she can ask you questions about any of it and you’ll do your best to answer. Remember that it’s ok to say, “I don’t know.” Never tell a child, “It will never happen again.” Rather, you can say, “Things like this happen very rarely and our community works hard to prepare so that people, houses and schools are safe.”

*Stay focused on feelings of safety and togetherness. Amidst the anxiety it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that we are ok, even if we have endured a lot. Talk to children about how glad you are that your family is safe, that you can go to the store and get the things you need, etc.

*Help your children stay in their bodies. Massage them, have them dig in dirt or sand, take walks, swing, play, dance and sing.

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*Limit exposure to media. Turn off the news when they are home. Children do not need to be exposed to constant images of destruction. By turning off news when children are home you can better ensure that the information they receive comes from trusted adults, especially yourself.

*Use art and play to allow children to express what they are feeling. Pay attention to the feelings that arise as the child is playing, drawing, etc. rather than the actual content. Play is a phenomenal way for a child to process a stressful or traumatic experience.

*Take time away from your clean-up efforts to spend time and connect with your children. In the wake of a natural disaster, they need that one-on-one time now more than ever.

*Children are concrete thinkers so concrete facts and information can help them understand a situation. Use resources to help them understand the natural phenomena that caused the flooding. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a great website for kids on weather: http://www.crh.noaa.gov/gid/?n=weatherforkids.

If you feel like you need more help or support for communicating with your children about the flood, please feel free and call me. I am happy to help you create a narrative to share with your child about this experience or offer any other support you may be needing in this intense time.

Remember, children learn best by observing the adults around them. Practicing good self-care, staying grounded and being open to the emotions that arise are some of the best ways you can help your child move through this experience with greater ease.

 

Camp Connect: What A Week!

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From August 5 through the 16th my colleague Mia Bertram and I brought two groups of kids together, each with us for a week, to be a part of a pretty special summer camp. Camp Connect is a program that helps children learn to cultivate relationships, regulate their emotions, express their feelings, ask for what they need all in a spirit of compassion and staying connected to oneself. We use art, music, yoga, play, theater, story-telling, games and more to give children a rich experience and a variety of modalities through which they can express themselves. With two highly trained and experienced play therapists as the facilitators and music therapists, art therapists and yoga teachers as our guests, the kids got a pretty unique level of support. And the changes that we got to witness over the week were amazing.

We observed children going from feeling overwhelmed and dys-regulated in the group setting, to making friends and connecting in meaningful ways. We witnessed kids self-advocating, standing up for themselves and asking for what they needed. Children who struggle to focus and regulate in group settings were doing yoga and learning the inherent value of listening to and staying in their bodies. And the brilliance of these groups of children in working together and coming up with invaluable strategies for expressing emotions (especially the big, hot yucky feelings), staying safe, respecting personal space and more… It was so much fun to watch and learn from these little ones.

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exploring what musical sounds we can make with paper

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breathing and listening in downward facing dog

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sitting in our personal space bubbles while Mia reads a story about personal space

Let’s Regulate!

images-2Self-regulation is the cornerstone for being in relationship. If I am not regulated, then it is very difficult for me to be in relationship with you (or myself).  The same is true for children. When a child is dys-regulated he is disconnected from his/her body, has difficulty expressing him/herself in words, may be struggling with behavior or may shut down and all-around has difficulty being in connected, engaged relationship. The good news is that through modeling and through practice, we can actually teach children’s nervous systems how to go from a state of dys-regulation to regulation.

And the benefits to this are tremendous!

A regulated child is more able to focus, stay calm and listen, have a greater window of tolerance and express emotion without reactivity and impulsivity—just to name a few qualities. Here are some strategies for helping children regulate—use these consistently as ways to teach your child what it feels like to be regulated.

  • Model and name out loud the ways that you regulate your emotions. Take deep breaths, feel your feet on the ground, shake your arms and legs out, wiggle your toes, give yourself a little squeeze…
  • Play fun dance music and boogie with your kids. Then stop the music and everyone freezes!images-4
  • Hula hoop, shake it out, make a band and get in rhythm with each other.
  • Nature time! Spend time outside playing, skipping, moving like animals, noticing what you see, hear, smell, feel, taste. Being in nature is extremely regulating for most children so get outdoors and have some fun.
  • Warm bath with some lavender oil or bubbles. This can be especially regulating when a child has been hyper-aroused and acting out. Stay close and help your kiddo feel safe. Pour water over his/her body with a funnel or sieve (ask if this is something he/she wants first).
  • Wrap your little one up like a burrito. This can be great for hypo or hyper aroused children. Ask them what they want in their burrito (toppings, love, sprinkles—there’s no wrong answer!). Then wrap them up and give them a sweet and loving squeeze.
  • Play “I Spy” or, for older children “I Am Aware”. The first one is self-explanatory. The second one I do like this: we toss a ball back and forth. When you have the ball you say something that you are aware of (something you notice). I alternate each round—first round something you’re aware of in your environment, second round something you feel inside of you (emotion, sensation, body, etc).

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  • Dig in the dirt, mud or sand. Move rocks. Throw a weighted ball back and forth. How earthy can you be?
  • Find your inner animal—walk and talk like an animal. If you were an elephant how would your body move? What sounds would come out of you? How much space would you need around you?
  • images-3Order a sensory brush and brush your child. I’ve found this extremely beneficial to my hyper-aroused clients lately. Ask them how they want the strokes (pressure, direction, where on their body, etc). Brush each other. This is a great thing to do each night before going to bed or each morning before the day’s activities really get under way. You can find these little plastic brushes on Amazon—they are inexpensive and so easy to use.

 

Regulation activities like these can be done every single day to help kids’ nervous systems develop an imprint of what it means to be relaxed and present. Get fun and playful with the ways you regulate yourself and your children. It may seem simple but the rewards are many: more resilient, communicative, focused, relaxed and relational children. What more could you possibly want? Now go regulate and have some fun!

On Addiction and Compassion

This morning I had the privilege of attending a lecture with Dr Gabor Maté, a renowned physician and bestselling author who has worked with hardcore drug addicts in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside district. Unlike traditional western approaches to treating addiction, Dr Maté started his presentation with a provocative question, not what’s wrong with addiction, but, “What’s right about addiction?”
Addiction refers to a repetitive pain-relieving activity with long-term negative effects. Any of us can be addicted and the scope goes far beyond drugs and alcohol. We can be addicted to food, shopping, gambling, sex, exercise, work… In fact, anything can be potentially addicting. Rather than looking at the subject of the addiction, it is vital to look at the source of the addiction.
Addicts are addicted because they seek relief or escape from their pain. Addiction goes far beyond poor willpower or genetic predisposition. In fact, the field of epigenetics tells us that our genetic tendencies are turned on and off by our environment (read The Biology of Belief by Dr. Bruce Lipton for more on this). So, in understanding addiction, we need to look at the individual’s environment, specifically his/her earliest relationships and psychosocial environment during infancy (including fetal development) and early childhood. Stress on an infant or young child determines the way his/her brain organizes. Stress and trauma have a direct impact on the child’s nervous system, leading to an organization that is based on self-protection, on fear, on feelings of unworthiness and shame. The ACE study (Adverse childhood experiences) from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention demonstrates that traumatic experiences in early development lead to increased risk for alcohol and drug addictions, depression, fetal death, heart disease, liver disease, obesity, risk for partner violence and more.
Stress and trauma have a tremendous impact on our nervous system, our emotional development and our overall general health. It is a tremendous issue and one that we have the potential to solve! Neuroscience research continues to prove that it is the presence of compassionate relationships that heals the brain and allows it to re-pattern and re-organize–moving away from fear responses to more love-based, open-hearted connection with the self. Compassion is the healing agent. Love is the healing agent. When we meet our infants and our children with love and allow them to express and release their pain in loving, supportive relationships with us, we eliminate the need to escape it.
According to Dr. Maté, compassion is the key ingredient in stopping the cycle of addiction. Without it, we are only treating symptoms and completely overlooking the root of the issue. I am so blessed to do the work I do, helping children move through and heal from their trauma. This healing then opens the window to their ability to love themselves, respect themselves and make choices from a place of self-acceptance and health.
For more information on Dr. Gabor Maté visit www.drgabormate.com

Treating the Terrible Twos (and Threes)

Your sweet little bundle of joy has accomplished many milestones. He’s walking, feeding himself, being a helper, even talking a bit–more and more every day. But, oh boy, does he have his moments. Those inconsolable, uncontrollable, loud, intense, overwhelming tantrums. That state of utter confusion when she wants to do it all herself and is falling apart under the frustration that comes along with that. The morning gone from blissfully wonderful to a total nightmare and you don’t even know what the problem is. You ask yourself: Why is all this happening and What can I do to help make this easier?tantruming-toddler-getting-scolded-md

Bad news first? The terrible twos (sometimes it’s the terrible threes) are a stage of development that many children go through and that we can’t take them out of. It’s their natural way of expressing themselves at a time in life where they experience great frustration and don’t have a lot of tools to deal with it. We may just have to accept that this is where they are at and do our best to support them through it. The good news is that this time provides ample opportunity for teaching children emotional language, self-regulation, social skills and more. They may not implement these new skills right away, but the long term effects will be apparent.

Here is some important information about toddlers and some strategies for supporting their healthy emotional development.

  • Toddlers are in a transitional stage of development: a part of them still wants to be a baby (closeness, difficulty separating) and a part of them wants to be a big kid (independence, I can do it myself). Meet them where they are at with this. Understand that there’s a part of them that still needs to be young and attached to you. And respect their need for independence. It’s a balancing act, but it helps your tot develop a healthy sense of self.
  • Toddlers need help expressing their emotions. Give them words and tools to express the entire range of feelings. Have a feelings chart up on the fridge at eye level for your little one. Model healthy expression of feelings and name the feeling for them when they are expressing emotions.
  • Give children tools for expressing themselves. Model emotional language. Teach them feelings words. Guess their feeling experience and speak it to them. “I hear you’re upset right now.” Or. “I get it. You’re really sad that you have to wear a coat to the park.” The terms “big feelings” or “upset” are good catch-alls.
  • Young children are quick to tantrum because their brains are not yet “wired” to respond with calm and logic. They need your help to calm themselves. Toddlers’ brains are undergoing huge amounts of development. Model self-regulation techniques like taking deep breaths, counting to ten, becoming aware of what’s in your environment… whatever works for you to get calm and in your body again.
  • Toddler’s tantrums are not rational because their brain’s frontal lobe is not developed. What seems irrational to us may feel incredibly important to your child. Validate this and never discount their feelings. It’s ok to set limits on behavior, but always start by validating the feelings that are driving the behavior. “It’s ok to feel mad. But it’s not ok to hit Tommy. Let’s find another way to show your feelings.”
  • Toddler tantrums very often stem from the frustration of feeling stuck, unable to express one’s needs and have them met accordingly. Empathize with this frustration to help your child feel understood.
  • It is impossible to help someone regulate if you are dys-regulated yourself. Use the oxygen mask philosophy and make sure that you are regulated (5 deep breaths) before trying to help your child regulate.images-1
  • Give children a consistent space where they can go to calm themselves down. They may need your comfort so go with them, take deep breaths or just “stay with” (be emotionally present with your child) until he/she is calm.
  • Stay consistent with your limits but validate the emotion: “I get it. You feels so sad that you can’t eat a cookie right now. And we have to wait until after dinner.”
  • Spend one-on-one quality time engaging and playing with your child. At least 10-20 minutes per day in which phones are off, no other tasks are being performed. This is just about connecting and playing with your child.
  • Use “I” statements: “I feel…”
  • Talk to your child respectfully.
  • Your child will not listen to you unless he/she feels listened to.                                                                 
  • When you change the way you look at your child, you see change in your child.

 

Try this approach to parenting your toddler and you are sure to see a shift in his behavior, the frequency and duration of tantrums and, in the long-term, in her ability to express her emotions and self-soothe. Respect, understanding and empathy are key components of communication at any age–toddlers need these with consistency and repetition for healthy brain development.

Scary Therapy

images-3“Deep breaths, regulate, feel your feet on the ground, keep breathing,” went my inner dialogue as I sat there shocked and horrified.  “This is therapy?” a little voice in my head kept asking, “Where is the compassion, the attunement, the healing?” I worked hard to stay regulated and to keep from bolting out of the room; but every cell in my body held the knowledge that this video I was watching, of a prominent play therapist working with a young adopted child, was fundamentally wrong. The child crying and begging for the therapist to “stop it!” and the therapist continuing to impose her jarring interventions, completely disregarding the 3-year old’s desperate pleas. It was horrifying. For a young child who has experienced the level of disempowerment and helplessness that inherently go along with trauma, an experience like this (with an adult she is told is safe and trustworthy) can have detrimental effects and risks.

Psychotherapy and psychology have the capacity to help people deeply heal and reach their highest potential. But there is also the possibility of doing harm and re-traumatizing individuals in the name of therapy. This can happen with an unaware therapist who is not doing his/her own growth work, but allowing his/her “stuff” to cloud the relationship with the client and the client’s relationship with him/herself. Right here in Colorado there have been cases of children who have been killed in practices related to Attachment Therapy, through techniques such as “holding”, “re-birthing”, “rage reduction therapy” and others. I am by no means trying to fear-monger here and these cases are incredibly rare anomalies. But they reflect a desperation and helplessness that families of traumatized children feel and an egoic, pathological approach on the part of some practitioners.

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I am writing this because I feel a need to share with my readers the tremendous importance of finding a therapist whose approach and core values are aligned with a child’s fundamental needs for love, understanding, attunement, empathy and respect.  And sometimes this is not the most experienced therapist or the therapist with the most degrees or certificates. I know many therapists in their first five years of private practice who do absolutely brilliant work and have a deep, essential understanding of human psychology and behavior. And, as in the workshop I sat through this weekend, there are therapists with years of experience under their belt who suffer from compassion fatigue and project their repressed emotions onto their clients. Therapy is about a relationship that is based in empathy, compassion, openness and positive regard. Techniques or approaches that shame or belittle an individual and do not value his/her sense of self are probably not going to have a sustainable positive impact.

When choosing a therapist for your child, it is vital to trust your intuition and to ask questions. If you are wondering about changes you see in your child’s behavior, techniques the therapist may be using, how you can support the therapeutic process, or anything else simply ask your therapist. And if your therapist is not able or willing to consult with parents and explain his/her approach, it’s probably not the therapist for you. While resistance is a normal part of the therapeutic process and children don’t always come eagerly (particularly when working on some difficult material), a good therapist is able to distinguish between resistance and re-traumatization. The former can be worked through, the latter can be very risky for a child.

images-2The majority of psychotherapists, counselors and psychologists working in the field today are good practitioners: well-trained, knowledgeable, empathic and genuinely caring for the well-being of their clients. Therapy is a powerful tool that can change lives for the better and can allow children to heal from stress or trauma and to live happier, more balanced lives. I believe so strongly in the power of the work I do. It is truly amazing. And I want to encourage families in search of a therapist to do their research and ensure that the therapist they choose is practicing with integrity and openness.

Supporting Kids Through Stress

Play Therapy: Trauma, Stress and Dysregulation

Often I am asked by curious, perhaps sometimes skeptical parents, what Play Therapy is and how it will help their child be calmer, more resilient, more mentally healthy. Play Therapy is the preferred approach in working with children, speaking to kids in their language of choice. Each model of Play Therapy has something unique to offer and can be beneficial in its own way; however, when it comes to working with children’s stress, trauma and their emotional (and therefore behavioral) dys-regulation, it is critical to have a Play Therapist who understands the biological mechanisms of stress and its impact on the developing nervous system.

Leading trauma author and researcher Dr. Peter Levine says, “Trauma happens when any experience stuns us like a bolt out of the blue; it overwhelms us, leaving us altered and disconnected from our bodies. Any coping mechanisms we may have had are undermined, and we feel utterly helpless and hopeless,” (from Trauma Through A Child’s Eyes by Peter A. Levine and Maggie Kline) The flight/fight/freeze response in our brain has been activated in response to a perceived threat, neurochemicals and stress hormones are released signaling to the brain and body to either mobilize (fight/flight) or to “play dead” (freeze) and the nervous system is flooded with information. When the danger has surpassed, if we are not able to discharge the flood of nervous system energy and integrate the experience, it will likely be stored in the nervous system and the body as trauma and can be debilitating to the life of the individual, particularly to children.

How Can We Help Children Move Through A Traumatic Experience

Integration refers to the linking of different parts of the brain in order to help them function well together. Trauma is primarily a function of the brain’s right hemisphere, which is more closely associated with the lower, or more primitive parts of the brain. In fact, our fight/flight/freeze response is governed by our brainstem, the very back of the brain close to where the back of your head meets your neck. In order to heal from trauma and integrate an experience, we must create connections between the sensory information that is stored in the right hemisphere (the imprint of the traumatic experience) and the rest of the brain, particularly the left hemisphere and the pre-frontal cortex (the area behind your forehead responsible for more sophisticated functions such as rational thought, sequencing of events, empathy and intuition, etc.)

Now that you know a bit about the biology of stress and trauma, what can you do in the aftermath of a frightening event to help a child calm his/her nervous system and ultimately to integrate the experience? Here are some pointers:

  • Use the oxygen mask philosophy: attend to your own state of regulation and do what you need to do to regulate: deep breaths, feel into your body, shake your hands out, feel your feet on the ground, say a calming phrase to yourself (such as, I am ok).
  • Attend to your child’s basic needs first—safety, human touch (rubbing his back, holding her hand), nourishment (a glass of water), rest.
  • Maintain an authentic attitude of empathy and compassion. Even if your child was in the wrong in some way (i.e. made a mistake and fell off his bike), now is not the time to discuss this. Let him know he is safe now, that you are here, that you’ll talk about the details of what happened later and that now is the time for him to just get safe and calm himself.
  • Repeatedly orient your child back to his/her body. Ask her to feel her feet on the ground. Tell her to let you know where it hurts or what it feels like right now. If she has a specific sensation, ask her for more detail about this. Does it have a color, a size, a shape? As humans, one of our coping mechanisms during trauma is to dissociate or “check out”. One way to keep the trauma from developing into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is to interrupt this dissociation by “getting back in the body”.
  • Crying, trembling, shaking and movement are normal and healthy once the shock of a traumatic experience has worn off. Allow this to happen naturally and stay present with your child while he/she releases these waves (this is energy that has built up in the nervous system as a result of the frightening experience and it needs to be discharged). Assure your child that this is normal and it’s ok to cry or shake.
  • When the child is calmed again, has rested and had his/her basic needs tended to, now is the time to talk about and integrate the experience. This is the time in which parents can ask questions and allow the child to tell his/her story. Draw a storybook or comic describing his memory of the experience, focusing on how it felt for him/her. This allows integration between the two hemispheres of the brain and can lead to greater resilience and healing from the experience.

When To Consult a Professional Play Therapist

There are times when we are not able to fully help our children integrate and bounce back from an experience. Here are signs that it may be time to consult a Play Therapist with a background in trauma work to help your child process and feel better:

  • Changes in personality or drastic changes in behavior
  • Regression: suddenly acting younger than his/her age, reverting to old stages of development—reverse progress in potty training, sucking thumb, talking baby talk, bed-wetting
  • Mood swings and/or the child is unusually sullen, sad, angry or controlling
  • Unusual themes and feelings in the child’s play that suggest he/she is working through an overwhelming experience
  • Sleep disturbances, Nightmares
  • Social withdrawal or isolation for a previously social child
  • Changes in appetite and eating habits
  • Physical symptoms that don’t have a traceable physical cause

How Play Therapy Can Help

Here is how Play Therapy with a trained and experienced Play Therapist can help your child move through this difficult time and come back more resilient, confident and emotionally regulated.

As humans we are inherently relational, using our relationships to learn about ourselves, develop confidence and to heal when we are facing or have faced a challenge. Play Therapy offers children a unique relationship in which they can express their internal world and explore their struggles in a highly supportive and compassionate environment. As children express themselves, the therapist facilitates the processing and integration of stressful or traumatic experiences. Through their play, shifts in the biology of the child’s brain and nervous system are able to take place thus allowing the child more ease and fluidity in nervous system regulation. This shift leads to greater resilience, the ability to regulate stress and more ease in the expression of one’s emotional experience and states through words rather than through behavior.

Play Therapy is the research-based method of choice for helping children with a variety of issues including, but not limited to PTSD, depression, anxiety, abuse, behavioral challenges, adoption, divorce or separation, separation anxiety, grief and loss, sleep or eating disturbances, bed-wetting, impulsivity, social challenges and more.

Insatiable Appetites: I Want More!!!

imagesThere are times when each of us, young or old, encounters those internal voices that come from a sad scary place called “scarcity”—I’m not rich enough, pretty enough, my house and salary aren’t big enough, I don’t have enough______ (you fill in the blank). In Buddhism it is called “The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts” and it is not a pretty place to be. I’ve been doing some reflection about this in my own life recently. And I think it’s no coincidence that I’ve had several parents report to me this week that their kids simply cannot get enough: “Can we buy this?” “Will you buy me that?” “When can we go to the store?” “You said you’d get it for me if I was good.” Hungry little ghosts with persistent, insistent requests, often more like demands, that leave parents feeling empty, exasperated, helpless and often like there is no other choice than to give in.

Children have a right to ask for what they want. It’s ok for them to want and it is ok for us to validate their desire. “I hear you honey, I get that you want that Star Wars lego set.” We can validate children’s desires, appreciate them for asking kindly and we can say no. It’s ok to say no. It is up to parents to teach children that they are safe by maintaining boundaries, staying consistent and true to our word. Sometimes a child is pushing a parent because they are actually seeking a boundary. Children feel unsafe when they experience mom or dad as being inconsistent and not having the control in the situation. By modeling healthy ways of saying “no” we are setting a vital example for little ones who will, soon enough, be teenagers. For hungry teenage ghosts, it’s no longer just about Legos and Pokemon cards.

It is also up to parents to understand the underlying need and message beneath this insatiable appetite for stuff. It is up to parents to teach children that material goods are not a substitute for love and connection. Our materialistic society teaches that stuff can be a substitute for love. This is a scary message that kids receive far too often through the media. If your child is constantly bombarding you with requests for stuff and for trips to the toy store, likely they are coming from a place of scarcity and they are struggling to feel their own self worth. It is up to us adults to help them feel loved and worthy by being willing to connect and redirect that feeling of emptiness.

Rather than hop in the car and head to Grandrabbits, let’s offer children connection, some special play time, an activity that you can do together. Offer them the love and connection that they are seeking, that can never be satisfied by another plastic toy. Make it a practice to redirect the requests and demands for stuff to an opportunity to experience your abundance as a family. “Honey, I hear that you want that Pokemon card, but we have so many toys already so we aren’t going to get it. Since we aren’t going to the toy store, we can have some special play time together instead.” Then make it a point to substitute undivided attention, connection and love for the ‘stuff’ in question.

Parenting coach Pantea Dunn gave me a fabulous practice for families to shift the focus from material goods to relational connection. You’ll need a jar, some pencils or markers and some paper or cardstock. Together with your child(ren) come up with special activities you would like to do together as a family. You can even color code the activities for things you do on a regular basis and special treat activities. Each week (bi-weekly, monthly—whatever works for you) your child picks one and you do it together. Do not buy gifts or toys for these special days. This is about connecting and spending time together without the interruption of material goods. The one rule is that each activity that goes into the jar needs to be something you are 100% willing and able to do when it is chosen. Activities can range from playing blocks together, going to the park, riding bikes, going out for pizza (more regular basis activities) to going to the zoo, going miniature golfing, swimming… I love this idea because you can get creative and have so much fun fantasizing about all the cool things you can do together as a family.

The change may not happen overnight. Your child may still ask for things for some time to come. But somewhere beyond the realm of the hungry ghosts lies nirvana. As you hold clear boundaries and offer consistent, undivided attention and connection doing things that your child loves to do, positive change will take place. And you will both be able to experience how abundant and blessed you are just simply because you get to be together.

Special thanks to parenting coach and guru mama Pantea Dunn for the invaluable input, creative ideas and hands on experience she offered to this article. Visit her website at www.myparentpartner.com.

The Whole Brain Child: A Must Read

Daniel Siegel continues to publish fascinating, applicable and well-researched material on shaping the parent-child relationship in ways that will most optimally foster a child’s emotional development. In this book he teams up with Dr. Tina Payne Bryson and the two set out to teach cutting-edge parenting strategies that speak directly to a child’s brain. Bryson and Siegel demonstrate what language to use and when to use it, in order to most effectively help a child integrate the various parts of the brain as he/she processes emotions. They explain their ideas not just through neuroscience but with comics, cheat sheets that you can keep on the fridge for quick reference, and hands-on techniques for explaining the concepts to children (even very young children) in order to help them understand their own brains.

Most parents want their children not only to survive and make it through life, but to thrive, to flourish, to be the best they can possibly be. Siegel and Bryson explain that the integration of the various parts of the brain is the key to developing emotional well-being and mental health. How to facilitate the integration process? Speak to your child, both verbally and nonverbally, in ways that take into account their logical, linear left brain and their creative, emotional right brain. Like a married couple, ideally these two sides of the brain connect, communicate and work together, especially when the going gets tough.

When kids are struggling or upset, Siegel and Bryson teach us to “connect and redirect”. First start by meeting your little one’s upset with a big dose of empathy and understanding. “Wow, I hear that you’re feeling really angry right now!” (I’d add, really sink into his experience and feel what it’s like to be him in this moment—sometimes parents tell me that they are concerned that empathy can feel condescending or feigned. Not if you’re truly being empathic and seeing the world from your child’s perspective.) So light up his right brain with some emotional connection. Once his big, intense feelings have settled, bring in the logical, linear left brain. Now you can offer discipline (which means teaching or a lesson, not punishment) and help him form a coherent story of the upsetting event.

In my practice, I often recommend books to parents as I think they are useful tools for normalizing our experiences and giving us strategies to work with. This one is not just a recommendation. It’s a MUST! Siegel and Bryson have given us such an accessible, hands on tool for helping kids through difficult times and, for those of you more left-brain types—it’s backed by neuroscience! What more can a parent ask for?

Play Therapy, Divorce and Separation

The trouble with two: Two homes, two beds, two different parenting styles, different routines and rituals, time spent moving back and forth, shuttling their favorite belongings in order to ease the transition. Not to mention mom and dad preoccupied with their own affairs, frustrated, angry (or worse) with each other, stressed about finances and legal expenses, exhausted from single parenting.

Even in the most idyllic of separations, children feel the effects of divorce. They experience the stress of their caregivers, as well as their own anxiety and fears, whether conscious or unconscious, about a number of questions. Was it my fault? Will I get to see mommy or daddy when I want to? Will I have to change schools? Why am I the only kid among my friends whose mommy and daddy live in separate houses? Why can’t we all live together like we used to? Will they still love me the same?

With the prevalence of divorce in our country, these are questions that nearly half of us adults will have to answer for our children at some point in their lives. So it is vital to your child’s sense of well-being and ability to cope that you consider your child’s feelings and keep an open dialogue about the changes that are happening in your family. Assure kids that it is absolutely not their fault that their parents are separating. Let them know that both parents still love them as much as ever. And never, ever speak negatively of the other parent to or in front of your child (and remember that little ears can hear a long way). Kids often adjust to the divorce by exhibiting new and often difficult behaviors, meant to communicate the pain and stress they are under as a result of this major change. Be sensitive to the changes in your child’s behavior and, rather than punishing, listen to the non-verbal messages he/she may be trying to send you.

As a psychotherapist who specializes in Play Therapy, many of my young clients are struggling with the residue and the emotional impacts of their parents’ divorce. Typically, the higher the degree of conflict between parents, the more stressed the child seems to be; but this isn’t always the case. Even in amicable separations, children can become quite anxious and overwhelmed by the change.

In therapeutic play children process their internal emotional experience (which is often stored in the unconscious) by using the toys and the play to symbolize what they are feeling. With children of divorce, I often see an unsettling quality, a constant sense of back and forth, in the play: the water moves back and forth between containers, the child moves back and forth between the playroom and the waiting room, the characters in the play must unsettlingly move back and forth between places, often the child embodies this sensation by moving or rocking back and forth in his/her own body. I also see a great need for a sense of control and predictability. This child will announce into a toy microphone or loudspeaker what’s coming next each step of the way (communicating her stress around unpredictable changes). She will move not only her own pieces but mine as well when we are playing checkers so that she is fully in charge of what happens in the game. Children who are experiencing even higher levels of stress will often turn to protective and assertive toys such as handcuffs and toy weapons in order to exert the sense of power and control that they are needing to feel as a response to their parents’ separation. When we pay close attention to the subtleties of a child’s play we learn the ways that they strive to express their internal experience in order to feel understood and safe in themselves again.

Play Therapy allows children the space to explore these deep emotional experiences that are often stored in the unconscious mind. Through the play they process stressful and overwhelming feelings and integrate their capacity for self-soothing and self-regulating. Simultaneously, they gain tools for coping with their stress and words to express their feelings so that they do not need to use difficult behaviors in order to communicate. It also gives parents a snapshot into their child(ren)’s emotional world, ideally giving parents more opportunities to meet the child’s emotional needs. Children of divorce develop a very special bond with the therapist who becomes a trusted ally, outside of the family, in the child’s process of adapting to his/her new family structure. With the therapist’s support, the family can express the challenges that divorce has presented and heal by experiencing new opportunities for growth and connection with each other.