Authenticity

young-girl-fairy-princessChildren are brilliant. They are wise, honest and authentically themselves at each and every moment. When I say to my niece, “Do you like my new scarf?”, she doesn’t bat an eye before she sweetly, lovingly, candidly says, “No, I don’t.” It’s a precious gift we come into this world with–this ability to inhabit our fullness: our entire range of emotion, our preferences, our personality and, on a deeper level our radiance and our essential nature.

Tragically, as we move through the world our authentic self receives messages from the world around us to shrink, hold back, be polite, conform, be less of ourselves.  To me this is the greatest tragedy of human kind and that which leads to the myriad of darkness and pain on our planet. It breaks my heart when I really sink into it. But, as Mary Oliver says, “I tell you this to break your heart,by which I mean only that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world.” Like you, my heartbreaks lead to my greatest openings and this one guides me on my path and strengthens my intention for this upcoming year: To trust deeply in my authentic self, allowing her to radiate and shine in all her brightness. In turn, I create space for the children I work with and heal to radiate and shine in their brightness and authenticity.

870436Child-Flying-a-Kite-at-SunsetAs Lance Secretan says, “Authenticity is the alignment of head, mouth, heart and feet–thinking, saying, feeling and doing the same thing consistently. This builds trust and followers love leaders they can trust.” Trust is the foundation for relationship. And children are those followers who not only love but need leaders they can trust. They need us to provide context and ground for their experiences. When we are inauthentic, a child feels it and becomes very confused. When met with a caregiver who offers an inauthentic response, the child becomes extremely dys-regulated. She will unconsciously either up the ante or shut down emotionally. It may be a process that happens bit by bit, but it happens.

So what does authenticity look like?

Imagine this, you just walked by a neighbor who is aggressively yelling at his family and even you yourself are terrified. When you tell your child, “It’s ok, everything is fine,” your child will doubt her own experience and internalize a sense of mistrust in herself and her environment. She will form a mis-association between a deep sense of confusion, fear and things being fine. When inauthenticity takes place repeatedly, children learn that their feelings are not trustworthy, because mommy or daddy isn’t ok with feelings. She will stay in a subtle state of stress and this dys-regulation makes it difficult to relate, learn, focus, set boundaries and express. She will not know that it is safe to feel because no one every taught her that. Authenticity is the cornerstone of children’s emotional development and we need to do our own work so that we can offer this to them.

A child who is met with authenticity understands that humans have feelings and this is ok, it’s actually preferable. She trusts in her environment because she has experienced alignment of energy, words, body language and behavior from her caretakers–it has been consistent and it makes sense to her. As such, she knows how to express herself in a way that honors the truth of who she is and the boundaries she has. She can stand up for herself and have deep compassion for others. She feels safe allowing her radiance and her light beam through her by way of words, deeds, relationships and more.images1

When we were the child in the former scenario, it isn’t always easy to be authentic as an adult. But it is essential if we want to raise our children in this conscious, loving, Truthful way. So we do our own work. We set out on a journey to reclaim the parts of ourselves that were not allowed to show up. We allow our children to see us doing this and we even let them know that this is our path.

And I leave you with this–a quote from Marianne Williamson, a woman truly embodied in her authenticity. Oh and, she’s running for Congress on a very unique platform. Check her out… http://www.marianneforcongress.com

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

 

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.

Divorce: Never easy but there are important ways to support your child

One of the most common reasons children are referred to my play therapy practice is for help and support in coping with their parents’ divorce. Some come to me because parents are seeing changes in their child’s behavior. Some kids are expressing feelings that let their parents know that they are suffering as a result of the separation. And other times parents are seeking support for how to talk to their kids about the divorce. No matter what the reason, these little ones have experienced a big shift in the world as they know it and they need as much love and support as we can possibly give them.

It is crucial that families are aware of the tremendous impact this change can have on young children. Kids’ lives change drastically when parents separate or divorce. They now have two houses, two neighborhoods, a visitation schedule. They’ve heard fighting, talk of custody battles, hushed conversations between one parent and his/her friends about the situation. Their lives become less predictable. They wonder why this has happened and often question whether it was their own fault.

While all of this can be difficult to swallow, it is unfortunately a reality of our society and culture. Statistics show the divorce rate may be up to 50 % in our country. But there are ways to support children, giving them coping skills to deal with the emotional impact of this transition and loss. These skills can be applied to any situation in which kids are grieving the loss of something they were close to. Read on for some helpful tips and creative ideas for helping children feel understood, resourceful and strong.

  • Be as honest as possible. Children often have questions that put parents in a sticky, uncomfortable position. It is essential to tell kids the truth in an age-appropriate manner. i.e. Kids don’t need to know that daddy left them for the secretary. But they do need to know that daddy won’t be living with them anymore. Mommy and daddy have been fighting a lot and the best way to give the kids as much love as they can is for them to live in different houses. Let them know what their new arrangement will look like. If at all possible, have a family meeting with both spouses, in order to give kids the opportunity to ask whatever questions may come up for them.
  •  Assure children repeatedly that it’s not their fault. No matter how obvious it is to you that the separation was necessary, children are egocentric and will often assume that they made the situation happen. It is vital that they understand that it wasn’t their fault. This is even more important if one parent is no longer able to see the children regularly.
  •  Let kids know that they are loved unconditionally. While it is important to tell them you love them as often as possible, make sure that you are also showing them through your actions and your energy. Set time aside to connect with them on their level, through talking, playing and cuddling. Be specific—tell them all the things you love about them and what makes them unique and special.
  •  Refrain from criticizing or “bad-mouthing” their other parent. Although he is now your ex, he will always be a part of your child. Don’t put kids in the middle by having to choose between the two of you= this isn’t fair to them. By speaking negatively about your ex, you are indirectly speaking negatively about your child. By holding back and saving your complaints for your own adult support network, you are modeling respect, a sense of integrity and self-control—which will undoubtedly be recognized and appreciated by your children.
  •  Keep their routines as consistent as possible. While some changes are inevitable, given the nature of marital separation, it is ideal for children’s routines to change as little as possible. Kids need consistency and predictability—it helps them to thrive and removes some of the anxiety and stress from their lives. Nowadays, some divorced families let the children stay in one house and the parents go back and forth on their respective weeks/weekends. This gives children a consistent safe space and honors their need for a genuine feeling of home. While this arrangement may not work for all families, help your children by sticking to a visitation schedule, keeping school and other activities the same. Give them a lot of extra support and love if there is a parent who consistently misses visits. If this is the case, consider altering your arrangement to avoid this degree of unpredictability.
  •  It is normal for children to regress when confronted with stress, overwhelm and fear. Don’t criticize or mock them if they are acting younger than their age. Recognize that this is their way of letting you know how old they are feeling and meet them accordingly. It’s an opportunity to give them extra touch, affection and love.
  •  It’s ok for your child to see you grieve by showing emotions. Many parents feel that they are showing weakness by crying or emoting in front of their children. This is actually doing them a disservice by negating the value of their own, perfectly natural feelings. While I strongly advise you to save your big meltdowns for when you are alone or with adult support, it is perfectly ok for you to cry or miss your ex in front of your child. It validates their experience since chances are, they are having very similar feelings.
  • Give your kid(s) some extra one on one time. It is easy for parents who are going through a divorce or separation to be stressed out and distracted. Make it a priority to schedule some quality time with your child several times a week (even 20 minutes a day is ok, if that’s all you’ve got). Play, talk, cuddle and connect with your child, letting him feel your love through your actions and your sacrifice.

Finally, here are some creative ideas for processing the loss and change with your children. Many of these are adapted from Liana Lowenstein’s Creative Interventions for Children of Divorce.

Make a “Feel Better Bag”. Decorate it with pictures, stickers, stamps or anything else you like. Let kids know that they can use their bag anytime they want to. It’s especially helpful when they are feeling upset or anxious. Continue to add to the Feel Better Bag together and tell them they can add to it on their own whenever they’d like.

Here are some things you can put in it:

Worry stone—find a special stone in nature that you can rub when you are feeling sad or worried. Take a few deep breaths and let the stone know what you’re worried about. Remember that you can always tell a grown up when you feel worried and they’ll understand.

My helpers—make a drawing or a colorful list of all the “helpers” you have in your life. Your parents, grandparents, teachers, therapist, your friends and neighbors… anyone you want! When you’re feeling like you need a hand, look at your “helpers” page and remember that you have lots of people who love you and would love to help you.

4 count breathing—this is a technique to help you relax when you’re feeling upset, angry, hot, mad… Take big long breaths. While you’re breathing in, count to 4 slowly. While you’re breathing out, count backwards from 4 slowly. Breathe in 1-2-3-4, Breathe out 4-3-2-1. Wait for 4 seconds and start again. Practice this with your parents each night before you go to bed. It will help your body feel relaxed and calm.

Photo of your parents—ask each of your parents if you can have a picture of them for your feel better bag. Then you can look at the picture to remember how much your parents love you.

Free hug—make a coupon for a hug (or make a bunch) and keep it in your feel better bag. Then, when you’re feeling sad and need a hug, give it to the person you want to be close to.

Ways my parents love me—make a list or draw some pictures to show the ways your parents love you. Make one for each of your parents and ask them to help you. Your parents love you in many different ways.

Children who are experiencing the effects of a divorce may feel scared, vulnerable and overwhelmed. But with empathic, loving and attuned support, we can help them develop strategies to cope in this difficult time.

www.play-to-heal.com

The Land of Make Believe: Even More Important Than We Imagined

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.                                                    -Plato

According to the National Institute for Play, play can be defined as, “a state of being that is intensely pleasurable. It energizes and enlivens us. It eases our burdens, renews a sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities.” I would go even further to say that for children, play is their natural state of being. Put a child in the desert with no toys, video games or television around. As long as this child’s basic needs have been met, he/she will find a way to play.

As a play therapist, I have the opportunity to witness daily how vital play is to a child’s development. It allows them to learn about themselves and the physical world. It teaches them to communicate with peers and adults. They learn interactive skills like taking turns and following rules. They gain self-confidence by making up their own rules. It energizes children and relaxes them too. It is their way of developing empathy and expressing what’s going on inside of them. Play is so crucial to a child’s growth, that children who are not played with and not allowed to play can have severe and lasting problems in all aspects of development.

Remember Mr. Rogers and the Land of Make-Believe? Were you as enchanted by this as I was? Do you remember what it was like to make up games with your peers or parents, creating a world that was anything you wanted it to be? You’d work out the details, create the set, develop characters and embody entirely new ways of being. Make believe or pretend play is one of the most important aspects of a child’s play experience. It is a child’s opportunity to rehearse for real life. They develop empathy by “walking in another person’s (or other character’s) shoes. It’s through pretend play that children most readily express their internal experiences and emotional processes .  A child who dresses up as someone powerful may be working through feelings of powerlessness or insignificance. A child who puts band-aids all over her dolly may be hurting and in need of some nurturing. These are just a few examples and each child’s experience is unique to his/her own life, but you get the idea: Kids communicate through play.

Over the last sixty years, with greater concern for children’s safety and both parents working out of the house, families are increasingly organizing kids’ free time with structured, adult-moderated activities. These can be great, providing for children’s enrichment and socialization. But there is more and more research showing the importance of unstructured time to allow children to develop their imaginations and creativity. Psychologists actually believe that the decrease in kids’ pretend play time has literally shrunk their imaginative space, causing significant changes in their development.

In the 1940’s a study was done asking 3, 5 and 7 year olds to stand perfectly still for a certain amount of time. The 3-year olds couldn’t stand still. The 5-year olds could stand still for about 3 minutes. And the 7-year olds could stand still for about as long as the researchers asked. In 2001 psychologists at the Mid-Continent Research Center for Education and Learning tried to replicate the study. They found that sixty years later, the 5-year olds were no longer able to stand still and the 7-year olds could barely stand still for three minutes.

This study demonstrates a decrease in children’s ability to self-regulate (control their emotions and behavior), which is a crucial part of our cognitive function. When children’s ability to self-regulate is hindered, they are impulsive and have less self-control; traits that can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, aggressiveness and even depression. Laura Berk, a psychologist from Illinois State University believes that pretend play is of particular importance in helping children develop healthy self-regulation. Dr. Berk says that, “kids’ self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain.” What seems unstructured or even maybe silly, is helping kids become more capable in school, with peers and at home.

So, as you’re putting together your summer calendars and signing your kids up for camps and lessons to fill their time, be sure to schedule (in ink) some time each day for unstructured, creative play. Give your kids simple materials (egg cartons, cardboard boxes, scraps of cloth, paper towel tubes) and let their imaginations run wild. You will be supporting a crucial aspect of their development and helping them become more balanced, empathic people. And, for at least a few minutes each day, get down on the floor and play with your kids. Not only is it healing for them, but your own inner child will also appreciate the chance to shine.

Why me? Why now? Why Play Therapy?

ruby-picEver since I can remember I have relished in the experience of being, interacting and playing with children. I myself was a young child when I’d care for the younger offspring of my parents’ friends, taking special delight in the way they would observe and absorb the world around them through their senses. Time went on, I got older, and I continued to seek out opportunities to work with and learn from the miracle of a child’s experience. I finished high school and started university as a pre-med, following the path that I’d been told was right for me. I thought perhaps being a pediatrician would fulfill my dream of working with children. Just a few 8 am organic chemistry and physics classes at UC Berkeley quickly taught me that, while I still yearned to help kids, I was not cut out for the intensity and competitiveness of the medical field. Then I took my first psychology course, and that was it. I knew that I had found my path: I wanted to connect with and get through to children by exploring their brains, emotions and behaviors on a deeper level.

Having come from a home that could be described as anything but peaceful, I felt I had an understanding, perhaps even a deeper sense of compassion for children who hadn’t received the validation and support needed to build healthy emotions and self esteem. Over the next ten years, I explored many ways of being with kids, as a nanny, in camps for girls with ADHD, in research examining how kids form memories when they are under stress, in classrooms, in nature, in clinics and beyond. I hoped that my presence, support and guidance would be a medium through which they could feel how magnificent each of them truly was.

I went on and finished my undergrad and then obtained my masters degree in Psychology. While none of the institutions I attended had exactly what I was looking for, I took every child development and psychology class I could, learning as much as possible for me about the ways children perceive and process the world. After finishing graduate school, I needed an opportunity of my own to take in the world, through nature, movement, friendships and play. I moved to Italy and worked as an English teacher for several years, having an unforgettable experience and helping me learn about myself and my universe in entirely new ways. It was amazing. I knew I needed to be there and I knew the exact moment that I needed to come back to the States. I was ready and eager to take the culmination of everything I’d learned in my life thus far, in school and out, and pour it into a career that would be a journey of growth for both myself and the people I’d be helping.

I don’t know exactly how I discovered the work of Drs. Byron and Carol Norton. Through some random Google search on play therapy, I suppose. But it was a search that has changed my life and put me in exactly the right place doing exactly the work I’d been looking for all these years. Through my training and work with the Nortons, I have been able to witness over and over again the ways that children know, really know, exactly what they need to heal from pain and trauma. It simply takes a medium of safety and nurturing, and someone who is willing to speak the language of play, for them to go into their pain and re-structure their relationship to it. Play therapy gives children an opportunity to separate themselves from their perpetrators and their pain and to find themselves again. In the playroom, they are allowed to be anyone and anything they need to be because we play therapists trust that healing happens when you are allowed to show up as your fullest self.