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.

Parenting Through the Deep End

the-deep-end-of-the-pool-deep-end-of-the-pool-crankyhead-demotivational-poster-12809828113I believe that parenting is the most challenging and important occupation that there is. And yet it’s a job for which we don’t have to submit a resume, show up for an interview, read the employee handbook or attend trainings and workshops to upkeep our skill set. Parents are thrown into the deep end with no floaties on their arms and sometimes it may feel like you are flailing your way across an Olympic size pool, clumsily dog paddling to keep afloat you and the puppies holding onto your feet for dear life.

So we often turn to the resources at our fingertips to help us through our journey. But with all the myriad of parenting philosophies, books, websites, approaches out there, an Amazon search for “parenting books” can leave us feeling more overwhelmed and helpless than we felt on our own. Google “Parenting Philosophies” and you will come up with over 996,000 search results. So where do we begin and how do we sift through the information we are given in order to decide what is best for our families?

When I work with parents I start with the underlying Truth that they, not I, know their child best. Different things work for different children. While I am not a big proponent of “time out” as punishment, some children do very well with a time out in order to take a little break and calm themselves down. For other children, it can be a painful trigger and send them into further dys-regulation and shut down. It depends on the kiddo and on the way you are framing it as parents. If you have tried something, it comes from a place of love and compassion and it works well with your child, trust in it.

I encourage parents to trust in their intuition. When we read a parenting book, attend a class or ask for help from others, we are not surrendering our responsibility over to another. We are expanding our resources and our repertoire of possibility, giving us more options to draw from; but we are certainly not obligated to take what “the experts” tell us at face value. These so-called experts (myself included) are human…They have their own stories, their own wounds, their own “stuff” (if you will) and there is nothing on Earth that has made them fully capable of knowing what is best for your child 100% of the time. So trust in yourself. Be compassionate with yourself. Take away what feels right for you and gratefully add it to your tool kit. You are welcome to leave the rest behind and just know that it’s there if you’re needing to try something entirely different.

My final bit of advice stemming from my own philosophy of parenting and relationship…sink into the child’s experience before doing anything else. What was she feeling? What was he trying to communicate through his behavior, but didn’t have the words to express? How might it feel to be all alone up in his room while he’s feeling sad and helpless? Once you have allowed yourself some space to be curious and empathic, then you respond to the situation from a place of love. This doesn’t mean you forego limits and boundaries or that you let children run rampant. It’s your job to be the container and provide the boundary to help them learn and feel safe. What it does mean is that you take the time to understand that at the root of your child’s negative behavior is a scared little person who doesn’t have the tools to communicate. So you let him know that you got the message (to the best of your ability) and you understand how he may feel. This is hugely empowering and liberating for a child.

This post was inspired by a newsletter I have been receiving from the Love and Logic Institute. When you google “parenting philosophies” Love and Logic is the first of 996,000 entries. So it has a lot of clout. Their overarching purpose is to teach parents to raise responsible children, which  is noble and lovely, of course. And they sometimes come out with tidbits encouraging empathy, which is great. But there are times when I question how they are able to maintain such unwavering support for what often feels like a very unsupportive approach to parenting. So I will leave you with a story from them to ponder over. Remember these simple instructions:

1. Trust in your intuition
2. Find your empathy- sink into the child’s experience
3. Act from a place of Love, not Fear

Now read on and feel free to comment on what you would do in this situation:

from The Love and Logic Institute (Read post here)

Veronica came to the fourth session of her Becoming a Love and Logic Parent® class anxious to get help with a festering problem with Jake. Twelve-year-old Jake decided that he no longer needed to listen to his mom. His growth spurt now made him taller than his single mom.
“I was so embarrassed on our last ‘movie day.’ I’d saved money to take him and his little brother to the movies. You should have been there. He wouldn’t take his feet off the back of the seats in front of us and he made one loud nasty remark after another during the movie. Several of the patrons even told him to settle down. I just didn’t know what to do.”
A couple of the class members offered to help Veronica design a Love and Logic training session for Jake. They had fun putting the plan together.
On their next “movie day,” big sixteen-year-old Preston appeared at her door just before they were ready to leave for the theater. He was the son of one of her fellow Love and Logic class members.
“I’m here to babysit you, Jake. I understand that you were a jerk the last time you went to the show, so you’re not going this time. By the way, this is going to cost you big time. I hope you’ve got fifteen dollars ’cause I’ve got better things to do with my time than sit around the house with a jerk who doesn’t know how to act in public.”
“Hey,” yelled Jake. “I’m not staying with you, and I’m not paying. I’m leaving!”
“Fine, kid. Your mom says that if you don’t pay, I can go through your room and take anything I want as payment. Have it your way.”
Little did Jake know that this plan had been hatched at Mom’s parenting class. What do you think will happen the next time this family goes out in public?

Loving yourself serves all of us

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.

-Marianne Williamson

images-2

I have the greatest job in the world. I work with kids and help them learn and experience how loveable they are. And I work with parents and help them access their own strengths and inner beauty so that they can see the greatness in their children. I mean, it doesn’t get better than that. My intention is to help everyone who walks through my door, big or small, cultivate a deep sense of love and appreciation for him or herself. This is the force that drives healing.

It sometimes feels as if we live in a world where it is not permissible to love ourselves (often mistaken as ego). That doing so takes away from our ability to show up for others. That we must not take up space in this world if we are to get by. This, however, is a fear-based way of thinking that can lead to senseless acts of hatred and violence. It can cause us to project our own self-loathing onto those in our closest environment, onto those who trigger our vulnerabilities and onto people who are different from ourselves. This is what seems to be happening in the recent race-related killings of Trayvon Martin and Kenneth Chamberlain. As I am reeling from the news of these two killings (and so much other turmoil on our planet), I’m working to step up my personal path of self-love and that on which I work to guide my clients. For me, this is the solution to atrocities such as these–preventing it by loving ourselves (and therefore each other) as fully as we can.

As a child, this sort of relationship with myself was as far from permissible as running out onto the freeway during rush hour. When I was in the first grade I had an experience that left a pretty big impact on me. It was one of those little events in your life whose residue lingers for years to come. My parents had returned from Back to School Night for my classroom. They were mortified and needed to talk to me immediately. Hanging up on the wall of my classroom were worksheets that each of us little 6 year-olds had filled out listing a number of things that we LOVE. What had struck my parents and led them to decide I needed some reprimanding was that I had chosen to write “ME” as my answer. So, I was 6 and I loved myself…was that really such a bad thing? I remember my dad, in particular, scolding me, telling me it wasn’t nice to write that and that I should have written in some member of my family. Now as an adult, I have compassion for my parents and the vulnerable place they were coming from, not having had all the resources for self-love and nurturing that i have. And I think deep down, even as a 6-year old child, I knew they couldn’t fully take away my ability to love myself; but I sure as heck wasn’t ever going to reveal that to anyone. What a sad moment in the life of a child…the day she is taught that it’s not ok to love yourself. Now it’s my mission to shift this perspective and teach parents the benefits and joys of watching little people recognize their own inner greatness.

Hence, my career path and my personal path, as well. And hence, my message to you parents. Let your little one bask in his integrity and his light. Children are uninhibited little messengers of truth. When your child experiences herself as “the best” or “amazing”, admire her capacity for self love. Learn from her self love! Watch him/her shine and think of all the ways that you also wanted to be seen as a child. Give yourself a great big dose of self love and let your child know he/she has permission to do the same. The world will be such a sweeter place because of it.

And a poem whose words you can bathe in today:

Love After Love

The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror

and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was yourself.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott

The Subject Tonight Is Love

I often hear parents telling their “misbehaving” children to “play nice”. In fact, I imagine that most of us reading have, at some point, been told to “play nice”. We humans are inherently nice–to love and be loved is literally in our DNA. It is the essence of who we are. And, if allowed, this yummy, amazing, nourishing love fills every cell in our body and trickles out of every pore. What happens, though, is that we are born into society. And from the moment that we are born we are exposed to messages that we are not ok: we need to be quieter, bigger, smaller, faster, smarter, thinner, richer, more giving, less whiny, etc etc etc. We communicate this message that others are not ok because we do not feel ok in ourselves. Why would we do this to our fellow humans? Well, quite simply, because someone did it to us. So we forget this essence…we forget that we are born of love, made of love and have the potential to give and receive love fluidly and openly. That we are “nice” at our very core and that if we could be seen for our greatness and for our loving nature, it would really just pour out of us.
So the next time you feel the inclination to tell a child to “play nice”, why not try something a little different. Because telling a misbehaving child to play nicely immediately shames and blames him. It misses the message his behavior may be communicating and it lets him know that he is not ok. So this time around stop trying to control him and asking him to change his behavior (which actually has a very useful function). Why not get down on your knees, spend a bit of time with him and let him know that you think he is great. That you think he is amazing and that he has so much love to give and that you would love to see him feel safe enough to share that love. Then take the time to help him feel safe, secure and loved. I guarantee you he will want to play nice with you.

And I’ll leave you with a poem by the amazing Hafiz…

The subject tonight is Love
And for tomorrow night as well,
As a matter of fact
I know of no better topic
For us to discuss
Until we all
Die

Thanksgiving Gratitude

 

If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice. – Meister Eckhart

On this weekend before Thanksgiving, I’m giving a lot of thought to the concept of gratitude and thinking of all the things that I am truly grateful for. And I’m thinking of the ways we can convey this concept to young children, who are by nature egocentric beings. It is our role to help kids cultivate and experience feelings of thanks and gratitude, which are so important in allowing them to feel empathy and concern for the well-being of others. So how do we do this?

First and foremost: By modelling and expressing our own open-hearted thanks, not just on one day of the year, but every day. Create a daily ritual where we name something that we are thankful for. Dinner is an amazing opportunity to do this and it can give way to some rich table time conversations. Bedtime is another opportunity, leaving children to drift off to sleep with thoughts of blessings and grace. It’s ok if they name material things that they are grateful for. You can model your sense of thanks for things like generosity, kindness, patience, etc. Kids will pick up on this and eventually express it themselves.

Let children know all the ways you feel grateful throughout the day. “I am so lucky to have such helpful kids.” “I’m really grateful to our neighbor for feeding the kitty while we were gone this weekend.”

Thank your kids for the ways they help out…and be specific. “Thank you for putting your shoes in your room the first time mommy asked you to. It was really helpful and felt good to have to ask only once.” And remind them to thank each other. “Did you say thank you to Henry for sharing his blocks with you? That was really kind of him.”

Demonstrate the spirit of helping others. You can keep it simple…Take the trash out or shovel snow for an elderly neighbor. Or take it to the next level…Have them pick out old toys, clothes or books to donate to a shelter or organization. Participate in a food drive. Volunteer as a family baking cookies or a meal for children who are hospitalized. And use these deeds as opportunities to talk about all that we are fortunate to have–from food and a warm home to our precious bodies.

The thing to remember is that young children are egocentric beings–they see and experience the world through their own eyes. And gratitude is not a trait that comes naturally to them–it is learned through positive experiences and reinforcement. So give gentle reminders and lots of reinforcement, but be patient. Children don’t genuinely integrate ways of being when they are forced. Cultivating an authentic sense of gratitude takes time but will have tremendous rewards for both you and your children.

Happy Thanksgiving and many blessings.

Some Tricks for Your Treats

As much as I love Halloween, as someone who works with kids, I’ve been worried about this day. And so have many parents of the children I work with. It’s a day so full of excitement, anticipation, creativity and joy… and then it’s over. And there you are with a sugar high kiddo, bouncing off the walls, and a bag (pillowcase, plastic pumpkin, whatever) full of a 6-year old’s version of crack. So I decided to do some research and post some ideas on what to do with all that candy that you wish you could simply make disappear (much to the dismay of your superhero, fairy princess or your little ladybug).

So here are some alternatives to eating all that candy that will still leave you with happy little goblins:

Cash 4 Candy– Dentists around the country are putting together programs where they actually buy back kids’ Halloween candy, thereby sending it to troops in the Middle East. If you are in Boulder, you can check out http://www.bouldercountysmiles.com/specials/cash-4-candy/

Donate it to the hungry– Brainstorm with your kids who may need food and sustenance even more than they do. Then, drop it off at a food bank or put it in little bags to give to those in need who are asking for handouts. I know it’s not getting the candy fully off the streets–but it does get it out of your house and satisfies a hungry belly that might not get a lot of sweetness.

Prepare for Gingerbread House season– Put aside a stash of candy corn, red hots, gummy bears, and kisses to use in your gingerbread house projects for the holidays. Or better yet- make a practice gingerbread house now and use up double the candy!

*Candy wrapper art– This is my personal favorite. Convince your kiddos to ditch the candy so that you can use the wrappers to do all sorts of cool art projects. These are fun activities to do as a family and will give them far more lasting results than the crash and burn of a Butterfinger. A collage, doll dresses, book covers are just a few possibilities. For some fun ideas check out this link on Martha Stewart: http://www.marthastewart.com/search/apachesolr_search/candy%20wrapper

Bake and send it to the office– There are endless recipes for candy baked goods online. Whip up some treats, save a couple for yourselves, then send a batch to the office with daddy or mommy. Everyone’s happy!

My Child is Driving Me Crazy!!!

You know those times when your child does something—something s/he does on a regular basis—that drives you absolutely batty? You’re frustrated and angry for reasons that you yourself can’t even understand. You want to yell, throw something, run away, shut down. Maybe you actually do one or all of these things. You react in ways that you later question or regret, but in the moment you were overwhelmed by the need to let your child know how out of line s/he was? Want to know what’s really going on and how you can stop it from happening? Read on…

If you have found yourself acting or reacting in ways described in the first paragraph, you were probably acting from a place of fear, triggered by an unresolved issue from your own childhood. Most likely as a child you had an experience that left you feeling extremely overwhelmed, helpless, sad, terrified. Now that you are an adult, having never fully resolved the terror or grief you experienced as a child, seemingly unrelated experiences can unexpectedly re-elicit those feelings within you. As an unconscious process, we usually don’t realize that this is what is going on, thus projecting the feelings (through blame) on outside sources. Being triggered in this way takes away our ability to act rationally and calmly. It keeps us from being present in our relationships, causing us to act according to old patterns and wounds (typically unrelated to anything our child has done in the moment).

Fortunately, there is a way out. We can learn to heal ourselves in order to repair the relationship with our children in those moments. It starts with understanding and empathy towards ourselves. In his book, Parenting from the Inside Out, Daniel Siegel says, “If we pay attention to our own internal experiences when we are feeling upset by our children’s behavior we can begin to learn how our actions interfere with the loving relationship we want to have with our children. With resolution of our own issues comes greater choice and flexibility in how we respond to our children.” (Siegel, 28)

Try the following exercise and see what comes up for you. You may be surprised to realize that what is driving your reactions isn’t really related to your child’s behavior.

Take out a journal and start to reflect on an issue that is impairing your ability to connect flexibly with your child. Focus on the past, present and future aspects of this issue. Do the themes or general patterns come to mind from past interactions? Do the themes or patterns feel old? How old do they feel? What are the feelings associated with these experiences? Are there other times when you have experienced these feelings? Are there elements of your past that may contribute to them? How do these themes and emotions influence your sense of self and your connections with your child? How do they shape your anticipation of the future? (Adapted from Daniel Siegel, Parenting from the Inside Out)

Children are our greatest teachers, bringing us in touch with the deepest parts of ourselves. Through our relationships with children, we get to know our own inner child. If we are open to this experience, there is space for great healing and growth, fostering more close and connected relationships.

Remember that with awareness, acceptance, self-empathy, self-care, and doing your own “work”, you can heal your unresolved issues and develop a connection with your child that allows you to be present and authentic, responding from a place of openness and compassion towards your child and towards yourself.