Category Archives: Mental Health

Want to Know the Secret to Supporting Your Perfectionist Child?
Anxious little girl

Q. My daughter freezes when she is asked a question on the spot or during exams because she is fearful of being wrong, not knowing the answers or not being able to complete the entire tests. What advice should I give her to help her overcome this fear?

A. Of course you want to help her deal with her fears. Most parents, I find, live by the myth that you can help your child by telling them what you have learned as more experienced human. Makes sense. You want to tell her something that will make her see the light and stop being fearful of getting it wrong. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Advice rarely helps unsolicited.

Your daughter was likely born with sensitivities for self-awareness, a desire for approval, as well as strong capabilities. This can underscore any ideas she has of how important those capabilities are to gain the approval she wants.

As parents, most of us are unaware of how our expectations of our children effect their behavior. Of course, we want our children to do their best, but often inadvertently we send messages that we expect their best all the time. “How many times have I told you?” can send a message that “You should know better,” “Something is wrong with you,” and “Why don’t you understand?” to a sensitive child who comes to fear she isn’t getting it right.

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Feb ’22 Q&A Hitting a Wall? (Revising a conversation from May ’20)
Emotional Exhaustion

Q. I’m utterly overwhelmed. I’m resentful of those who have support from a partner and grandparents and guilty for feeling resentful. Frustrated that there’s no end in sight. Exhausted, emotionally and physically. Sad. I miss my family and friends. Lonely. 3 kids 1, 4 and 8 entirely on my own. Working 60 hours a week. Trying to be grateful I’m employed but there is no balance possible when you have 3 kids in tow. I don’t bathe or sleep without them and if I try, they scream or immediately ‘need’ me for something which is their anxiety showing up. It’s endless. How do I stay sane?

A. We’re on year three of a global pandemic and all of us, especially parents with young unvaccinated children or families with unpredictable child education schedules due to positive COVID cases, are still very much in the throes of it. If we thought we were exhausted in May, 2020, it’s certainly not gotten better for a lot of people. Maybe we’ve become more accustomed to our reality, but emotional stress among our hardworking families is very real and present.   

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Jan ’22 Q&A – The Rise in Suicide Since COVID-19: Can strong boundaries make a difference? (Revising a conversation from Oct ‘19)

Young Teen in Despair

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A. Too many children all over the country seem to be feeling so forsaken that ending their lives is the only answer. How does anyone, much less a child, come to this conclusion? I cannot presume to have the answer. What we are left with is the question: How do we protect our children from such devastating despair?

According to U.S. News, over the last two years, there has been a steep increase in teen suicide attempts. From February 2020 to March 2021 “emergency rooms visits for suspected suicide attempts were over 50% higher among girls aged 12–17 than during the same period in 2019, according to the study” they referenced. 

Some of the mental health issues teens are experiencing have to do with increased drug use and the effects of social media. But the question must address more fundamental layers. Many young people can resist drug use or moderate it. All are subject to social media. Some have addictive tendencies that are more vulnerable to drug use and some are victims of cyber bullying. This is not the result of poor parenting.

Layer on the pandemic, and there are further elements at play. Since COVID-19’s arrival, there is even more reason to be concerned. Laura Kester, an adolescent medicine physician at UC Davis Health explains, “The challenges that children and teens normally face have been amplified by isolation and distancing during the pandemic.” In the full article, UC Davis shares signs of depression, what to do if someone you know is depressed, treatment options and additional resources for families trying to support struggling teens.

Stress and instability over the last two years have taken a toll, not only on children but adults as well. Children who suffer from poverty, racial injustice and mental disabilities are disproportionately affected. NPR’s “Short Wave” shared in January 2022 that pediatricians have seen a dramatic rise in children struggling with mental health issues. The 9-minute interview captures deeper insights and offers resources. 

While the pandemic has had adverse effects on mental health for nearly all, its impacts on children who are particularly sensitive may be more demonstrative. According to Dr. W. Thomas Boyce, a pediatrician, research scientist and author of “The Orchid and The Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive,” many children have extreme sensitivities to their environment. 

Boyce notes that Orchids account for 1 in 5 children. I use the name Integrity children to incorporate a little broader range of kids demonstrating these behaviors. In my experience, the Integrity child is born with an internal core of a sense of rightness and justice that drives his every mood and behavior. These kids try our very souls. And while we think they will never learn and we fear for their futures, what they are doing is demanding our personal responsibility and integrity. (This can be hard to see from the trenches of daily battles.)

At the same time, these children are so susceptible to their social settings—whether pernicious and threatening or nurturant and sustaining—that their outcomes are bound to their external environment. 

They have an inherent stress reactivity to their situations so much so that when the environment does not suit them, as with the orchid flower, they wither. But when the environment matches their specific needs, they blossom with magnificence. Dandelion children, which I refer to as Harmony kids, as you can imagine, are children who do well anywhere.

Due to the reactivity of Integrity children, they are more susceptible to despair. So what can parents do? Can we better learn the signs? What if we see “a sign”—spending more isolated time in their room, for instance? Is that a symptom of depression or a teen’s desire for separation? Going into protective mode can risk connection with a teen fighting over-protection. How much do we do? How much do we not do?

The closest I can come to finding an answer to how to protect our children from despair is to understand that we parents are not responsible for our children’s happiness. Seem paradoxical?

When my daughter (an Integrity child) was very young, she had a lot of fear and struggled mightily with many aspects of daily life. After using up my bag of tools, I engaged a therapist. The first session was with me. I told her about my daughter’s pain with tears streaming down my cheeks. She said to me one of the most important things I’ve ever heard: =&1=&

Once I was able to step outside my daughter’s pain, anger, sadness, and fear, and allow her to have it, I was better able to support her and hold her. It was no longer about me—what I had to do to make her happy, what was wrong with me that I couldn’t, why wasn’t she getting over it? That thinking meant I was taking responsibility for her emotions. So, when I tried to take it all away, but couldn’t, it became my fault—I had failed her. Then I would try harder. Then she had both her upset and mine to deal with. =&2=&

Our children’s journeys are theirs. We cannot presume to dictate what that journey should entail—though we try. What our children need most is the confidence that we are always there to help if they need it, to advise if they ask for it, and to offer a safety net no matter what. That is our responsibility. =&3=& When we yell at them for not listening, they do not make us yell. When we feel distraught because they make choices we wouldn’t, they are not making us distraught. =&4=&

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So what do we mean when we’re talking about connection? What does it look like day to day?

It means solving problems together; it means working on your relationship rather than threatening and punishing your child to do what you say; it means focusing more on what is right rather than wrong; it means letting go of control all along the way as your child’s needs change; it means understanding what those needs are instead of assuming you know best; it means having compassion instead of fury when his behavior signals he is having a problem.

These are best parenting practices whether your child is an Integrity Child or a Harmony Child. But with Integrity Children, these best practices are essential.

  • When your child feels down, be there as a sounding board without advice.
  • Don’t blame yourself.
  • Let go of control by allowing your child responsibility over herself as she is able.
  • Be there when he needs you without feeling unappreciated when he doesn’t.
  • Make sure your kids learn family responsibilities early. Expect resistance. That’s okay.
  • Trust your teen to have a good head on her shoulders rather than distrusting the world she lives in and her choices. Focus on the positive in order to problem-solve the negative.
  • Never take privileges away—you may be taking away their life-lines.
  • Maintain your integrity and focus on what you want and don’t want rather than dictating what they should do.
  • Don’t interrogate your child with questions or tell him what to do. Make connection first, “I’m concerned when I see…so I am afraid that…I wonder if” Question later, “What is your plan? What do you think? Does that help? What else would you like to try?”
  • Share your personal experiences to demonstrate you get it, you believe him, you’ve been there and you’ve made it out of the problem. 
  • Watch for major changes in behavior patterns in a short period of time. And of course intervene when you know there is a problem.

=&7=&Your children need to know they are gotten by you. When they distrust your reactions, worry that you don’t understand, fear your retribution when they make mistakes, your connection will be lost. =&8=& read more

Connecting with a Child’s Negative Self-Talk

Sad child sitting on windowsill

Q. My son will make a negative statement about anything and then immediately follow it by a more extreme version, e.g. “I want to die…I have wanted to die since I was born!” OR “No, I don’t know that you love me…I have NEVER known that you love me.” I don’t know how to react to these statements – they take me by surprise. Is it just his way of expressing the magnitude of his feelings?

A. Yes—and his words are also telling you that you are not listening to him. read more

Stress Management Needed? Look for the Triggers

With Covid stretching all of us thin, families are experiencing more emotional upheavals than ever—kids and parents, alike. The #1 step to managing anger and stress is to give yourself and your kids a break and keep it present—stop catastrophizing fears into the future—easier said than done. Covid adds enormous stress to an already stressful life. Don’t try to make life the same as before. You will only come out feeling like a failure—more stress.

When you see anger and physical aggression in your kids, it’s easy to panic and think there’s something wrong. You can also look at it differently and think, it’s wonderful that my kids feel safe to express their anger in our home. Did you? If not, then your child’s anger triggers a danger signal in your brain, which likely leads you into fight, flight or freeze mode. Helpful responses rarely follow.

Author, Rachel Simmons says we tend toward either a positive or negative “stress mindset”. With a positive mindset, you experience the fullness of your emotions and feel the stress, but you know you will get through it, you are not alone—there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and you can get there. A negative mindset takes you down. It tells you that once again you can’t do this, why bother, wouldn’t it just be easier to give up and give in. You feel overwhelmed, alone, and hopeless.

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10 Ways to Deal with Fear and Anger

Q. I just completed chapter 7, Don’t Take It Personally, in your Buttons book. Holy cow, that is my life right now! Things have been tough on-and-off for the last 4 years, but with being stuck at home, resistance to distance learning, working as a single mom, and feeling isolated with no break from each other, I have hit an all-time low in my parenting. My son is off the charts angry (hitting me and swearing at me non-stop), disruptive, destructive, and disrespectful. I’m exhausted and handling all of it terribly. As I listen to your book, I’m seeing how my controlling-mom agenda and my own anger issues (never allowed when I was growing up) mean I just give in to stop the anger—both causing our relationship to spiral.

A. These are hard times. The only consolation is knowing you’re not alone. Many families have more resources and a two-parent household with help from family or tutors. But many are in your boat. I can’t stress enough how important it is to give yourself and your kids a break from the old norm. It’s essential to think of this time as an isolated, unprecedented, inherently stressful time that neither you or anyone else can control.

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When You Think Your Teen May Be Depressed

Q. My concern is that my teenage son who has been struggling with remote learning and isolation, is of a generation that grew up having to be worried about school shootings, climate, higher levels of political divide, protests and rioting, and now a pandemic. I’m wondering if I should have an in-depth conversation with him about anxiety and depression in relation to the fact that he has grown up with these things and therefore is at greater risk. On the other hand, am I sending him the message that you should be anxious because you’ve grown up with these things? His symptoms are not what I would consider to be serious, but I’d like to prevent them from becoming serious. I’d appreciate any feedback or suggestions. 

A. Your question about sending him the message that perhaps he should be anxious because of these world events is a perceptive one. Yes, he has so much to contend with in his young life, but I do believe that every generation has its worries. I grew up with the threat of nuclear bombs and the Vietnam War with its protests and rioting. Previous generations feared polio and lived through WW2 and the Great Depression. When it is in our backyard, it feels so great. Be aware of the stresses these events are causing you and understand the reality may be quite different for your son. Many teens are self-absorbed and get more depressed about how many likes they are getting on Instagram than what is happening with the climate. That is not to say that many do feel an enormous burden of where their futures are headed in a most precarious world.

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8 Suggestions for Teaching Mindfulness to Children

By Aimee Laurence

Mindfulness is good for all of us. It helps us be present as parents, choosing better responses instead of going with the first thing that comes to mind. It’s also good for children because it helps them pay attention, stay calm when they feel upset, and improves their decision making. In order to teach these skills to your children, you need to first establish your own practice so you can teach what you know. You also want to keep it simple so your children can understand that at its core, it means being aware of your thoughts, feelings, and what’s happening around you.

The purpose of teaching mindfulness to your children is to allow them to gain better awareness of their experiences, both inner and outer, to understand their thoughts and emotions, and to be better at controlling impulses. With that being said, you need to manage your own expectations, because it’s impossible that you’ll eliminate tantrums, or completely calm down your child – they are kids and it’s normal for them to be loud and exuberant. With this in mind, here are 8 different ways you can start introducing mindfulness to your children at home.

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Talking to your Kids about Substance Abuse

By Cassidy Webb

When I started using drugs at 15 years old, I thought my parents had no idea. I was positive that I hid it well,but I was wrong. I thought that because I was still playing basketball and making good grades nobody would know I was abusing drugs and alcohol.

My parents had always planned to move to a small town in Arkansas when I graduated high school so they could build a big beautiful home for retirement, so it came as a surprise when they abruptly told me we were moving the summer before my junior year.

Instead of being honest and telling me we were moving early in an attempt to drag me away from the group of friends I was getting involved with, they told me we were moving because they got a good deal on a piece of land to purchase. I didn’t find out until after I got sober that they were grasping for straws to save my life.

When we moved to Arkansas, nothing changed. I continued to use drugs. I was selected to be drug tested at my school. Since it wasn’t a public school, they were allowed to drug test any students who were involved in extracurricular activities. Upon failing the drug test, I told my parents the lie that I had only smoked weed once and just happened to get caught. I was simply given a slap on the wrist – not another word was said about my drug use.

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Hugs Reduce Stress

Toxic stress in early childhood can harm children for life, warns the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Don’t think your children have experienced toxic stress? All children do to differing degrees. Whoever said childhood is bliss didn’t know what he was talking about. Children experience stress just by being a child. From nightmares, worry about transitions, being afraid of the dark or thunder storms, social fears, children have a hard lot. And that doesn’t cover huge emotions and dysregulation that they cannot possibly understand when asked, “What’s wrong?” Then being punished, criticized, or threatened for behavior they can’t control…. You name it, a day rarely goes by when a child doesn’t experience stress.

Stress arises for a child when sensing a threat with no one to protect him from that threat. Children who experience this kind of stress in the early years, even prenatally through mother’s hormones, “…are more likely to suffer heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other physical ailments…also more likely to struggle in school, have short tempers and tangle with the law.”

A now more than two decade long scientific study by the Academy and the CDC shows the long term, harmful effects on society when we turn a blind eye on the problems faced by young children. From the stress children experience when their parents abuse alcohol or drugs, emotional or physical abuse or neglect, emotional or physical treatment between parents, mental illness, separation or divorce, to a child crying out and not being comforted and feeling unloved — stress comes in all shapes and sizes.

The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, originally conducted from 1995-1997, is one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and later-life health and well-being. We now have research showing the connection between disrupted neurodevelopment, social, emotional and cognitive impairment, risky behaviors, disease, disability and even early death to Adverse Childhood Experiences.

Now that I have thoroughly depressed you, let’s look at what we can do about it.

The Academy has issued a policy statement that includes, “Protecting young children from adversity is a promising, science-based strategy to address many of the most persistent and costly problems facing contemporary society, including limited educational achievement, diminished economic productivity, criminality, and disparities in health.”

 

Prevention Strategies

The study outlines extensive strategies to turn the horrendous statistics around — strengthening economic supports to families, changing social norms to promote positive parenting, quality care and education, better parenting skills training, and intervention methods.

We can’t always control the environment for our children. Death and loss, natural disasters, accidents, an ex-spouse’s choices, disciplinary measures at school, hurtful remarks and bullying are all beyond our control. Nor should we hover and protect our children from growing up and experiencing the world we live in. Many circumstances children find themselves in can be toxic and traumatic, but when they have a protective factor to turn to safely, namely a parent or caring adult who understands, listens, accepts, and connects, a child can deal with and learn to make sense of most experiences. Ignoring, sweeping problems or sensitive issues under the carpet, screaming at and punishing big emotions that parents don’t want or know how to deal with undermine the protection you can provide.

Your connection to your children is the protective factor they need most. But connection is harder than we think, as most parents know. It often requires a mindset shift away from traditional parenting methods.

 

How you can provide that protective factor:

Stop threatening and punishing — the #1 tactic used by parents to coerce children’s behavior. In order to be the grounding force your children feel safe to come to no matter what, they must trust that you will never pose a threat to them. If they have nowhere to turn for an understanding ear, they will turn exactly where you fear most. This usually means

When we remain stuck in the mindset that punishments and consequences for inappropriate behavior are the way to get appropriate behavior, we forfeit our child’s trust. Mostly what the child learns is “you don’t understand me”, because behavior is provoked by emotions that parents typically pay no attention to. It is the emotional state that needs connection. When that is ignored and parents focus on behavior, the primary link to the protective factors parents provide is broken.

Habitual tactics are easy to fall back on when a child’s behavior gets tough. It is so tempting to pull computer time and cell phones, put kids in time out or send them to their rooms. These tactics miss the mark and only make kids mad. And if they “work”, it is only to get that cell phone back. Sneaky, conniving strategies result, and that all-important connection is risked.

 

What to do instead – Problem Solving promotes connection:

  • Do nothing in the heat of the moment. When emotions are calm and the prefrontal cortex is back online, work on the situation. This is where parents stumble. We want to forget about it and move on.
  • Resist the temptation to blame. Own and acknowledge your feelings.
  • Look to your child’s need or emotions that provoked the behavior and connect with that need. “You must have been furious with your sister to hit her. Tell me what got you so angry.”
  • Discuss the problem without blame. Own what part of it is yours, “I’m really concerned that you don’t consider my feelings. It is not okay with me when you call me names.”
  • Acknowledge that your child was having a problem that provoked the behavior. It was a mistake, not a crime. Trust your child’s desire to be successful. We all say and do things we don’t mean.
  • Engage your child to come up with a solution that all can agree on.
  • Don’t expect the agreement to work. It’s a process. Keep refining until the behavior stops.
  • Do focus on acceptance, listening, predictability, playtime.
  • Take your focus off behavior and onto what could be going on with your child to get back to compassion. All connection requires compassion.
  • Hug a lot.
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