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Promoting Post-Traumatic Growth After a Loss

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 11.39.02 AMThis is the third post in a series on grieving. The first regards grieving in the first year or two. The second regards how to help a child to grieve. In this post I’ll review factors that promote post-traumatic growth (PTG) after a severe loss.

PTG is the process of experiencing growth because of the pain you have experienced. As one poet it, pain is a dragon guarding treasure. To get to the treasure, the dragon must have it’s way and the clawing can be terrible, sometimes even breaking a person. But, at some point, if you have gotten to the other side, the treasure is always present. And, while the pain often stops, or is at least is significantly reduced, the treasure keeps on gifting.

To check the truthfulness of this assertion, survey your life for the most painful events that are now behind you. Are there any ways you are better now because of that suffering? Or, look at PTG from another angle. Consider the best things in your life. Could any of them have existed were it not for suffering, either on your part or on the part of someone close to you?

The PTG concept does not suggest that the treasure is worth the loss, nor does itScreen Shot 2017-08-12 at 11.36.57 AM suggest that the circumstances of the loss had inherent meaning. While one or both of those things can be true, they are often not. So, the first thing to wonder, after your grief has subsided enough, is, what treasure has this (often terrible) loss made available to you?

I previously outlined 13 tips for promoting adaptive grieving. Building upon those, here are six strategies for promoting PTG:

1. Develop a daily gratitude practice. If you enter the word “gratitude” in the search bar above you will find several offerings on this topic.

2. Practice random acts of kindness. This can be applied to both family members and to strangers. Again, use the search bar above to find related blog posts.

3. Practice self-compassion as much as you can. I will be writing on this topic in the future, but for now can refer you to this website for a plethora of information on self-compassion: http://self-compassion.org. Note that you can find a questionnaire on this site for understanding where you stand on the self-compassion dimension.

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 11.44.59 AM4. Practice forgiveness. This is the hardest thing for many of us to do, and our culture often misunderstands the nature of it (e.g., forgiveness is not allowing ongoing damage, it does not require the other person to express remorse, it does not involve minimizing, or require forgetting, the assualt). Click here for a post I devoted to this topic.

5. Develop and live effective missions. Developing effective vocational and personal mission statements goes a long way to producing a more meaningful and satisfying life. I provide a introductory structure for getting there in this post.

6. Pursue the truth. This regards your thinking (e.g., depression always involves believing things that are not true). This regards how you view others (e.g., a harsh judgment always reflects a lack of information or a distortion of the truth). It involves everything. Yes, the truth can be challenging in the short run–I believe it is Gloria Steinem who noted, “the truth will set you free but first it will piss you off.” But, the pursuit of it is a guiding principle of high road living. By the way, it’s remarkable how often pursuing a path of loving kindness overlaps with this goal.Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 11.47.13 AM

This is complicated stuff. So, if you’d like to find an ally for figuring it all out, and applying it to your life, consider meeting with a skillful mental health professional. For a referral, click here.

 

 

 

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Helping Your Child Grieve a Loss

shutterstock_301610618No engaged parent is happier than her least happy child. It is very difficult for any of us to see our children in pain. However, grieving is adaptive suffering and knowing how to help our children through it, instead of suppressing it, is an important parenting skill. I will split my tips on this topic up into two sections: when you are not affected directly by the loss and when you are.

When it is not your loss also

Your teen might have been dumped by a crush. Or, your daughter may have failed to make the travel soccer team. Or, perhaps your child’s only and best friend moved away. There are many kinds of loss. Here are 10 suggestions for helping:

• Validate your child’s pain. It makes sense to hurt over a loss. Allow your child to express those thoughts and feelings without offering immediate reassurances. This is gruelingly difficult to do. However, many of us benefit by having company when in pain. Moreover, premature reassurances came come across as “please stop feeling badly now.” Later the odds are high that your child will appreciate your empathic companionship.

• Ask your child how she’s doing but don’t insist on a conversation. Part of grieving is choosing when to not think or talk about the loss.

• Ask other family members to reach out to your child, shutterstock_63342151checking in on a semi-regular basis; it isn’t sufficient to say to a child, “let me know if I can help.” Again, though, the emphasis should be that it is your child’s choice whether to talk or not when the other person reaches out.

• Encourage your child to memorialize the loss. There are so many ways to do this. Writing a letter–whether it is sent or not–drawing, creating poetry and creating art projects are all ways this can be done. Again, though, don’t insist.

• Try to avoid supporting numbing behaviors such increasing a diet of processed carbohydrates or oversleeping. That said, indulges here-and-there are usually harmless.

• Try to encourage regular fun activities that are (a) novel (b) social and (c) involve physical activity. This trifecta maximizes the release of mood lifting brain chemicals. Once a week or so is fine.

• If you share a spirituality with your child, suggest using it to process the grief. Praying together, going to services and sharing readings that are targeted for your child’s age can all be helpful.

• Try to keep as many of your rituals in place as possible. Rituals are islands of stability within the torrential currents of stress that our culture presents.

shutterstock_385425094• Make sure to spend one hour a week doing special time. You can get a summary of how to do special time by clicking here. To get the full description, read the first chapter of my parenting book. Remember that special time is not the same thing as quality time.

• If your child becomes unable to accomplish his major developmental tasks (e.g., academics, socializing), arrange for him to be evaluated by a child psychologist who is experienced in providing cognitive-behavioral therapy for youth. I would insist on an initial evaluation and not require your child to agree that it is a good idea.

When you share the loss with your child

• As difficult as it can be to help your child grieve, the situation is significantly more complicated when you are suffering from the same loss. Here’s the most important point: your healthy grieving should be a top priority. As an illustration, and quoting researchers Werner-Lin and Biank: “A child’s adjustment to the death of a parent is greatly influenced by the surviving parent’s ability to attend to his or her own grief-related needs.” For this reason, please see this blog post on tips for promoting your effective grieving.

Here are half a dozen tips for your shared grieving experience with your child:

• Let your child know that you are hurting too. The older your child, and the healthier she is from a psychological perspective, the more open you might choose to be about your pain. This can be especially challenging for men. When it comes to vulnerability, the research indicates that we men are often asked to be vulnerable, but when we are we can be less liked and even punished, sort of what women go through with being assertive (please see the body of work by Brene Brown to learn more about this).

• You might schedule times in advance to do some shared grieving.

• Memorializing projects can have more meaning if they are shared and displayed.

• Try not to be too upset with either of you for the vulnerabilities that result secondary to forgiveness as keyyour grieving. You may go through a period when you are grouchy or unmotivated or dour. Likewise, your child may go through a period when he is defiant or sullen or rejecting of your affection. These are often transient reactions; part of what helps them to not take root is to not overreacting to them.

• Seek parenting allies if you need a break. It can be hard for those of us who are proud or independent minded to reach out for help with parenting. But, ask yourself: how would you want a friend or loved one to think about the possibility of asking you for support if your roles were reversed?

• My final suggestion–that those of you who read this blog can see coming a mile away– is to seek out the services of a good family therapist if you are both suffering to the point that you can’t meet important goals in life. For referral ideas click here.

Making the Most out of New Years Resolutions

excited man pointing, long hair, tieMany of us will soon make New Year’s Resolutions. This entry is designed to increase your odds of success. I’ll review four planning steps and ten strategies for promoting effective outcomes.

The first step in the planning phase is to visualize what you like about yourself. I’m skeptical that your self-improvement project can survive and thrive if you do not know and enjoy your strengths, not only at the start, but consistently throughout. I like a prayer that British psychologist Robert Holden recommends in one of his books: “Oh God, help me to believe the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is.  Amen.”

The second step is to picture yourself as the most fulfilled version of you. What is different about that person? What changes, that are under your control today, would help to get you there? (If any of us drove a car as reliable as willpower, we’d soon scrap it. Yet, many of us continue to rely upon will power as if it could be consistently counted upon.)

Third, list the obstacles you’ll experience in taking this voyage. This is a step worthy of your most honest and thorough consideration (many of these obstacles are authored by the person in the mirror).

challengeFourth, what steps can you take to reduce the obstacles and lessen your reliance on will power?

A problem that many of us run into is called “present bias.” The person who we are when we make a resolution–present me–is steely eyed and filled with gritty resolve. However, present me may also be inclined to be harsh (“okay, you really need to stop being so weak!”), excessively ambitious (“I’m going to never yell again!”) or inclined to invest in ways that aren’t always helpful (e.g., purchasing expensive equipment the like of which has never been used before). The problem is that present me is not the same person who will be doing the heavy lifting; that person is future me. If present me doesn’t adequately understand future me’s strengths and vulnerabilities, then present me is destined for disappointment.

Each of us are like snowflakes, completely unique. Thus, a strategy that helps another person make substantive changes could be a horrible idea for you. Use your world’s leading expert knowledge of yourself to develop a plan that is supportive of future you. Use her strengths. Establish support for his vulnerabilities. Some of the following ten tips may help:

1. Set daily goals. Avoid goals like “I’m going to lose 30 pounds.” Instead, try “today I’m going to eat a balanced diet and get 45 minutes of physical activity.” (Goals like this are very nice if you mess up as tomorrow is a new day!)

2. Keep a daily log of those behaviors that are most important to your goal(s). persistenceMany self-destructive behaviors occur when we disassociate from ourselves (i.e., only partially notice what we’re doing). Writing stuff down combats disassociation and increases the odds that you will remain self-aware and in the moment.

3. Join with others. Two things characterize those who are successful in setting aside entrenched and self-limiting patterns: they work on themselves and they surround themselves with people who are striving towards the same goal(s). Relying on others could involve partnering with friends, starting counseling, or attending support group meetings. (To find a therapist near you click here.)

3a. Ask your partners for help. Many people are willing to help your future self reach your present self’s goals. All you need do is share your vulnerabilities and ask for ideas and/or assistance. For example, I know one pair of friends who committed to playing a rotating aerobic game before work each day (e.g., basketball, racquetball, etc.). They rotated the role of cheerleader for those days when one or both of them was tempted to cancel.

ideas4. Establish rewards for yourself. For instance, so many days of doing as you vow earns you a treat. Also, give yourself hefty mental pats on the back for success along the way.

5. Take lapses as opportunities to learn more about your vulnerabilities and how present you can do a better job of supporting future you. Avoid being cruel and harsh with yourself as this risks putting your goals further out of reach (i.e., don’t tolerate bullying!). I’ll sometimes ask clients, who are parents, to react to themselves as they would react to their child if their child showed a similar lapse (sometimes this involves projecting forward in time and imagining their child at their age, having fallen prey to the same vulnerability).

6. Use music if that motivates you.

7. Focus your mind on the positive behaviors you want to do rather than the negative behaviors you want to avoid. It’s better to focus on what healthy breakfast you want to eat rather than trying to use white-knuckle willpower to resist the unhealthy version. A great book I recently discovered that does this well is The Happiness Diet, by Graham and Ramsey

8. Have present you write encouraging and positive messages for future you that you put in your electronic calendar.

9. Make a plan to remove as much temptation as possible from the eye line of spiritual manfuture you (remember: will power is unreliable).

10. If you are a spiritual person, lean on that part of your life as much as you can.

Good luck! And, remember, high road life is less about outcomes and more about being in the right fights 😉

Thanksgiving in Trumpland

As anyone who has experienced them knows, negotiating holiday meals that involve combinations of families, generations and single adults can be exceedingly challenging. This may be even more true this year as so many of us are divided around our politics. Let me offer suggestions.

Try to avoid:

√ Idealistic expectations. Like Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, many of us can develop idealized expectations regarding how these days should go off. We so look forward to them, especially given how hard we work. We so invest in preparing. We so much love some of the people we’ll see. And, we so much miss spending time together. All of this can cause us to create expectations that mere mortals would have a difficult time realizing. When people then let us down (i.e., act like humans), it can cause us to feel hurt, angry or sad. Best to just expect the speed bumps and enjoy whatever blessings come along.

√ Conflict resolution. Once the day kicks into gear (and especially if the wine starts flowing), it’s easy to be tempted to try to let so-and-so know about his or her significant opportunities for growth. However, rarely do people welcome such unsolicited counsel, no matter how sagely conceived and expressed; in fact, they may then be tempted to return the favor, and then others may join in, creating the psychological equivalent of a food fight. Best to keep such thoughts between yourself and your guardian angel, at least during these get togethers.

√ Intoxication (i.e. transient brain dysfunction). Ok, this one is already pretty clear so I won’t go on and play the role of Dr. Obvious.

√ Pressing other people’s hot buttons, especially this year. Trump supporters may be tempted to do an end zone dance in the face of Trump detractors. Trump detractors may be tempted to question the decency and humanity of trump supporters. As both sides offer evidence and rhetorical constructions supporting their point of view, tension rises. Plus, even if a winner could be declared, what’s the prize? An empty bag, resentment and a compromised day. Best to let it go for now. If you’re concerned this could happen, here’s a draft email to work off of: I have a favor to ask regarding Thanksgiving Day. Would it be okay with you if we did not discuss politics? Some of us have some very strongly held views that are not in agreement with each other. I’d like to make the day not about discussing those differences, or trying to win debates, especially during this time of national division. Instead, I’d just like to focus on things that are uplifting. Please respond back to the group and let us all know if that’s okay with you and your family.

√ Displaying irritation or anger. How often does expressing such emotions turn out well oncheerful-family-copy turkey day? Sure, even a broken clock is right twice a day. But, we’re talking odds here. Best to belly breathe, change the topic, or use whatever you may to calm yourself down.

Try to embrace:

√ Opportunities to express gratitude. Gratitude focuses our mind on the good parts of our lives and has been found to offer many psychological benefits. Write a gratitude letter (click here for my blog entry on gratitude letters), pull someone aside and let him or her know what he or she means to you, express thanks for what you see before you or what is true about your shared lives, and so forth. (Two cautions: don’t offer such expressions with the expectation of a response, and don’t pressure anyone to offer such thoughts and feelings, especially teenagers.) Finally, you can also express gratitude to the hosts by offering to share in the day’s labor (those sporting a y chromosome may need to overcome a biological imperative to collapse in front of a TV once tryptophan crosses the blood-brain barrier).

√ Opportunities to let others strut their stuff. Many people derive validation from having loved ones recognize and value their accomplishments. Ask others for their favorite memories from the year or what they are most proud of. Then, let yourself come aglow with happiness for them. (To an ambivalent listener, this can seem like bragging. But, even when it’s bragging, what’s the harm? Just imagine someone crawling towards you, begging for a drink, and you have a bucket of water in your arms. Would you not do the kind thing?)
√ Adaptive thinking. I have two suggestions here. First, try to remember that crisis = pain + opportunity. Opportunity is pain’s Siamese twin. So, if things don’t go off as planned, or some unfortunate event happens, look for the opportunity imbued within. (The classic movie A Christmas Story manifests a great example of this in how the family responds to the fact that invading hounds have gulped down their holiday meal.) Second, try to remember that we’ll all blink three times and be looking back at our lives from the perspective of our death beds. Just think, when you’re at the end of your life, how much you’d give to come back and relive the day at hand. As death’s gift to the living is perspective, such thinking can help you to find your wisdom.

shutterstock_223597855√ Empathy. Those you are with may express sadness or share other failings or frustrations. Empathy and agreement are different things. Being empathic says that you care, even if you privately disagree.

√ Loving kindness. It’s amazing how operating in accord with these two simple words keeps one on a high road, promotes joy and expands meaning. If in doubt about what to do, it rarely fails to respond in accord with whatever insights this question offers, “what’s the loving and kind thing to do?”

May God, or your Higher Power, or the universe, bless you and yours during these challenging days for our nation.


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Promoting Teen Friendships

2 happy teens, african-americanAs we start a new year, my attention is drawn to The New Yorker article by Maria Konnikova titled, “The Six Most Interesting Psychology Papers of 2015.” I’d like to blog on one of these six articles, from the British Journal of Psychology, titled “Best Friends and Better Coping: Facilitating Psychological Resilience Through Boys’ and Girls’ Closest Friendships.”

In this study the participants were 409 “socio-economically vulnerable” British adolescents. The researchers found that having a close friend served an important resilience-promoting function. They concluded: “Findings revealed a significant positive association between perceived friendship quality and resilience…We suggest that individual close friendships are an important potential protective mechanism accessible to most adolescents.”

This is not a surprising result for those who are familiar with the resilience literature (e.g., social competence is a well established protective factor). Here are a few tips parents can use to promote friendships among their teens:

  • Create a space in your home that is teen friendly. Key ingredients aretwo women fun things to do in a space that feels separate from parents and siblings.
  • Encourage and support extra-curricular involvements that tap into your teen’s strengths. This can be a wonderful way to develop and support friendships.
  • In instances when your teen may be struggling with peers, partner with teachers in identifying potential friend-candidates to invite over.
  • Also if your teen is struggling, see if there are any groups being organized by school counselors that your teen might be eligible to join (e.g., social skills training, divorce coping, grief); these groups can be useful for forming bonds.
  • Whenever practical and consistent with your morals, support your teen’s efforts to acquire conforming clothes, music and so forth. These are common methodologies teen use to try to feel comfortable around, and to fit in with, peers.
  • Whenever practical and consistent with your morals, allow your teen to have access to pro-social networking sites and technology (e.g., texting). Not having access to such can serve to isolate a teen.
  • happy latino coupleGiven how critically important this domain is, please consider obtaining an evaluation from a good child mental health professional if your teen is struggling with peer relationships. For a referral click here.

This complex topic goes hand-in-hand with another complex topic: parental monitoring. Please use the search bar above, or my parenting book, to find content along those lines.

 

Parenting a Depressed Teen During the Holidays

depressedThe holiday season can be harder than other times of the year for people who are depressed. When someone is struggling with depression he feels estranged from himself and the world. Then, when that world temporarily gets even more unlike him (i.e., emphasizing cheer), his sense of estrangement can worsen. For this and other reasons, parenting a teen who is depressed during the holiday season can especially challenging.

Before I offer some tips, let me offer a very important proviso. Imagine you had a kid with significant dental pain and you wondered, “what meals should I prepare that best accommodate her condition?” That seems like a useful question, but only if your daughter is receiving, or is about to receive, professional dental care. Without the dental care, cooking interventions would probably be like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It is the same thing with depression in a teenager. The tips below are best considered and rendered within a context of a kid already getting good mental health care (e.g., an evidence based talking therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or interpersonal therapy).

That said, here are seven tips to consider:

• Collaborate with your teen, and ideally your teen’s treatment provider, regarding a holiday plan (e.g., which activities to do and which to set aside). Your teen’s depression would have him bail out on most, if not all, activities and that is usually a mistake. Likewise, you may be tempted to insist on 100% participation, and that can be a mistake as well. A skilled therapist’s expert assistance can increase the odds that you’ll find the adaptive middle ground.

• Do what you do for your teen without the expectation that such will cheer her african woman's half faceup. We parent-lunatics hurt when our kid hurts, and often worse. So, it’s very natural to try to cheer up a depressed teen. However, if the primary intention is to bring about a better mood it’s easy to become frustrated and worsen the stress on our teen. Better to make the effort without the expectation of an outcome.

• Accept your teen’s moods as they come. These moods can be like the weather. Sure, you’ve laid out a nice picnic and here comes a rainstorm, and that stinks. You can rage at the weather (and that can take many, many forms) or pitch a tent, realizing that the weather is outside your control, and enjoy what is possible to enjoy.

• Resist trying to reassure your teen out of a negative thought. While such encouragement can often help someone who is not depressed, to a depressed person reassurances can sound like, “you don’t have anything to feel sad about, so stop it,” which can then cause the depressed person to become even more adamant about his negative thinking. This is another instance where your teen’s therapist can be very helpful in coaching you how to respond (e.g., “I think that’s your depression convincing you of a painful lie. I believe the reality isn’t nearly as painful as your depression’s lie); the technique of thought testing can also be very helpful here (e.g., see my parenting book or search using that term above).

• Don’t allow extended family to hassle your teen regarding his depression. Loved ones can say some pretty hurtful things in their desire to be helpful. Your teen’s therapist can help you to figure out your methods for doing this in a way that respects your teen’s privacy and independence.

teen diinterested face• Regularly let your teen know, without overdoing it, that you love her, that she is not alone and you understand that it’s terrible to be feeling what she is feeling, especially during the holidays.

• If your teen is or could be suicidal, get him in front of an expert ASAP and don’t leave him alone until you do. Consider this to be a life-or-death emergency as you certainly don’t want your baby to be one of the two million U.S. teens who attempt suicide each year.

Geez. Tough stuff huh? But, hopefully there’s a helpful tip or two here for you. Regardless, I hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday season!

 

Value of an Allowance

money held by handMany parents wonder about the value of giving their kid(s) an allowance. I’m in favor of allowances for these reasons:

Allowances…

…can be tied to weekly chores or homework performance, incentivizing otherwise resistant kids.

…cut down on the revolving (and seemingly near constant) requests for spending money. For elective purchases, kids can now learn to budget their own resources.

…open the door to teaching about money management. For instance, a percentage might be put aside for college, teens might open up a checking account and so forth.

…get kids thinking about the importance of giving to charity.

…sometimes actually lead kids to ask for other opportunities to earn money around the home.

Parents often ask me how much they should allow their child to earn. There isn’t really a guideline that I can say is more or less psychologically indicated. It really comes down to your standard of living and the values you wish to promote. That said, you could think of $1 per year your child has lived outside of the womb as a rough starting point; you can adjust up or down from there based on your standard of living and values.

Let me offer two caveats:

First, it’s important to not make a kid spend his or her allowance on necessities such as clothes and food. Providing necessities is our job. Of course, if your budget parameters call for your child to bag her lunch, but she prefers to purchase it at school with her allowance, that’s fine. Or, you have it in mind to purchase a durable sneaker but your kid wants the designer brand, that’s fine also.

Second, it’s important to not try to over control how your child spends his or her allowance. If the proposed expenditure isn’t inappropriate for him or her (e.g., a 10 year old wanmentorts to purchase a mature rated video game), or immediately harmful (e.g., yes, too much ice cream is harmful in the long run but a dosing of it isn’t immediately harmful once allergies are ruled out) it’s important to let your kid make his or her own decision, even if it drives you crazy. It’s hard to learn how to manage money, and how to make decisions, if mom or dad are always calling the shots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What To Do About a Bad Report Card

writing fatigueHaving your kid come home with a poor report card can be challenging and upsetting. For responding to this I’d like to offer two perspectives and six steps.

Perspecitive #1: Though we all do it from time-to-time, freaking out is rarely helpful. This response is certainly understandable, especially if you believe your kid has dropped the ball. But, it rarely helps and often hurts both your relationship with your kid and the underlying problem (e.g., a kid hating school).

Perspective #2: The underlying issues are usually fixable, it just take properly understanding what has happened. Staying problem and solution focused can be very helpful. The following six steps are meant to help you in this regard. (These steps are not meant to be a sequential list.)

Step #1: Schedule a face-to-face meeting with the teacher or teachers. At this meeting discuss, at minimum, your kid’s strengths, what the teacher(s) believe has caused the poor report card, and a plan of remediation. Please read my blog entry “Eleven Important Tips When You Meet with a Teacher” to make the most out of this meeting.

Step #2: Figure out what constitutes success for your kid. We parents do well to focus on effort more than outcomes. Is your kid bringing it and getting Bs? If yes, that may be okay. Is your kid barely trying and earning As and Bs? If yes, that may not be okay.

Step #3: Determine what role homework plays in your kid’s grades. Is there too stressed student with booksmuch of it? Is your kid trying hard enough? Is your kid lying to you about what homework is assigned? Aspects of your assessment of the homework situation can be useful to share in the teacher meeting. Please read my blog entry “Seven Tips for Coping with Homework Hell” to get the most out of this step.

Step #4: Determine if extracurricular activities, sleep schedules or your kid’s social life are interfering with academic performance. If yes, the problem(s) may be easy to tweak if you’ve caught it/them early enough. (Searching with the word “sleep” above will list multiple entries regarding sleep.)

Step #5: Consider improving the quality of the relationship between you and your kid. If you are surprised by a poor report card, that may suggest that there is too much distance between the two of you. Spending one hour a week doing “special time” with your kid can be a fix (see Chapter One in my parenting book or articles on this blog site for more information on how to implement special time).

Step #6: Ask yourself whether a glitch in your kid’s mental health could be playing a role. If your kid seems depressed, angry, worried, stress out, hung over, or some other negative adjective, seriously consider having a good child or adolescent psychologist do an evaluation to get to the bottom of things. (See my article titled “What Does a Good Mental Health Evaluation Look Like?” to get the most out of this step. You may also find value in reading  character with key in head“Affording Mental Health Care” or Chapter 10 of my parenting book.) Part of this work-up may include an evaluation to rule out a learning disability.

Good luck and, on behalf of your future kid, thank you for your work on this!

 

 

Helping Your Kid Get a Good Night’s Sleep

It’s back-to-school and many parents are working on sleep with their kids. In previous entries I reviewed evidence that most teens do not get sufficient sleep, shared authoritative guidelines for how much sleep kids should get and summarized the most common ways kids suffer when they do not get enough sleep. Here I offer guidelines for how you can promote a good night’s sleep in your kid.

• Try to encourage a consistent bedtime ritual that starts about an hour prior to the time you’d like your  to fall asleep. In this hour try to avoid activities that promote an active or a fretful mind. For younger children reading them a book as they lay in bed can be effective. A shower or bath in this hour can also be relaxing.

• Baring unusual circumstances, consider not allowing your kid to keep a cell phone in her bedroom.

•Try to avoid allowing your kid to watch TV as he falls asleep. However, if you do, make sure it is not on for long and that it is turned off shortly after he falls asleep.

• If your kid is waking up soar or stiff or if her mattress is showing signs of wear or tear, consider replacing it.

• If your kid reports being too cold or too hot when trying to fall sleep, adjust accordingly.

• Try to avoid laying with your child until she falls asleep. If her anxiety level seems to mandate such, see a qualified mental health professional for help.

• Dim night lights are fine to use if such makes your child more comfortable.

• Of course, try to ensure that your child’s environment is quiet. If you live in a busy area and outside noise is interfering, consider purchasing a noise cancelling machine.

• If your kid consistently fights you in getting to bed on time, consider making her earn access to a desired activity or object the next day by getting into bed on time (e.g., cell phone access the next day is earned by having gotten into bed on time with the lights out).  This is not punishment. (“I’m taking your cell phone away because you did not get to bed on time.”) This is reward. (“You earn your cell phone each day by having gotten to bed on time the night before.”) So, your kid either earns or doesn’t earn the desired activity or access while you remain an empathic bystander.

• If your kid reports that he cannot fall asleep because his mind is too busy, try one or more of the following strategies:

  1. At a soft volume, play an audio recording of a story with which your child is familiar. Try to avoid plots that are action packed.  Also, make sure to turn it off shortly after your kid falls asleep.
  2. Encourage your kid to imagine that it is the next day and he is in a boring class. In the class he is extremely tired, but he MUST stay awake. Encourage your kid to imagine what each of her senses experience as he does this mental exercise.
  3. Encourage your kid to imagine a repetitive pleasurable activity (e.g., fishing, cheerleading, pitching a ball game, dancing, etc.). Again, encourage her to engage all of her senses when imagining this activity.
  4. Play sounds from nature (e.g., the beach, a rainforest, etc.) or other soothing music (e.g., insomnia tracks available on iTunes). If your child has a device like an iPod, he may enjoy using one of the compatible pillows that are available.
  5. Some people report that the aroma of lavender can have a sedating effect. So, consider this as well.

Insomnia is like a fever as it is a symptom that has many possible causes (e.g., sleep apnea, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, etc.). If your child suffers from persistent insomnia consult with your child’s pediatrician regarding possible medical causes. If medical interventions do not resolve the problem, are contraindicated or will take a while to implement, consider seeking out the services of a qualified mental health professional.

“I’m stupid!” “I’m a loser!” Responding to a Kid’s Negative Thinking (Thought Testing)

“I’m stupid!” “No one likes mcharacter sitting on book overwhelmede!” “I suck at sports!” “I have no friends!” Most parents have heard lamentations like these. Our typical response is to reassure our kid and offer contradicting evidence. However, there are many occasions when that approach seems to escalate the problem. This is because if a kid is being influenced by a depressed or anxious mood, such reassurances are heard by her as “knock it off. You don’t have any reason to feel this way.” Our kid’s response is then to insist, often with more distress and an offering of data, that the negative thought is true. The technique of thought testing can be helpful in these instances.

Step #1: Get to the core thought. Our thoughts are like onions; core thoughts are the deepest layer of the onion. Sometimes our kid offers a core thought right at the start, like the ones I listed above. If so, we can skip this step. Otherwise, a kid can seem disproportionately upset about an activating event, like not getting invited to a party or making a mistake during a game. You can start by asking, “what does it mean that Monica didn’t invite you to the party?” A kid might say, “she doesn’t like me.” You can then respond with, “okay, let’s say that’s true. What would it mean about you that Monica doesn’t like you?” A kid might then say, “I have no friends.” Core thoughts are usually expressed in a few words and represent black-and-white and negative conclusions about oneself, others or the world at large. Write down the core thought at the top of a piece of paper, then draw a vertical line in the middle of the page underneath the core thought. On the left side write “facts supporting.” On the left write “facts contradicting.”

theory into practice signStep #2: Collect supporting facts. This is the step that opens up a new universe for your relationship with your kid. You say, “okay, what are the facts that support this thought? By facts, I mean things that a police officer would write down, or things that could be used in a court of law.” (You might have to do different kinds of teaching regarding what a fact is depending upon your kid’s age and intelligence.) If your kid suggests some facts in support of the thought, write it down as a valid point. The kid might say, “I didn’t get invited to Monica’s party.” You might say, “you’re right. That is a fact that suggests you have no friends so we’ll write it down on the left side. What’s next?” So, instead of arguing against the core thought, you’re asking for the data that supports it. This is what’s new. Usually a kid will have 2-4 facts, and rarely more. Just be sure you write down only facts, not what you kid imagines, guesses or implies.

Step #3: Collect contradicting facts. When your kid says she has no more supporting facts, ask if there are facts that contradict or disagree with the core thought. Usually, these start cascading from your kid (as long as you’ve done the first two steps that is). Feel free to add here-and-there but let most of the facts come from your kid. You write each one down on the right side. As you write, don’t let your kid see what you’re writing yet. It’s okay not to exhaust this side. You can stop once you have much more data on the right side.

Step #4: Give the list to your kid and ask, “Okay, you’re judge and jury. Is the thought true or false?” Your kid will usually express relief that the thought is not true. (In my parenting book I review an augmenting strategy for when a kid wants to assert that a given fact on the left side carries more weight than the facts on the right side.)

cute girl sitting white backgroundStep #5: Decide what you want to do next. Maybe you want to do “problem solving” regarding the activating event (search for that term on this blog site). Or, maybe your kid decides just to distract herself whenever she has this thought going forward, as it isn’t true.

I have two caveats. First, if the thought proves true, use it as an opportunity to do problem solving. Second, if thought testing doesn’t work for you, and your kid has a pattern of being distressed by negative thoughts, seek out a referral for a good child mental health professional. You can get a referral by clicking here.

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