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Author: Yael Clark

So, how was your day?

So, how was your day?

What do your children say when you ask them how their day was at school? “Fine.” “Yeah. Good.” “>grunt<” And when you want to know about their class work or friendships? “Nothing.” “Ok.” There are several articles doing the rounds with some helpful tips on connecting with your children so they’ll open up and share their school world with us. I’d like to add a few more ideas.

Volunteer at school- if you’re in the classroom, on the playground, or on excursions, you will learn the names of teachers and students and be “up” on what’s what at school. Instead of asking general questions, you’ll be able to engage your child in conversation with interesting and relevant starters such as, ‘I saw that Annie had a plaster cast on her arm. What happened?” or “Mrs O was away today. Did you like the substitute?” Children often respond well to such specifics and knowing this level of detail shows your child that his/her world is interesting to you.

Arrange playdates after school, on weekends, or in the holidays. If your home is too small, take the children to a local park, library, pool etc. Get to know your child’s peers so it is easier for your child to talk about them with you and so you can observe any concerning dynamics (eg, is your child hesitant to invite? Why? Is your child a leader or follower in games? Etc.

Try to be at school drop-off or pick several times a week so that you get to know the school community and you see your children with their school mates.

Basically, if you are already in the loop, you will find it much easier to engage your child in conversation and to follow what they are saying. Chatting with you without having to explain who is who etc., is much easier for your child.

This an example of the advice circulating on facebook- useful for many but perhaps not so easy to remember? http://www.huffingtonpost.com/liz-evans/25-ways-to-ask-your-kids-so-how-was-school-today-without-asking-them-so-how-was-school-today_b_5738338.html?ir=Australia

A weekend wish for all parents

A weekend wish for all parents

My wish for all this weekend: some time with a friend or partner, some time with your children, and some time alone doing something you love. How might you make that happen?

You can reply here or on my facebook page at  www.facebook.com/YaelClarkPsychologistSupportingParents

Child Safety – empowering our children

Child Safety – empowering our children

Here’s a little song I made up for a kindergarten session on Keeping Safe that I am doing tomorrow:
(to the tune of This Old man)
“Stop, Run, Tell
Stop, Run, Tell.
I can do this very well.
I can be safe.
All can be well.
I will try to Stop, Run, Tell.”
The children will learn to apply this message whenever they feel unsafe- this includes dangerous play; upsetting secrets;& unwanted touch. I’ll post the other song I made about early warning signs in our bodies when I remember the name of the song I took the tune from!!

I welcome your comments here or on my facebook page at  www.facebook.com/YaelClarkPsychologistSupportingParents

Thought-stopping

Thought-stopping

I am concerned that a whole new generation of children are being taught the same unhelpful thought-stopping strategies that we were. You know, the ‘throw the bad thought away” one. Or the updated version “delete that thought”. Some people are taught to wear a rubber band and snap it when they have upsetting thoughts to remind them to get rid of that erroneous, irrational thought.

These strategies have actually been shown to increase rumination (excessive dwelling on unhelpful thoughts) and perpetuate the unhelpful belief that people can control their minds and feelings. It is more helpful to understand that while we cannot control the thoughts or feelings that arise, we can manage them well and we can learn how to cope, how to relate to our thoughts and feelings differently. It is actually the illusion of control that contributes to anxiety and depression; we feel like failures when we can’t stop those illogical thoughts and feelings.

We need to teach our children ways to feel safe when upsetting thoughts and feelings pop up. Give them the security and skills to allow the thoughts and feelings to float (hang around) or do whatever they want to do, while they -the children- practise calming and relaxing themselves even in the presence of such thoughts and feelings.

The outdated approach sends the message that we can only feel ok/relaxed/coping when our upset has gone. It teaches that we can only attempt difficult tasks once the fear has gone. Obviously such beliefs can really hold us back. Such beliefs also send the message that distress is so awful, so horrible that we must avoid it at all costs. We must stop that thought before it harms us! This only increases children’s anxiety. We need to teach that all feelings and thoughts are safe, they are only stories, and we can calm ourselves and re-engage with what’s important to us even when these thoughts and feelings are still hanging around.

Thought-stopping also invalidates our experiences. Telling someone to “think positive” or “throw that thought away” dismisses what is being experienced by that person and can send the message that the person is perceived as irrational, petty, or a “drama queen” . But the topic of invalidation is a whole other essay which I’d best leave for now.

I have had to sit with children and remind them that we cannot stop thoughts or control feelings. We can manage how we deal with them and how we relate to them. I do the old “do not think of a white bear” exercise with them. Of course she found that you can’t not think about something, or that if you manage to stop the thought for a while it is only by using a lot of energy in chasing distractions and that is not a long-term solution. (See http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~wegner/ts.htm for a more succinct explanation and http://www.spring.org.uk/2009/05/why-thought-suppression-is-counter-productive.php for a more detailed one.)

I hope this has given you food for thought. It might be difficult to accept at first because believing that we can get rid of distressing thoughts has become second-nature to us Westerners. In reality, however, this “new wave” of psychology has found scientifically measured evidence for the ancient teachings of many cultures. There’s plenty to read about it to further your understanding. You could start at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-wyaP6xXwE
All the best,
Yael.

Starting Childcare (@16 months and older)

Starting Childcare (@16 months and older)

Brief Tip Sheet

  • Play games such as peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek to teach your child that you always come back.
  • Plan to visit the centre twice a week for two or three weeks before starting.
  • At home, use absences from your child (even a trip to the toilet!) to teach your child that you always come back.
  • Transition him slowly by leaving him for increasingly longer periods of time starting with ten minutes and building up to half an hour.
  • When your child knows his carers’ names and is confident to go to them for help then he is ready to be left there without you. If this takes longer than four or so visits arrange a meeting with the carers and director to plan as a team how to help your child adjust.
  • Talk about childcare at home- the children, the carers, the routines and the activities there. (Take photos home to talk about if you can.)
  • Have a childcare friend over to play at home (or visit them). You could also meet at the library or local park.
  • When you start childcare –after your child has become familiar through orientation visits- aim to spend 10 minutes settling your child in. If this is not enough, ask the carers for help and then leave.
  • When you leave say, “Bye! I will be back soon.” And go.
  • You might like to call the centre to find out how he is. You will probably be told he is fine so now you can get on with your day!
  • At pick-up time spend some time letting your child show you what she did that day.
  • Get some feedback from the carers.
  • Talk to your child on the way home about her day. Use the names of the children and the carers.
  • Accept any feelings of sadness or anxiety with a simple cuddle.

 

Parenting Ourselves

Parenting Ourselves

A new mother slumps before me, eyes filled with tears as she shares with me her despair and exhaustion. Her baby is lying on a rug between us. Mum wipes away her tears and attempts to smile. “I don’t want him to see his mummy cry. I’m so stupid for wallowing this way. No one else finds this as hard as I do.” I know she is silently adding that she is failing at motherhood. I also know that she is arguing with herself, telling herself that her sadness is weak, irrational, and she should just snap out of it.

Suddenly her little one yelps. He has rolled over and bumped his head on the pram brake. Mum scoops him up and comforts him. “Ouch!” she empathises, “That hurt.” He settles. He burrows into her neck and his cries slow into whimpers and then he is quiet. Soon enough he is happily chewing on Mum’s hair.

I use this little snapshot of motherhood to talk about how we comfort our children; how we soothe them when they are hurt- either physically or emotionally. Mum was quick to connect with my explanations of Active Listening (see my blog post by this title for more), validation, “sitting with” instead of problem-solving or disputing, and staying connected while the “storm” passes. Gazing at her child she declared that she will always try to validate his perspective and would not dream of joking, distracting, or minimising his pain- even if she could not see what the big deal was.This new mother agreed that her son needed her to stay connected to him and to accept his feelings so that he could learn to cope with them.

We explored how it feels to have one’s feelings accepted and how it hurts to have one’s emotional experience rejected. “Then why,” I asked, “are you doing this to yourself?’ My client was puzzled. I continued, and we began to unpack the many ways in which she invalidated her own feelings and disconnected from herself in times of distress. We re-visited the basic skills of Active Listening and she practised using them on her own thoughts, wishes, and feelings, just as I coach parents to do for their children.

Near the end of the session our new mother had an “aha moment”. “I need to parent myself just as I want to parent my son. When I am hurt I need to scoop myself up, comfort myself, and empathise: Ouch. This hurts.”

Try it. Read (or re-read) my post on Active Listening, and try it on yourself next time you are angry, sad, worried, bored…you name it. Stay connected to yourself. Be kind just as you would be to a baby. A point of difference though: you might find an activity other than chewing hair to re-engage with once the storm passes!

Holding Both

Holding Both

No, this is not an article about cuddling twins (that’s a whole other skill!). It is about helping our children manage their emotions by allowing two conflicting emotions to sit side by side unchallenged. I talk to children about their “two feelings.” “Oh, you get so annoyed at your baby brother and you like playing with him!” This skill helps children calm down because they feel understood; they don’t have to choose between two very real feelings (which is confusing and forces them to try and save face by defending their position ever more loudly); and it prevents them from getting too entrenched in one feeling at the expense of the other- a process which can also feed the feeling which is focused on.

We recently took our three youngest children to the snow. There was much excitement! Rugged up in her hired snow gear, my five year old exclaimed, “This is the best day EVER!” An hour later, feet dragging, hair wet, and nose cold she complained loudly, “This is THE worst day ever.” Calming my own internal reaction (which was along the lines of, “Don’t be such an ungrateful child.”), I gave her a hug and said, “What a day, hey? The best AND the worst! You love the snow AND you hate being so cold and tired.Wow….two feelings….” My daughter gathered herself immediately and continued trudging to the car happily enough all things considered.

I have a wooden carving of two hands cupped together in my rooms. I often give it to children to hold as they tell me about their two feelings. I often give it to adults too. Thinking in either/or, missing the shades of grey, all-or-nothing thinking, and black and white thinking are traps that we all fall into at times, especially in times of stress or after having suffered a trauma. A key sign of mental health is what we call “psychological flexibility”, the ability to consider alternative thoughts and to open ourselves up to other possibilities. Think of it as the ability to loosen the stranglehold of unhelpful thoughts, to wriggle free just enough to breathe deeply again. The thoughts and feelings may not disappear but now we can inhale the fresh air and move forward with vitality.

You can help increase your child’s psychological flexibility simply by “holding both” for them, by paying close attention to their thoughts and feelings and lovingly putting them into words for your child. Children love hearing about their “two feelings”. Next time I will expand on this topic and discuss how holding both helps us to manage our own anger, anxiety and depression. For now, have a go at holding both for your child and please come back and share how it went for you.

Finding Nemo and Learning to Keep on Swimming

Finding Nemo and Learning to Keep on Swimming

I saw Finding Nemo when it was first released in 2003. Last night, nine years later, I decided the time was ripe to introduce it to my 5-year-old. This was to be her third full-length movie and I chose it because of my fond memories of Dory and the Turtle Dude Dad. I had forgotten just how traumatic the opening scene is and how the narrative unfolds around one life-threatening scare after the other.  Zoitsa wailed with raw grief when Nemo’s mother and sibling roe-babies were eaten by the shark; I thought her heart would break. I have never seen her so terrified and distraught. I began to think I had made a mistake in exposing her to this. I deliberated switching it off and popping on the Bananas in  Pyjamas (a firm favourite in our family- the original, not the animated version!).  In the end the message of the movie itself guided me in my decision.

Marlin, Nemo’s father is crippled with fear after the death of his wife and babies. He becomes overprotective of Nemo and parents Nemo from a place of insecurity and anxiety. He simply cannot live in the moment; he is continually foretelling doom and gloom. Nemo is being taught that the world is a dangerous place, one that he cannot cope with.  He is being taught to avoid challenges and cling to a limited, trembling comfort zone.  Nemo, however is a resilient little chap and leaps at life with joy and curiosity. He is frustrated by his father’s limitations.  His thirst for knowledge and adventure spurs him on to discovery. Perhaps in reaction to his father’s fearfulness Nemo knows no fear. He takes risks, really dangerous risks, and is captured by a human.

Thus begins Marlin’s quest. Marlin’s love for his son is stronger (just) than his fear. He will face any adversity to find Nemo.  This is new ground for Marlin, he has to – as the old classic teaches- feel the fear and do it anyway.  I shall add, “feel the fear and do it anyway…if the goal is important to you.” For Marlin, parental love trumps fear.

Dory is not just a cute ditsy little fish whose character is included for the comedy factor. Oh no, her approach is an integral support to Marlin’s commitment to finding Nemo.  Thanks to short-term memory loss, Dory is not fixated on “if only” thoughts of the  past and she is not paralysed by “what if” thoughts of the future. Dory lives in the moment. “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming,” she sings. Keep your eye on your goal and don’t look back! What a wise little fishy!

Did my daughter internalise all these messages so cleverly interwoven through the tale (or is that tail?)? When Marlin and Nemo are reunited she squealed with joy and tears streamed down her face. “Mummy! I have happy tears!” she cried.  I hugged her tight and said, “You were so, so scared. You almost couldn’t watch. But you really wanted Marlin to find Nemo so you held my hand and  just like Dory said to keep on swimming, you kept on watching and now you are so, so happy you have happy tears. Wow! You were brave because you cared about Nemo!”

Right up until lights out Zoitsa chanted, “Keep on swimming. Keep on swimming.” Those cute little fishies certainly taught both me and my daughter a lot. I think I will be more careful about choosing gentler movies  for a while longer – after all facing fear is most valuable when in pursuit of a goal and watching scary movies isn’t really high on our family to-do list- but both she and I know that if something is worth it, we can cope with the fear. We might need a Dory to help us, to remind us as she reminded Marlin,” When life gets you down do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do?” You know the answer, chant it with me now, “Just keep swimming”!

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*How have you coped with fear, anxiety or nervousness? Do you have a story to share about a time when you focused on your values and goals to cope with anxiety and obstacles to your gaols? How did you look after yourself at this time? Did you show yourself kindness and compassion? Did you seek support or comforting activities? I would love to hear from you!*

Happy swimming folks 🙂

 

Temper Tantrums: some are unavoidable but these are important times for relationship building and learning about managing strong emotions.

Temper Tantrums: some are unavoidable but these are important times for relationship building and learning about managing strong emotions.

It was time to get out of the bath, but two- year old Tamara wanted to play a bit more.  Daddy (John)  said “OK, one minute more” and gave her back the toy she had been playing with.  After a little play, Tamara handed the toy back and put her arms up. John lifted her out of the bath.

 

As soon as Tamara’s feet touched the floor she changed her mind and demanded “More bath”.  The water had already been drained.  Shivering sisters were waiting to be dressed.  John used Active Listening to help Tamara manage her disappointment.  “You wanted to play a bit more, huh?  Now you’re feeling cross”.  But Tamara had already revved up for a full – blown tantrum.  She slipped around the wet floor and lunged at Daddy trying to bite, scratch or hit him.

 

At that point Tracey came running in.  She picked up the writhing, distraught toddler who knocked Tracey’s glasses off, hit her and struggled to the floor.  Over the next 20 minutes (it felt like hours) Tracey tried to provide Tamara with a safe haven in which to move through the rage that had overtaken her.  She would not let herself be cuddled, so whenever there was a pause in her jumping up and down and screaming Tracey gently stroked her.  Just a brief but connecting, accepting, reassuring touch.  Tracey periodically verbalised Tamara’s emotions: “Such a big crossness Tamara!” “You really want more bath. More bath NOW Daddy!” Eventually Tracey put Tamara in her cot because she was so uncontained.  But Tracey did not leave Tamara’s side.  She stayed just out of arms reach but within eye contact and voice contact.  She continued to communicate love, empathy and the belief that together she and her child could handle this.  “What can Mummy do to help?” “Are you ready for cuddles”?   Tracey paid close attention to Tamara’s breathing, her volume and her physical agitation.

 

Eventually, when she felt like crying for her exhausted, overwhelmed, tear-stained baby whose voice was hoarse, Tracey detected a slight change in her hysterical gasps.  Her rapid, shallow breathing had slowed down into gulps.  The screams were turning to sobs.  Tracey moved closer and when her eyes met her daughter’s, Tracey reached out her hands.  Tamara held her arms up and said “Mummy cuddles”.

 

Taking her floppy, drained child to the armchair she whispered softly, “Mummy cuddles will help you feel better?”   Exhausted, Tamara nodded.  Tracey murmured reassurances and comfort.  “You’re all right, Mummy is here.  You’re getting better” Tamara sat upright and declared “Bye bye crying”. “Well done Tamara! You handled it” her mother responded.

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Reflections:

  • Tamara learned that no matter how strong or unpleasant her emotions are her parents will stay connected; they are strong enough to support her.
  • She learned that one day when she is 15, she can come to her parents with the nasty stuff (secrets, dilemmas etc.) and they won’t turn her away. They are strong and accepting of all emotions.
  • She knows that difficult feelings can be shared, processed, fully experienced. She does not need to avoid them, repress them, or act them out in ways that hurt herself or others.(Experiential avoidance- repressing the expression of emotion- is a key aspect of  Anxiety disorders and problems with emotion regulation.)
  • When Tamara said, “Bye-bye crying!” she showed that she knows that when something bad happens she can hold onto the belief that “this too shall pass”. She knows this state is temporary and she won’t get stuck in it.  (Getting stuck in the feeling of that a difficult time is permanent is a core feature of Depression.)
  • And Tamara learned that no matter how bad a problem there is always something that can help you feel a bit better and help you come out the other end. In this case it was Mummy’s cuddles.
  • NOTE: Tamara’s parents did not “reward” the tantrum by giving in and putting her back in the bath (which would also mean running some water).  When dealing with tantrums take care to stay firm on your decision and be  gentle with your support.  Empathising with your distressed child does not mean “giving in” .  Limits are important- but more on that another time 🙂Please share your own reflections and experiences below! How do you think this example might be translated for supporting older children?

 

Does your therapist have children?

Does your therapist have children?

Do you care? Do you need to know? Should you know? If you knew, how would knowing affect your therapy? Amongst therapists there is divided opinion on this topic although everyone agrees that the therapy hour is the patient’s time;  it is not time to focus on anything that has happened or is happening in the therapist’s life.

The relationship between patient and therapist is unique in that it is a one-way relationship. It actually IS all about you. But sometimes it is nice to know that your therapist has had sleepless nights, been covered in vomit, and had dinner thrown on the floor. Or is it nice to know this? Here’s two very common responses: 1) “Phew, she understands. She has been there. It’s not just theory to her.” 2) “She probably thinks I am so weak and such a terrible parent. She probably has it all sorted.” (Then again, the popular myth is that therapists are all mad so perhaps no one thinks this?) So what do you think? Would you want to know personal (not intimate) information about your therapist? What issues/information would you like to know? How would it affect your working relationship with the therapist? How could it affect your therapy, for better or for worse?