Sunday, December 16, 2012

How to talk to your children about tragedy

I have had a few questions from parents about how to tell their child about the school shooting on Friday.  Here are the few tips that I gave them.

  • Be honest - If you tell them something is not true or they hear the truth from someone else, they can second guess all the other things that you told them. 

  • Use kid language - Share it in a way that makes it simple to understand.  For example, "A man who was upset hurt many teachers and children today.  He is no longer able to hurt others, so you and I are safe."

  • Share how it makes you feel and validate their feelings. - You can share if you are sad, and that many people all over the country and world are sad because of what happened.  If they feel sad or scared, that is ok.

  • Do not pay too much attention to the media or images on the TV. - The stories on TV, Internet, or the paper are not meant for kids and can cause more harm than good.

  • Help them come up with a way to help if they express a desire to. - They might want to draw a picture to send to one of the families, or maybe find a way to donate a stuffed animal.  They could mail a card, or light a prayer candle.  These types of things help a child feel included in not only the grieving process, but also the healing process. 

So now what? (my response to Friday's shooting)

On Friday, I was sitting in my car while my toddler napped in his car seat.  I opened up Facebook and started to cry, and then weep as I read the tragic story. We had a doctor's appointment to go in to in 10 minutes, and I knew I had to pull myself together, but I couldn't. I wept for the innocent children, the teachers, the parents, the families and town involved, the officers and medical staff, and also for the shooter and his family. I stared at my child in the back seat and wept for him. Before long, I realized that what I was truly grieving was the sadness of our culture. The culture that I am a part of, that my son is growing up in. There is darkness and fear in this world that breaks my heart.

I have worked in mental health for over 10 years. I have two undergraduate degrees, a masters in counseling and in family therapy, and a specialization in play thearpy, but even with this training I struggle to understand this tragedy. I spent over five years working at an inpatient facility for children and teens. I worked hands on with some of the most emotionally disturbed teens in my area. While working there, I did not see the child as the problem, as something to be gotten rid of. I grew a heart for these children and saw their pain, their own personal darkness. I learned that there is no "understanding" or "making sense" of it, even as their therapist. I learned that my job was to come alongside them and be there. These teenagers were hurting, they were angry, they felt alone and isolated. The thing I could give them, that their world (whether that be our culture, society, their family, etc.) had not, was connection. They needed to experience what it felt like to have someone care, to be accepted, and what it was like to care for someone else. They needed hope that they too could connect in this world.

Many of these teens have shared desires to harm others and themselves.  For them, this desire was not because they were evil or full of hate.  Instead, it was from trauma, pain, sadness, isolation, hurt, abuse, being bullied, or being forgotten.  There are plenty of ways they can accomplish whatever pain they plan on sharing with the world. I, for one, do not want the responsibility of babysitter and making sure that all sharp objects are locked away. I would rather spend my energy dealing with the root cause of their pain in the first place.

I would love to fix our entire culture, but I am just one. So my time and energy is spent healing and helping those that come across my path in pain.  I am an advocate for relationship.  Each one of these hurting teens needed someone to join in relationship with them.  To listen to them.  To accept them.  And to be there for them.  I am not going to say it is easy.  Being in a relationship with someone who is angry, hateful, or depressed is one of the most tiring things you can do.  To do it well will take most, if not all, of your energy.  When I look around this time of year I see so many wonderful people giving and donating to children, charities, and families.  I am encouraged by all of the posts on Pinterest or Facebook about ideas on how to give back.  However, I can't help but feel like that is the easy way out.  I'm not saying those things aren't good, or not important.  What I'm saying is that again, it is an easy fix.  What would happen if instead of dropping a toy off in the angel tree bin, your family built a relationship with the family down the street who was in need?  What if we took the time to play with the children who do not have anyone to play with rather than handing them a new toy? 

Our society is so self invested, and all about me.  We are raised to "look out for number one" and to "just worry about yourself," but what would happen if we turned our eyes to those hurting, those that are in need, even when it was inconvenient.  Even when it meant taking a risk.  I can't help but wonder what this would do to our world.  How much of the darkness would be overcome with joy and love.  I know there will always be good and evil, but I wish that rather than trying to hide the "evil" in jails or mental health hospitals, that we were investing and connecting them with the good on a relationship level.

Let's be more of an investor in others than in ourselves and see the radical change that occurs.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

"It's not fair" - Sibling Rivalry

What You Can do about Sibling Conflict

 It didn’t take long for my child to notice the other kids at the park had a brother or sister to play with and realize that he was alone.  I would catch myself thinking about how much better it would be if he had a sibling to be his buddy.  Yet, I know firsthand that siblings tend to have a love-hate relationship.  They might play well one minute, and then be at each other’s throat the next.  As a parent, I want my children to love each other and get along.  Not only does that make a more peaceful home, it helps them to build positive relationships with each other and others. 

 Unfortunately, there is no instruction manual given to you when you leave the hospital after you have your first born. And there will be no manual created by the time you have your second, third, forth, or even tenth.  There can be no miracle book or set of instructions because each child is so incredibly unique, how could anyone try to tell a parent that they should each be parented the same. But, these wonderful differences in our children mean arguing, competition, bickering, confusion, and often frustration. 

 Here are seven tips that can help you enjoy the individuality of each child, while cultivating positive sibling relationships.

1)      Remember that life’s not fair.  This is the famous “F” word in my life.  It has a major tendency to get under my skin.  How many times have you heard, "why does he get to stay up late and I have to go to bed?" Or, "why does he get the bigger piece of pizza?" I could go on and on. Kids are natural born score keepers and struggle with the concept of fairness. However, what is equal and right, is not always the same as fair.  Remember that each child is unique and needs unique parenting. Use these times of argued fairness to explain how you embrace the individuality of each child and how you work to meet each of their needs.  A simple tip for food sharing; have one child cut the pieces and the other one distribute them.  This makes them work hard to keep it even and they work together.

2)      Make sure each child has their own individual space.  This will vary depending on the child, again part of that uniqueness.  Some children need to feel like they have control over a lot of space, like an entire bedroom, while others are ok with having a special chair or corner.  Whatever your children need, listen to them, and try to accommodate.  This space gives them a place to go to when things get to be too much, or when they want alone time. 

3)      Give each child one-on-one time.  I know this is something that is said about almost everything, “if you only spent more time with them, then they wouldn’t __(fill in the blank)__.”  Well, truthfully, it works for resolving sibling conflicts.  Think about how many of the sibling arguments or fights are from a child wanting your attention.  If we give them the attention on the forefront, this can prevent the need for them to act out to receive our attention.  I know life is hectic and schedules are busy, especially with multiple children, but 15-30 minutes for each child during the week or every other week can be doable.  And it can be cheap.  Maybe take a walk, paint fingernails, play a card game, cook dinner together, or even do chores together.  As long as it is special “mom and joey time,” and that child gets your attention, it can be fulfilling for them.

4)      Take out any competition.  This sets up a rivalry between the children and puts a thorn in the relationship.  Rather than having them compete against each other, give them a mutual goal to try and achieve together.  For example, don’t see who can clean their room the best.  Have them race the clock to see if they can both work to get the rooms clean together before time runs out.  The more achievements they have between them, the stronger their relationship.  Instead of comparing who has the better grades, or who is the better athlete, allow praise and excitement for each of their achievements.

5)      Set up coaching opportunities.  By this I mean, give them things to teach each other.  Going back to each child being an individual, there are going to be things that they naturally do well.  Have them teach the other one about this.  This will build one child’s confidence, educate the other, and increase the communication abilities for both of them.  For example, an older sibling could teach a younger one how to tie their shoes.  A younger sibling could teach an older one a song they learned.

6)      Help them work out their problems on their own.  Be there to guide them and moderate when needed, but let them choose who gets to watch what tv show and when, or what they think would be fair for sharing the computer.  And just think how much time you will save if they can work things out without you.

7)      Sometimes all you have to do is listen.  Kids need to feel heard, and they will do some pretty crazy things to get our attention.  Try stating what you are hearing them tell you or show you.  For example, “I hear you telling me that you are very angry with your brother because he broke your toy.”  Just being there for them to vent to or express something to is sometimes all they need. 

Some easy things to do over the holiday season to build on the sibling relationship:

-          Have a sibling gift exchange.  These could by handmade or store bought, but the idea is that they had to think about what their sibling would like and appreciate.  This has them stop thinking about themselves, and think about others.

-          Have “caught ya” jars or sticker charts for each child.  Tell each child they can put marbles (or whatever you choose) in a jar each time they catch one of their siblings doing something good.  Again, this will focus on the positive choices and build those up.  Once any of the jars reach a set point, all the kids can have a sibling outing or special treat.  Remember to keep out the competition, which is why you reward all the siblings when any of the jars are full.

-          Have them set their own New Year’s Resolutions for their sibling relationships.

-          Encourage a fun sibling tradition, like decorating cookies, writing Santa letters, donating toys, or making presents for grandparents. 

Keep in mind that not all sibling conflict is bad.  The relationship that we have with our siblings helps prepare us for the outside world.  We learn how to stand our ground, how to compromise, how to share, and how to be a friend. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

FYI's for Parents

There are a handful of things that I like to tell parents before we begin the counseling process.

1.) Please take your child to the bathroom before the session starts. This way their session is not interrupted with a potty break. This is pretty simple, and makes a big difference.

2.) I do not require that the children clean up the playroom when the session is finished. This is because a child has just used the toys and play space to share and tell me things. I do not want them to have to put all that away, or back inside them. I can help distinguish for them that the playroom is different than their toys at home if you would like.

3.) Please call or email me with updates from between sessions rather than telling me in front of your child. Often times, parents use the first 10 minutes of the session telling me all the negative things their child did during the week. Then, the child feels less motivated to play and has the perception that they are now in trouble. Counseling should never be a punishment. However, I do like to stay informed and up to date, so a phone call prior to the session works great.

4.) Please continue to be the parent even when I am around. It is better for your child if you continue to discipline and interact with them the same way you do at home. These behaviors are helpful for me to see and they also keep me in the role of therapist, and out of the role of parent.

5.) Be advised that counseling has ups and downs. We will have good weeks where we see improvement, and we are guaranteed to have set backs. It has been shown that children get worse before they make lasting, positive change. It seems to be their last attempt to resist and rebel. Try not to let this scare you that counseling isn't working.

6.) The more involved and active you are in the counseling process, the quicker it will be. Your child will take note of your seriousness.

7.) Please do not ask your child if they did a good job during the session. This communicates that they could have done a bad job. In the playroom, there is no good or bad job. There is only unconditional acceptance for you child. Instead, you can say something like, "when we get to the car you can choose to share with me about your play time if you want, but you don't have to." Please don't pressure your child to tell you about their play. They often don't know how to put it into words. I will always let you know if I have concerns and you can always ask me if you have any. I will do my best to communicate to you about your child's play, while also maintaining their trust and confidentiality.

8.) It is important to continue counseling until the graduation sessions. Even if your child is doing much better, they need this sense of closure to maintain their progress.

9.) It is also important to do the homework assignments I may give you. Your child is only with me for an hour, so the real progress can be made when you work with them at home. I will always try to help you with whatever homework so you feel confident and able. During the entire counseling process we are a team, and I am here to help your child and you.

10.) Be ready to play!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Divorce Contract Your Child Wants You to Sign

Almost every child that experiences the divorce of their parents struggles with their emotions and feelings.  Each member of the family has to fill a new role and navigate new things.  This is a document to be used for each parent as a contract with their child on what they will and will not do.  I think that it addresses the main things I hear from my clients that they wish would happen.  Hopefully, this will help your family to have an understanding or boundaries and healthy behaviors.

Monday, September 24, 2012

15 Minutes A Day

When I watch TV, I always see exercise DVDs or cooking shows advertising the wonderful things you can do in 15 minutes. I wish someone would create a segment about the wonderful things you can do for your child and family in 15 minutes!

The benefits of giving your child, each one if you have multiple, undivided attention for at least 15 minutes a day:
1.) you reconnect with them
2.) they get the opportunity to reconnect with you
3.) opens up communication
4.) creates a feeling of value and importance in the child
5.) increases their feeling of self-worth
6.) can stimulate growth in the parts of their brain that work on building lasting relationships
7.) gives you insight into your child

Surely, if we can spend 30-45 minutes getting ready in the morning and another 30 checking Facebook/Twitter in the evening, I can find 15 minutes to be with my child.

There is a catch though. These 15 minutes have to be uninterrupted. No phone calls, no other siblings, no focusing on what you are cooking for dinner. It is all about the child. This might sound easy, but think about your typical day and how often you give something or someone your entire attention for 15 probably doesn't happen that often. That is our culture. We multitask. Successful parents do not multitask their children.

Ideas on how to spend those 15 minutes:
For toddlers and pre-school, play. Yes, it is that simple. Get down on their level, turn your phone off, and get messy. You could teach them one of your favorite games growing up or engage in one of theirs.
For school age, tweens, and teens, let them guide you in what would be fun for them. Maybe it is a Sonic run for slushies just the two of you. Maybe it is sitting on their bed talking about their day. Let them be the leader, but you be the initiator.

Another catch (yes, there is another) is that this time can not turn into teaching, disciplining, or correcting time. If it does then the 15 minutes does not count. These 15 minutes are relationship building, connecting, and "bucket filling" minutes.

Try it out and see if you notice a difference.  I am willing to bet that you will see your child differently and will have fewer negative interactions with them throughout the day.

"Connection before correction."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Crucial Cs

This is material that I learned in a training from KC Play Therapy Institute. It is adapted from Terry Kottman, Ph. D., RPT-S, NCC, LMHC

I give this handout to almost every parent and teacher I work with. I find it is often a "game changer" for how they work with a child.

In order to SURVIVE and FLOURISH, children must master each of the Crucial Cs.

COURAGE - children need courage - the willingness to face life's tasks and take risks even when they do not know if they can succeed. Children with courage feel hopeful. They are willing to take risks and believe they can handle challenging situations. They are resilient.

Children who do not have courage feel inferior to others and inadequate. They do not take risks and tend to give up without trying. They frequently avoid challenges.

CONNECT - children need to connect with others. Those who do connect with others, feel secure, are able to cooperate, and can reach out and make friends. They believe they belong.

Children who do not have the skills necessary to connect will feel isolated and insecure. They make seek attention (usually negative, self-distructive ways) in order to feel that they have a place in the group or family.

CAPABLE - children need to feel that they are are competent and capable of caring for themselves. Those who do feel capable, have a sense of competence, self-control, and self-discipline. They are self-reliant and assume responsibility for themselves and for their behavior. They believe they can do whatever they set their minds to doing.

Children, who do not feel capable, frequently feel inadequate and frequently try to control others or let others know that they cannot be controlled. They frequently become dependent on others or seek to overpower others.

COUNT - children need to feel they are significant - that they count. Those who feel that they count believe that they make a difference in the world and that they can contribute in some way to others around them. They feel valuable and valued, and they believe that they matter.

Children who do not feel as though they count feel insignificant. This belief is painful to them, and they may; react to their feelings of hurt by trying to hurt others. Many children who feel that they don't count develop poor self-esteem and may give up, try to intimidate others, or overcompensate by acting superior. Other children feel that they count only "if" - their sense of significance is conditional.
So, where is your child's weak point?  When they act out, is it to prove that they count or trying to connect?  If you can find these areas of need, then you can be intentional to build them up and help them to see themselves having all 4 of the Crucial Cs. 


108 E Central Ave.
(On the square, above Table Mesa)
Bentonville, AR 72712

About Me

Licensed Associate Counselor, Licensed Assoicate Marriage and Family Therapist, Registered Play Therapist