7 Ways to Teach our Kids Resilience

image1We can’t change the fact that our children will face certain challenges in life, and we also can’t protect them from every little bump they’ll experience along the way (even though we might want to). With our increased sense of wanting to protect our young ones from life’s growing stressors, we are also seeing a spike in children who develop mental health issues such as generalized anxiety and depression.

(NOTE: This does not include the concerning rate of children being misdiagnosed at the first sign of ‘abnormal behavior’.. which, if you ask me, is a problem i itself and could use it’s own blog post …but later). I’m referring to how we are starting to see more and more children significantly struggling to cope when life doesn’t go their way.

Just like adults, children need an outlet to vent any frustration, anger or sadness (which often comes in the form of a lovely tantrum…. usually in the middle of a busy supermarket 😉  Of course, these are just part of the joys of parenthood, and take on various forms well into adolescence.  There’s nothing to worry about when your child ‘cracks it’ once in a while. But when significant reactions  immediately impact their lives, such as generalized anxiety, panic attacks, severe low self esteem, unrealistic expectations and in some cases even self-harming, it becomes hard to ignore.

Of course, as parents, we don’t want to create these ‘special snowflakes’ that feel like the world owes them and can’t handle negative feedback or hurdles that stand in their way. However, with the increasing urge to micro-manage children’s lives and to ‘protect’ them from common life challenges such as conflict, loss, rejection, failure and change; some parents unintentionally engineer such an outcome according to US clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel. 

She suggests that some parents coddle their children too much, which prevents them from learning from these experiences. “They need to learn from a shallow best friend, an uninspired teacher, or a bad situation. They need to learn these things without us interfering” (Mogel).

Kicking a young child out of the nest and letting them fend for themselves is not necessary, however, helping them build resilience will aid them in managing difficult situations later in life. Resilience is something they can learn and grow from as they develop a certain set of skills that help them tackle the ups and downs in life.

So instead of overprotecting them, or leaving them to fight their own battles, how do we find a balanced way to teach resiliency skills? Below are some suggestions taken from various research articles that have proven to be quite effective.

1. Let them struggle

While your help is much appreciated, it is equally important to let children feel frustrated, so they will attempt to find different solutions to the problem. This can range from your 4 year old’s irritation at her Lego blocks ,because she can’t find the piece that fits: to the university student who can’t handle living on their own because they’ve never had to manage any roadblocks in life before. Let your child find their own way to manage a difficult situation (even if you have the answer ready for them) and be there as their guide rather than doing the job for them. My mother once said ‘sometimes you need to watch your child fall down and scrape their knee so they learn to be more careful next time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be there to help you back up again’ which really stuck by me.

2. Challenge Negativity 

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that most of us, during our teens, have used the expression ‘this is ruining my life’ at least once. Children (and teenagers in particular) tend to amplify certain setbacks they experience, as they don’t fully understand yet what is happening to them or how to deal with it. Setbacks that might appear minor to us (such as a fight with a friend or missing out on joining a team) might feel like it’s the end of the world as they know it. It’s important not to feed into that and join the drama party, nor can we minimize or push aside what they are experiencing. Ask your child if this one event needs to effect the rest of their day/week/month. Problem solving starts with going through the options, help them take a step back and put things in perspective. Allow them to experience and feel the negativity whilst averting them from being completely swallowed up by it.

3. Take on the ‘big family mindset’ 

Today, the average family consists of one or two children and it’s affecting our parenting style, says columnist Julie Beun. In larger families, parents tend to be more of a facilitator than a micro-manager. The children get more of a chance to be independent problem solvers as they help raise their siblings, get themselves dressed in the morning and eat breakfast. In smaller families, the parents tend to ‘take care of everything’, and although this may make things run smoother, it doesn’t always work in our favor. We need to learn how to take a step back and let our children figure it out (no matter how frustrating it may be waiting around for them to zip up their jacket or put the shoe on the right foot… our time constraints should not get in the way of our child learning how to take care of the little things).

4. When at first they don’t succeed, get back up again 

Like the age old adult expression “sh*it happens” it’s ok to tell our children that mistakes happen (perhaps substitute the word “sh*t” for the time being though 😉  Hall says, we need to tell them it’s ok to make mistakes because it gives us a chance to learn from them. Together with our children, we can ask them what we learnt from our mistakes and how we would do things differently. With smaller children, an in-depth analytical approach might be a bit too much, but a simple “oops, I made a mistake, I will do this to fix it’ could work just fine in showing them how to cope with mistakes and set backs.

5. Confidence in their Competence 

A child’s confidence stems from their competence, and their competences are excelled by their confidence. Focusing on your child’s qualities as well as recognizing their mistakes and how they handled them are a great first step. Comparing them to others (siblings, peers, etc) might create unnecessary competition, rather than showing that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, the desire to protect our children might give them the (unintended) impression that we don’t think they have what it takes to tackle an issue head on, hence trying to empower them to make decisions of their own lets us be there as their guide rather than their carer. In saying that, it’s also important to not push our children to take on things they can’t realistically handle just yet.

6. Being part of a community 

Being resilient is also about knowing and understanding our place in the bigger scheme of things, and that not everything is always handed to us on a silver platter. Having our children do small chores can be a great example of developing this sense of being part of something bigger, being part of a team (and also shows that we often have to work to get things done). Children first learn their contribution counts by doing household chores (young children could feed the dog or put things in the trash , whereas older children can help clean a room or do laundry). It can help them with their problem solving and self regulation says Hall.

7. Teach them how to calm themselves 

When children get upset (especially younger children) it’s easy for a small upset to turn into a full blown epic tantrum. That’s because they don’t know how else to express their anger/sadness/frustration just yet. Reasoning with an upset, young child might not be as easy as trying to reason with an adult. Rather, teach them easy and realistic ways to calm themselves down first, before taking a closer look at what upset them. One of the more popular ways to calm ourselves down (in both children and adults alike) is taking a few deep breaths, breathing into our nose and out of our mouth. This can be easily taught to a small child and done together if they need you there to guide them. Another way to try and help a child bring themselves down from an upset is to count to twenty (or however high they can count) allowing them to shift focus to the task at hand instead of the stressor that upset them in the first place (they essentially break the cycle and engage their brain). Once they have managed to calm themselves down, they have now acquired a new skill that will also help them to reflect instead of react.

8. Discipline is about Teaching, not Controlling or Punishing

Sometimes, when I say we ‘discipline’ our children, people tend to jump to the conclusion that discipline means to control or punish them. I strongly disagree with that stereotype, as disciplining needs to be seen as teaching a child (which can be done without control or punishment). Using discipline to help your child understand that their actions result in certain consequences, could help them understand that they also have the ability to bounce back from a setback.
Dr. Ginsburg summarizes what we know for sure about the development in resilience in children, which is that our children need to know that there is an adult in their life (mother, father, stepparent, grandparent, you name it) who believes in them and loves them unconditionally.
Stress is a part of life, and an important tool in our survival. Resilience is the set of skills that develops a positive and proactive attitude towards stress, and helps us deal with stress, which greatly impact how it affects us. We can grow and encourage  resilience in our children by participating in their self development, role modeling resiliency and most importantly supporting them unconditionally. Being there for them, no matter what, gives them a solid foundation they can bounce back on when their worlds feels like it’s falling apart. Eventually, they will learn that they can create and grow such a foundation for themselves
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Suicidal Ideation: The Red Flags and How You Can Help

(Also published in ‘Bonjour France Magazine’ July, 2017)

PLEASE NOTE : **Although the author of this personal blog is a psychologist, this article is aimed to provide further information and is not the equivalent of therapeutic intervention. If you believe you or someone you know might be suffering from depression/suicidal thoughts, please contact your local suicide support line or a healthcare professional**

For every attempted suicide, there is thought to be one or more people where the thought of suicide is still very present but has never resulted into an actual attempt. With over a half a million people making a suicidal attempt each year, this translates into a huge problem that largely gets ignored.

Suicide or Suicidal thoughts are very complex. They are often a symptom of mental health concerns such as depression paired with life stressors that only exacerbate the idea of feeling hopeless, being lost or feeling like a burden.

Often people who attempt suicide don’t actually want to die, but see it as their only way out.  Sometimes, such attempts might be viewed as a ‘cry for attention’, but they can’t be ignored.  If you’re concerned about someone who might be suicidal or harbor these thoughts, it’s important to take them seriously.

One of the common misconception about suicide states that someone who is determined to end their life will do it one way or another; this is not true. More often than not, people who contemplate suicide give out warning signs (intentional or not) and you may be in a position to help them before they make a decision that can never be taken back.

Even if you see it as merely a ‘cry for attention’ , it is still a cry for help, regardless, and needs to be addressed.

The following signs are no sure indicators that someone will in fact attempt, but they are red flags to keep in mind and address:

Signs of Possible Red flags Concerning Suicidal Thoughts

1.Talking about suicide

One of the most obvious red flags). They might seriously conciser it or casually mention it’s on their minds, but listen. Sometimes (especially amongst teenagers) it could be seen as ‘getting attention’ or being ‘dramatic’. Regardless of our own prejudges or whether we things the person is just going through a bad spell, it’s important to take this seriously and listen to what they have to say.

2. Alcohol and drug abuse.

Often people who are suffering from depression or anxiety turn to alcohol or drugs as a temporary relief of some sorts. Although this might be a quick fix, more often than not substance abuse only escalates the depression/anxiety as the underlying reasons or not addressed. A band aid might stop the bleeding but eventually it peels off. The risk of suicidal thoughts turning into a more realistic action is greatly increased with substance abuse … someone who may not take that step sober, might find themselves with the ‘liquid courage’ or diminished reasoning to push themselves over the edge and take their own lives.

3. Withdrawal from others.

Another red flag is when someone decides to cut themselves off from their friends and family. They become withdrawn and don’t want to talk to anyone about it as they don’t feel it’s worth the effort. Although the withdrawal might again be a temporary fix, it only enhances their isolation and feeling that they are handling all of this on their own

4. Not seeing a future.

When someone says they can’t see a clear future, sometimes may indicate that they have lost all hope for what’s ahead… they might not find themselves strong enough or worthy enough to get out of this bad period they find themselves in. Again, just because someone doesn’t see a clear cut out future, doesn’t make them suicidal, but put together with some of the other signs we are mentioning here, it could also be a red flag

5.’Saying goodbye’

This isn’t always in a form of a letter or note that has come to be so largely associated with suicide. Sometimes people will make fleeting comments like ‘I won’t be around to bother anyone for much longer’, there’s just no way out of this or giving away personal possessions or getting their affairs in order … These may be indicators that they are contemplating life without them in it

6. They are no longer sad, they are numb, which somehow seems worse

Sometimes an eerie ‘calmness’ might come over someone who has made the decision to take their own life. When someone who is usually very social and outgoing suddenly becomes withdrawn and isolated , take note. When someone who is usually rational and careful, displays reckless behaviors. Take note. When someone seems to ‘not care anymore’ about anything. Take note. Perhaps they’re going through a rough time and suicide is not on their mind at all… but you won’t know that for sure until you listen and talk to them

What can I do to help?
You don’t need to be a mental health professional in order to be part of helping someone who is contemplating suicide. Of course professional help is highly recommended to support someone through the underlying issues that are causing them to feel like there are no other options. But before getting them to see a therapist, doctor, counsellor or any other health professional, here are a few things you could do to help them get there:
     1. Be prepared

Make sure you yourself are ready to hear the possible answer that they are indeed planning to end their own life. What actions would you take to help them and prevent them from making that choice. What are your own beliefs around the topic and how would you handle supporting them)

2. Be direct

You may not want to offend them (because we live in a society where we all step on eggshells around each other when it comes to certain topics) but be direct.  People who have such thoughts may not always know how to ask for help, and they might try and push people away as they try and process what’s going through their own minds.  Ask them if they are thinking of suicide… don’t be vague. If the answer is no, that doesn’t mean they don’t need help … Prevention is not only about stopping a planned attempt, but about helping someone before they even get to that place

3. Don’t panic and stay calm

Focus on asking questions and get as much information on what is happening in their life that got them to feel they have no way out. Panicking could only escalate the situation and add extra misery to an already chaotic mind. Tough love comments such as ‘the coward way out’, it’s selfish and idiotic can backfire as it will only reinforce their own thoughts of feeling useless and unworthy.  Stay calm and help them through this

4. What can I (not) say

As mentioned before, you don’t need to be a healthcare professional in order to help someone you know or care about, just being supportive and a listening ear can be a great start. However, be mindful about the following : a) don’t be judgmental or guilt-trip: they already feel pretty low about themselves b) saying things like ‘don’t worry, it will get better’ may be said with the best intentions, but it may also make them feel like you are minimizing what they are going through or feeling. What may seem trivial or ‘not as serious’ to you, may feel like the end of the world for them. Try and focus on giving examples of how they could work through this c) Everyone’s story is different so don’t tell them you know what they are going through (even if you had a similar experience). This isn’t about you, it’s about them and acknowledging that you hear it’s tough for them rather than claiming you already know what it’s like.

5. Most importantly, encourage them to seek professional help.

Be it a hotline, a general practitioner or a mental health professional. Show them that they have you there for support no matter what, but that speaking with someone could help them work on possible outcomes to work through this…. A network is stronger than one individual.

Responding in a Crisis Situation

When you feel someone’s suicidal thoughts might be putting them at immediate risk of harm, ask the following questions:

– Do they have a suicide plan

– Do they have the means to carry our their plan? (eg: pills, knives, guns, …)

– Do they know when they would do it?

– Do they intend to take their own life?

If a suicide attempt seems imminent, contact your emergency services or take them to the hospital. Remove all weapons, knives, medication or other potentially lethal object from their environment, and never, under any circumstances, leave a suicidal person alone.                                                                              (source: helpguide.org) 

At any one time, people may exhibit many of the warning signs mentioned above, without harboring suicidal thoughts. But a lower rate in a larger population is still a lot of people – and many completed suicides had only a few of the conditions listed above. In a one person to another person situation, all indications of suicidal ideation need to be taken seriously.

Remember, nothing is more terrifying than battling with your own mind every single day.

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Developing an Emotional Toolbox: How to help you and your child manage high emotions

From an early age, children understand the concept of a ‘toolbox’ and that it contains a variety of tools that are there to repair a machine or help fix a household problem. The idea of an ‘Emotional Toolbox’ (developed by Tony Attwood, PhD) is to develop different types of ‘tools’ that will help with the struggles associated with negative emotions (for example: anxiety, anger, depression, etc).  Over the many years working as a child psychologist, I have found it to be extremely helpful for just about anyone (not just young children) struggling with managing their emotions…

The initial idea of the Emotional Toolbox was linked to successful strategies in the treatment of anxiety and anger in children with Asperger’s syndrome (Sofronoff et al 2005/2007). Like any household toolbox, the tools are divided into different categories : physical, relaxation, thinking, social, special and inappropriate tools. Each category has tools that quickly and effectively reduce emotional energy, and promote thinking.

As a therapist,  I work with children/adults and their family, to develop personalized tools that can help manage their negative emotions, as well as look at some ‘inappropriate’ tools that, for them, possibly makes the emotions worse.

Today, I would like to share with you the basic template of developing an emotional toolbox together with your child. (*PLEASE NOTE: This is just a template to help you get started at home and not equivalent to a therapeutic session. Any ongoing concerns you may have for your child should be followed up through professional psychological intervention)

With your child, set some time aside where you can uninterruptedly brainstorm and work together on creating their own set of tools and activities that can help them manage their negative emotions when they feel overwhelmed. Below you can find the different categories and a brief explanation, as well as a sample template, to get you started…

Physical Tools

This category represents tools or actions that release emotional energy through a physical activity. Choose a ‘logo’ that symbolized physical activity for them (for example, sneakers, a soccer ball, etc). Then, with your child, discuss which physical actions could help them ‘release’ their excess energy at the time and when this tool could be best implemented (remember, playing soccer might be a very helpful tool to calm them down, but will not be useful at night just before bedtime).

Relaxation Tools

Just as it sounds, relaxation tools are there to help them calm their body and mind through mediation-related actions. This can include reading a book, taking some time-out and listening to music, and the most effective form of relaxation…breathing techniques. Breathing techniques can be practiced together for your child to understand how they work and the benefits as they feel their heart rate slow down and their body relax. Again, choose a logo that will help them identify with this type of tool (for example, a flower, the sun, a book, etc)

Social Tools

Social tools include the involvement of your child’s support network. That can be their immediate family, school staff, friends etc. The social tool requires them to enlist someone from their support network to help them manage a stressor, this can include asking mom for a hug, talking to their teacher about a problem at school, or asking a friend to play or sit with them. A logo I found useful is the outline of their hand (where each finger signifies a person in their support network).

Thinking Tools

Thinking tools focus on helping them understand and rationalize their behavior when dealing with negative emotions. Have them write down what is happening at the time, using three columns: 1. What am I feeling 2. What was I doing before I started feeling this way 3. Which tool can I use to help me work through this feeling until I feel better? Some children respond well to having their very own notebook (which can be decorated as they see fit) to help them take notes and track their progress.

Special Tools

Some children might have a special interest that takes up a lot of their time, or a special toy (for younger children). This can be placed in any of the above categories, however, some children like to have an ‘extra’ tool for the things they hold ‘extra’ dear.

Inappropriate Tools

It is also important to identify the tools they use that have proven to be unsuccessful and aggravate the situation (for example, hitting someone, breaking property, hurting themselves etc). Once you have, together, established these tools, write them down in their toolbox and draw a big red line through them. This helps your child understand that these tools are not helpful and puts focus on the other, more useful, tools around that they have created for themselves.

Important Notes:

  • Help your child understand that they have developed a variety of tools to deal with different situation and locations, and it is up to them to choose a tool that works best at the time.
  • Mastering their toolbox effectively will take time and practice. Just like learning any new skill, the more they practice and evaluate their progress (with your help), the easier managing their emotions will become overtime…but this does not happen overnight !!
  • Allow room for error.. just like adults, they are bound to slip up once in a while. Take the opportunity to reflect and evaluate and look at how it could be done better next time ..
  • Managing negative emotions does not mean suppressing negative emotions. Your child needs to know they are absolutely allowed to feel these feelings and find helpful ways to work through them rather than ignore them and act out.
  • Sometimes, some tools might need some tweaking or new tools are developed as their needs and interests change and grow constantly.

I hope this template helps you get started….. Once you have created the Emotional Toolbox (this can be a piece of paper, an index card etc) it is useful to display it somewhere your child can easily access it (for example, the fridge door). Whenever they feel overwhelmed, help draw their attention to the toolbox and together discuss which tool would work best for them at the time… (depending on your child’s emotional management outside the home, sometimes having a replica of their toolbox at school/nanny/etc can help them practice further).

As mentioned earlier, any significant, ongoing concerns you may have are always best followed up through professional intervention..

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“Ahma-nomnomnom”: 10 confessions of an Emotional Eater and Tips to address it

I used to be one of those skinny kids that would have the metabolism of an oil rig and energy levels that still has my mother smirking when I recognize them in my now super-duper-active-run-here-and-there-one-year-old.  This little hyper, skinny heaven continued into my twenties as I happily enjoyed beer fueled nights and the hangover junk food that followed.

However, after years of enjoying the emotional roller coaster that is living away from family and friends, being introduced to the trials and tribulations of mommy-hood, and all the other daily challenges we all face… it seemed my weight was coming along for the ride.  My eating habits were reflected by my moods, and my moods in turn were scattered due to my eating habits (a pretty little loop which has been yo-yo-ing my weight continuously over the years).

I know it takes time, patience and a lot of hard work (oh yay), but like a lot of unhealthy habits, recognizing the stressors is the first step to setting up your new goals and finding ways to initially manage the cause of why you want to eating rather than the eating itself.

10 Signs you might just be an emotional eater:

1) You eat when you’re emotional…. yep. that was my first clue.

2) There are days when you will feel like a bottomless pit and will eat literally everything in your fridge (including a handful of grated Parmesan cheese and a half cut-up pineapple).

3) When you receive bad news or suddenly becomes stressed, you’re surprised that the first thought  in your heads is wondering what the roast chicken in your fridge might taste like on some rye with mayo. Food becomes somewhat of an obsession.

4) You wake up feeling great, as you confidently strut your stuff (often naked… but at home.. stay reasonable) only to find yourself sobbing in the corner of your closet clutching your skinny jeans a mere few hours later. You have a very turbulent relationship with your own body and if you were friends on facebook it would state ‘It’s complicated’.

5) You get excited about any fad product that will help you tone up without giving up yummy food (says the person typing this post whilst her abs gets electronically zapped by her ‘Abtronix X2’).  Note: Never watch daytime infomercials … just .. never.

6) You tend to eat when you’re bored even when you’re not hungry. You desire to eat tends to take on it’s own form and you find it hard to stop yourself (you even overeat).

7) Often you think you’re hungry, but you don’t necessarily want to eat just anything, but rather you prefer to eat one particular thing. This is a craving and not hunger (which can be brought on my emotions/stress)…. I have cheeseburgers flying around in my head all the live-long-day when I’m not feeling too hot.

8) You often don’t want people to know what you are really eating or feel guilty for eating. When you hide your food it perpetuates your belief that there’s something wrong with you. This often relates to the love/hate relationships with your body mentioned before.

9) Instead of seeing food as what it is (something you consume for survival), you turn it into something else. You become attached to it, give it emotions, and personify it. I’m not going around calling my bag of chips ‘George’ or anything, but a lot more focus is placed on the food and how it makes you feel rather than what it is supposed to do (fuel you).

10) Just like food is there to comfort you in need and bad times, you also see food as a reward or treat during good times. Emotional eating involved all emotions, the good and the bad.

Tips on breaking down some of the first bricks of the emotional eating wall

1) Don’t kick yourself every time you overeat. Making yourself feel guilty will only add to your stress and .. you guessed it… cause more emotional eating. When you’ve fallen off the wagon, try and recognize the stressors that lead to the eating and how you could avoid them or manage them differently next time.

2) Take a break before giving into the urge to eat. If you challenge yourself to hold off on grabbing that stick of cheese for 15 minutes might give you a sense of control. Sure, you might eat it anyway, but you held off for 15 minutes which was better than last time.

3) I’m no advocate for self-torture or anything, but sometimes wearing a rubber band around your wrist, and flicking it whenever you reach for the fridge, can help you become more mindful of your behavior and can help you intervene by assessing what’s going for you at that moment. (Helps with breaking any habit really).

4) Replace your emotional eating with a ‘quick fix’ that will keep your mind off it and place focus on something else. You can write down a list of things you enjoy as a quick fix (e.g.: making a cup of tea, quick breathing exercise etc).

5) Practice makes perfect!! Keep practicing the tools you’ve set up to help with you emotional eating, and even with a few failures and bumps along the way, you will become more aware and in control of your own eating habits.

My name is Stefanie and I’m an emotional eater… (*burp*)

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