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A Letter of Support to Parents

Dear parents,

  I am writing as a support to you now.  You are doing the best that you can, while experiencing debilitating uncertainty, moments of hopelessness, and emotional exhaustion.  You know that your children need more, but it doesn’t feel like you have the energy or the capacity to take on one more thing.  It might be that maintaining a schedule, trying to decrease screen time, and keeping the house stocked with food is barely manageable now.  I get it.  Those are incredible achievements.

  Thinking about their emotional health now days is so tied to their physical health.  It takes hours and days, going back and forth with the information given, to decide what we should do.  In the meantime, our children are anxious, angry, pushing back on everything, and it feels like maybe we have lost that relationship too.  We have already lost so much.  It’s painful to think about the long term effect of being the parent who has to make hard decisions, who has to enforce boundaries that could be a matter of life or death, and who ultimately could be blamed by our children for all of the things they have lost.  You know that you are doing the best that you can, but it’s hard to be a parent right now. 

  The pandemic and changing landscape of our world has increased most people’s level of anxiety.  People who have never struggled with mental health challenges are feeling low levels of depression.  These all result from having little control over our own lives, feeling the threat of exposure to a life changing or life ending illness, and no end in sight.  How can we continue this way?

  I want you to know that I do see you trying your best and you are not alone.  As daunting as things can feel some days, it’s possible to get through this without long term mental health problems.  Many professionals are talking about resilience.  How can parents be resilient so that they can support the resilience of their children?  The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University encourages us to see resilience as a “see saw or balancing scale.”  On one side of the scale is the negative outcomes and on the other is the positive.  If you can give yourself the space to see that you have not lost all control of your life, you might be able to create a balance scale that tips to the positive and then help your children to self-regulate, feel safe and happy, and manage uncertainty and loss. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/how-to-help-families-and-staff-build-resilience-during-the-covid-19-outbreak/

  Thinking about the article, do you have a way to build, re-establish, or support your responsive relationships?  Even though you are being safe, you don’t have to be entirely isolated.  Do you have resources that can take a load off of your brain just hanging around your house?  Are there benefits in your community that you could access to help you and your family?  I know these things take energy and it might take some time to get them up on your scale but finding a starting place can sometimes be the hardest part and now you have one. 

  Now that you can think about where to begin, you can also think about how to help your children.  They will respond to your balancing scale as it shifts up and down.  They have their own see saw too.  If it seems like additional support is needed, I am here for you as well.  Please don’t hesitate to call if it just feels like you are stuck and don’t know what to do to help your children.  I know that we have all heard the encouragement and slogans, but I truly believe you can make it through this, and I understand you are overwhelmed and unsure.  The world is shifting, and we are all trying to find ground to stand on.  I wish you all the best.

Take care,

April Galligan, LCSW, IMH-E®

www.upliftmechildtherapy.com

Why Am I Having So Many Power Struggles with My Child Right Now?

If your family is anything like mine, you have seen an increase in power struggles with your kids.  These struggles seem to go on all day long about everything.  Please brush your teeth… “no.”  Please eat your lunch… “not gonna happen.”  Please play all day in your p.j’s while eating chocolate and ice cream… “I don’t want to.”  Wait, what?  Are you just saying no to say no?

It certainly feels that way.

With the perilous situation of the pandemic we are living day after day with very little control or say in how our lives look.  We are constantly provided information about death, dying, disease, with little sprinkles of hope and the expectation that we continue life with some structure and normalcy.

This means, as parents, we just don’t have a lot to offer our kids in the form of something to look forward to, something to be happy about, or a light at the end of the tunnel.  Even thinking about going back to school is so complex and wrought with danger and anxiety.  I think about my child spending hours a day with a teacher who is terrified of getting sick, who feels like they are being sacrificed, who is anxious, angry, and preoccupied and I think maybe this isn’t something to look forward to.  Will there just be more power struggles?

Just like us, children have lost a lot of choices and they are responding by refusing.  It’s clear that we might all be grasping for something to control.  Moods are shifting rapidly.

Photo by Retha Ferguson on Pexels.com

So, what happens when we feel like we’ve lost control?  Often, we try to find control in any area that it might present itself, maybe by increasing the amount of exercise we’re getting, monitoring our diets or our budgets, cleaning the house, rearranging furniture, or buying new stuff.  I’m sure, if you thought about it, you could come up with a list of ways you’ve tried to feel better by controlling something you could control.  Let’s do that now.  How have you tried to regain a feeling of control?

Losing control feels scary.  It’s unpredictable.  It means we have to constantly be ready to react or respond to keep ourselves physically and emotionally safe because we don’t know what’s coming.  This is called hypervigilance and it is exhausting.  Have you noticed a feeling of exhaustion just in trying to maintain your household?  You certainly aren’t alone.  

I think we can recognize that these power struggles are inevitable – they will happen in small ways and in big ways.  They are probably a reflection of how your child is feeling.  Small power struggles might just give your child a sense of control, they are choosing to follow the routine not agreeing with you that they have to.  But the big power struggles, those might be more about wanting to feel safe, to feel hope.  They could be an outlet to find a reason to cry or yell and feel the anger, sadness, and frustration that comes with day to day living right now.

Coupled with the fact that children already have less control of their lives than adults and are experiencing hypervigilance and exhaustion, how do we help them have a sense of control? 

Thinking about other ways to allow your child to have a feeling of control can be helpful.  Since we are the adults we can try and guide healthier ways of feeling that sense of control.  We can even have a conversation about how having a choice and some control makes us feel better when things are unfair and unpredictable.  Just like you might have found ways to feel in control at times, what could your child do?    

Here are a few suggestions.  There are so many once you get started brainstorming and your child probably already does some things on their own (feel free to add them to the comments).  

Photo by Rudolf Jakkel on Pexels.com

You can –

  1. Set times when your child/children can choose what movie or show to watch
  2. Allow them to have choices about what is for dinner and let them help
  3. Take care of an animal
  4. If you are one of those people who use cleaning to feel some control, offer this experience to your child.  If it’s not a chore but is explained more as an activity that helps you feel better, they might be interested in trying some cleaning or organizing themselves as long as it’s their choice.
  5. Creativity!  Can they create something with boxes, paint, clay, food, pinecones, sticks…?
  6. Find bugs, catch them or rescue them
  7. Games – they can choose the game.  Think of games where it takes strategy and they can visually see their decisions and results (Connect Four, Risk, Checkers, Don’t Break the Ice, Jenga)
  8. Puzzles
  9. Music, let them create or play music that helps them feel better.  If they’re older encourage them to talk about their music.
  10. Blocks, build a tower and then make it crash
  11. Dress-up or trying on clothes
  12. If they play a sport, practicing that sport
  13. Build a fort
  14. Books/reading – choose your own adventure!
  15. Plan their ideal vacation or share what they want to do “after the virus”
  16. Make a volcano

I know it’s frustrating to have to be in this situation with your child or children.  Most parents don’t enjoy power struggles or the way it feels to be at constant odds with one another.  Sometimes just stepping away and refusing to engage in the struggle can bring the emotion to the forefront.  The most important thing is to allow the feelings to exist and to provide the empathy that we all need a way to have some sense of control right now.

Written by April Galligan, LCSW, IMH-E®

UpliftMEchildtherapy.com

My child has experienced something awful in their young life – how do I know if it is affecting them?

People tell me all of the time that their young child or baby doesn’t remember … their painful medical interventions, a car accident, the death or loss of a loved one, the verbal or physical fighting between parents/caregivers or witnessed violence.  Even though it makes the conversation uncomfortable, I always have to tell them that their child probably does remember.  It’s really common for adults to believe that children who do not speak, cannot remember.  This is probably because their ability to form verbal memory has not developed and they will not speak about the event(s).  They will, however, act it out in a lot of different ways.

So, what are common things to look for in my young child, if they have been affected?

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

They might experience trouble with bodily functions.

  • Does your child struggle with sleep?  This might include difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.  It might also include nightmares or night terrors.  
  • Have you noticed continued challenges with feeding or eating – hoarding food, holding food in the mouth for long periods of time, binge eating, refusing to eat?
  • Are you or have you experienced prolonged challenges with potty training or regular bathroom use?

Children who have experienced scary events might

also show delays in their development.  

  • Has your child struggled with crawling or walking, running into things or frequently getting hurt?
  • Have people mentioned that it’s difficult to understand your child, even if you feel like you can understand them just fine?
  • Does your child cling to you instead of playing with other children (even after having some time to feel comfortable)?  Do they struggle more than typical in play with others?  Are teachers or caregivers concerned about their behavior?  Are you concerned?

They express noticeable challenges with their emotions.

  • Do they cry more than seems normal?  Are they hard to comfort (refuse hugs, throw things at you, hurt themselves or things they care about)?
  • When they do have a temper tantrum does it seem like it lasts longer or is more intense than other kids their age?  They might really struggle with calming themselves down.
  • Have you noticed they are usually angry or easily irritated?  Or are they often very sad, really shy, or super worried about things all of the time?
  • Maybe they seem really distant or are hard to connect with?  You are trying to play with them, but they turn away or they make the play really difficult to follow and get upset easily.

You notice interesting play or body reactions.

  • Kids will use play to express what their bodies are feeling.  Since the memories are not verbal, they live in your child’s body as physical reminders of what happened.  Play could include aspects of the scary event and how it made their body feel.  This might include increased hyperactivity that cannot be explained.  It might also look like spacing out/tuning out during play or sudden mood changes in play.
  • You might also notice changes in your child or their body when you drive past the place of the accident or visit a medical office, when they hear raised voices, or when they approach the time of year when the event occurred (this is especially true if it happened near a holiday where there are a lot of sensory experiences – smells, sights, sounds).
Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas on Pexels.com

  

I know that it is easy to look at our young children and see the behavioral challenges, hoping for a solution in a book or on a blog.  Sometimes our young children have experienced something that impacted the way their bodies respond to us and to the environment.  They are not fully in control of how they are responding, and we cannot hope that enough discipline, sticker charts, or talking to’s will change that.  

  I also know, that being a parent to a young child who experienced something scary or painful, means that you probably also experienced the event.  You feel the pain, the fear, the trauma too.  There are things that are hard to remember and painful to feel, even today.  The thought that your child might feel these things too can be overwhelming.  It’s easy to get stuck here.  But there is treatment available.  Mental health therapy for young children who have experienced scary things can be helpful when we work with the parent and child together to help resolve the way they are responding and the way that they are feeling.  Consider contacting a mental health specialist who is trained in early childhood mental health and trauma for the support and treatment needed. 

Written by April Galligan, LCSW, IMH-E®

UpliftME Attachment-Based Therapy

How Young Children are Responding to Stay-At-Home Directives and Why

Right now we are all stuck in our homes.  Families are stuck together, at the mercy of each and every high and low.  We face tremendous grief, loss, and trauma – all of us.  And, one of the hardest parts of this is the adult desire to control what their children are experiencing.  I have heard things such as we “don’t want to ruin their innocence,” “they are fine because they’re getting everything they need,” or “they’re too young for this to matter.”  There is also the constant conversation around maintaining previous schedules and activities, to the point of absolute panic.  Adults seem to want their children to continue on with regular schedules and activities as though nothing has changed.  In our defense, as adults, a lot of our employers want the same things from us.  Keep working, keep providing, focus on what needs to be done.  Go on without acknowledging what it means emotionally to lose physical contact with the world outside of your home, or to see, live, and hear unbelievable and consistent stories of death and insufficient protection.  Maybe it feels like if we let it in (the pain, the anxiety, the sadness), it will eat us alive.  There will be no way out, and so we try to keep ourselves and our children from getting too close.

But in truth our children have lost so much, often without the understanding of why.  We could try to maintain their innocence, but the fact is they are living through a once in a hundred years pandemic and we can’t change that.  As much as we try to carry on with things that are interesting and important, constantly redirecting them from the meltdown that is popping it’s head out, they know.  They know they have lost their friends.  They know they’ve lost the field trips, field days, and birthday parties that were promised.  They do not have the predictability of childcare or school, the relationships they’ve established with teachers and caregivers.  Many have lost physical contact with grandparents, cousins, and neighbors.  They are grieving just the same as you and I.  And, they also know that you are feeling things too.

More About Feelings…

When we tell our children that things aren’t that bad, but put out an energy of panic, fear, and anxiety, it is unsettling.  They might think, “why is mommy lying to me?”  This incongruence of how we feel versus what we say can create distrust and fear in young children, thus creating behavioral issues, nightmares, and meltdowns.  As hard as it might be, it is important that adults think about what they are feeling and what they are telling their children.  It is perfectly fine to spare the details, but you could explain that you are feeling scared because there are a lot of people getting sick or that you are angry that you have to stay home and can’t go to work.  It feels much safer for children to have a name for the feeling and an understanding that you’re doing your best to keep them safe even when you are feeling scared.

Magical Thinking

Developmentally, young children up to the age of 6 or 7, make sense of the world through magical thinking – the belief that we have control of our world through our thoughts, fears, and wishes.  It is difficult to know for sure with non-verbal children, but the older the child is within this stage, the more likely they are to believe that they literally did something to create social distancing or other situations that come up daily.  They might show defiance out of shame and guilt. This thinking often does not follow the logical patterns we as adults might use to make sense of things.  If we only allow our adult kind of thinking, we will miss the important internal experience of the child. That is why it’s important to talk to kids about how they are feeling and why.  What they tell us is based on their understanding of what happened and might sound more like a story (or like magic!)  It’s important for kids to have the freedom and safety to explain their reasoning with the understanding that, however crazy it might sound to us, it is developmentally appropriate. When we do this we can support our children in understanding that none of this is their fault.  

(For more information – https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/ages-stages-how-children-use-magical-thinking/)

Photo by Mitch Kesler on Pexels.com

The Art of Emotional Regulation

One of the most important things we do when we respond to a young child’s emotions is called co-regulation.  Young children rely on caregivers to help them regulate their emotions until they can learn to consistently self-regulate.  Even children who seem to have mastered self-regulation might require additional support with co-regulation right now.  It is not uncommon for children to show some regression in times of stress or trauma.  This could be why it is so difficult to work from home right now – the child who used to be able to play alone and easily complete tasks independently is now by your side all of the time.

The younger the child, the more likely it is that they will need an adult to help them regulate big emotions. This is so important for us adults at this time, because it is challenging to regulate ourselves.  Never, in our lifetimes have we been asked to know how to maintain a healthy emotional response during a pandemic.  Most of us typically try very hard not to show our own meltdowns to our children.  But, when do we melt down?  Because it seems like we all need space for this emotional purging right now, for our own mental health and for the health of our relationships.  

Tap Out

One of the strategies I have talked most about with other parents and my husband is “tapping out.”  This is the recognition that you need to get out of the ring for a little bit.  You might need to go cry in your car, go pound out the anger in a walk or workout, or call a friend for connection.  If you are living with another adult, it might be worth it to talk with each other about how you could do this.  When and how do you ask each other for a break?  I know that there might be limitations to this idea due to work schedules, trust and safety, or being the only adult in the room.  Creatively thinking, you might have to think about the times that are hardest – for me I’ve recognized Fridays are very hard for me and my daughter.  Plan to take things easier during those times, strategically incorporate screen time or activities that have less power struggles.  It is ok, actually it is necessary, for us adults to give ourselves space to feel what we are feeling.  If we can’t allow our feelings space, they will come out at other times and in ways that we didn’t intend.  They could even be causing some of the problems you’re facing with our loved ones.

So as we carry on, lets recognize it isn’t an easy time for anyone. Children are relying on us to provide safety and support, and this can be exhausting.  Giving space for feelings, even if they are born out of magical thinking, will help tremendously.  Being honest about our own needs and asking for help from each other is significant.  If we see an increase in conversations about feelings between ourselves and our children, we are probably doing something right.

Written by, April Galligan, LCSW, IMH-E, UpliftMEchildtherapy.com

How Can I Support My Child During Scary Times? Helping Your Young Child Through the Coronavirus

Anyone who has stumbled onto social media or out into a supermarket lately has noticed the level of panic in our communities is rising.  The minute you turn on the television there is dramatic music and TV journalists telling us about the latest in the “coronavirus outbreak.”  Our children have started to notice and some of them are really panicking too.  

I recently realized that maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention to how much fear and anxiety the world was feeling.  Then I started to notice the posts and discussion around toilet paper and how you cannot find it anywhere.  A trip to a major discount store and the grocery store recently proved this to be true in my community.  Anxiety and panic can be contagious, and we do interesting things when they take hold. 

While I was at this major discount store, with huge carts, I noticed many people filling their carts to the brim with hand soap and water (no paper products because that aisle was empty).  Just being in the store gave me a sense of breathlessness, like something heavy was sitting on my chest.  One woman in particular had a full cart and two young children.  I observed her politely arguing with one of the employees about how she did not understand how they could be out of a certain product.  This employee explained that he could not control what was available at this point and encouraged her to consider visiting at times when they re-stock the store.  While I felt a great deal of empathy for both this mother and the employee as they navigated the discussion of anxiety, fear, and lack of control, I wondered too about how these young children experienced this moment.

It made me wonder how we ease this tension for our children since their level of control and understanding is even less than our own.  While we as adults can watch the news and talk to our neighbors, our children are often reliant on us to set the stage for what they know and understand.  They get this information from us, not only from what we say, but also from what they can see and feel in our interactions.  When I describe my body’s response to being in the store as breathless and heavy, at least I have some context to why it feels that way.  But what does a child feel and understand?

  One of the best ways we can support our young children through this time of anxiety and fear is to recognize our own reactions.  Am I feeling anxious?  Scared?  How do I cope with these feelings?  Is it in a way that creates calm or do I join in the spiral of panic and anxiety around me?  Sometimes, in my home at times when anxiety is high, or stress is skyrocketing I find myself sharing less information with my daughter.  I use shorter sentences and give her very little information.  I move quickly to avoid having to sit down and really feel the feeling and, as a result, she follows me around asking more and more questions.  If I don’t stop and realize what is happening, I become grumpy and short with her, which simply increases her level of freak out and creates moments of poor behavior or a total melt down.  She becomes scared because every piece of this interaction is giving her the message that things aren’t ok.  I need to calm down and help answer her questions.  I also need to be able to let her know that I am feeling stressed.

We can practice how to do this with the coronavirus news.  The following is a basic tool to use when speaking with your child.  You will need to begin by answering the following questions and writing down your responses.

  • What do you notice about your own reaction to the coronavirus news?  (It could be that you are feeling anxiety and panic, or maybe it is just another news story that is interesting and making you think about possible changes to your day-to-day life).
  • Why do you think this is your response?  (Are you afraid of something?  Why are you feeling ok about things?)
  • Where do you feel it in your body?  Describe what is happening (i.e. my heart is beating really fast, my head hurts, my stomach is upset, my shoulders are relaxed but my mind is thinking about what to do if schools shut down).
  • What do you call this feeling?  

Going through these simple questions can help you understand and share this information with your child.  This is important information.  When we can share it, it helps to normalize what your child is probably feeling too and lets them know that you are actually ok, safe, and in control of the current moment.  

When you sit down to talk with your child you might say something as easy as “There are a lot of people talking about getting sick right now.  It’s on the news and everyone is thinking about how to stay safe and healthy.  I noticed that I’ve been watching a lot of TV and I’m feeling a little bit worried about getting sick too.  I’m having a hard time sitting down, my legs just want to walk and move, and my tummy feels upset.  That’s what happens to me sometimes when I’m feeling worried or anxious.”

This might prompt your child to ask more questions, especially when they are having a difficult time calming their own bodies.  In order to help them it is important that you are able to calm your body.  If you are feeling like you just can’t stop the anxious feelings, stop the physical responses you are having, or feel that no matter what you do you will not be ok, it might be time to seek the support of a mental health profession.  It’s ok to admit this.  Many people struggle with anxiety.  I often see children struggle with anxiety when their parents struggle because of the stronghold it can have on us and the way we view the world.  

  Now that you have shared your own answers to the questions, ask your child to answer them.  Try not to focus on the information you have all heard, focus on the feeling/s.  It is tempting to try and distract them from the feeling with statements of fact or reassurance that they will be ok.  You don’t need to do this to help them feel better – help them understand what they are feeling and what you are feeling.  

Here are some ideas for children to express these feelings:

  • Draw the feeling, answer what color it is, what shape, does it have a temperature or feel a certain way?
  • Have your child name the feeling.  This could be something like Bob or Worry Worm.
  • You could even tell a story about the feeling now that it has a name, description, and place in the body.
  • Practice mindfulness activities like filling up your whole tummy with air and pushing it out like you’re blowing out a birthday candle – then notice how you feel.  Or there’s my current favorite, pretend you are a sticker stuck to the floor.  Notice how your body feels when it is stuck to the floor.

Now you have some tools for managing your child’s fear and anxiety around this recent global upset.  I do believe you can do this.  You can help your child manage this feeling; help keep them safe and healthy too.

For additional supports I am now offering on-line therapy to parents and children in Colorado. Please call to get started: 720-273-1007.

Written by: April Galligan, LCSW, IMH-E©

http://www.Upliftmechildtherapy.com