Navigating Difficult Conversations

By Taylor Paschal, LMSW

It is easy to look back and remember major stressful situations. This year, particularly, there were so many people feeling anxious or weary of what the months to come might bring. For some of us, the new year also brought hard conversations during parties or family gatherings. We found ourselves walking on eggshells, hoping and praying that controversial topics didn’t arise for fear of what the conversation might have turned into.
As a therapist, I can’t help but notice that theme in our society today – the fear of hard conversations. Why do we fear the opportunity to engage with an individual that has a different point of view from our own? Is it because we fear being wrong or looking uninformed? Maybe it’s the desire to avoid confrontation and what the aftermath could be for the relationship. Or maybe we see the ugliness that comes out of such discussions online, and we’d just rather avoid them in person. Regardless of why it’s worth exploring why we leave difficult topics left unsaid.
In therapy, effective communication is often a theme of sessions. Focusing on strategies for improving conflict resolution or navigating challenging interactions are pivotal. For example, it’s challenging to learn to listen with the purpose of understanding rather than to reply. Allowing someone to feel heard, even when disagreements occur, will often prevent the interaction from becoming negative. Effective listening can go a long way when attempting to soften a challenging interaction. Listening helps us stay in the moment and regulate our emotions when we’re navigating conflict.
In addition to listening, it can be extremely helpful to pay attention to our nonverbal cues when communicating. Often, our nonverbals speak louder than the words themselves. Nonverbal communication includes physical behavior, expressions, and the mannerisms utilized when communicating. To be fair, these are often done instinctively rather than consciously, but nonetheless, play a large role in the success of the conversation. Taking the time to invest in developing awareness of body language and tone of voice can have a profound impact on how we communicate.
Using myself as an example, the ability to regulate and control my body language directly impacts the effectiveness of the therapy I provide to clients. In most cases, when an individual’s emotion takes over the conversation, the interaction can quickly feel very personal. When an individual is vulnerable by sharing something personal, they could be hypersensitive to the reaction. Thus, during times of high emotions or sensitivity with clients, I utilize mindfulness to be aware of what my nonverbals may be saying. A few ways this is done is through a calm soothing tone, providing caring gestures, maintaining eye contact, and controlling the level of my voice.
In our culture today, communication seems to become a battle easily. But there is a way to disagree respectfully. So often, we feel the need to continue arguing over a difference of opinion. It can be challenging, but intentionally viewing the conversation as an exchange of ideas can be helpful. Focusing on the good, avoiding it becoming personal, and eliminating the word “but” can be helpful when trying to disagree respectfully. Staying calm and regulating emotions allows both parties to feel comfortable expressing themselves effectively in challenging situations. Ultimately though, at some point, the time comes to just move on. It is ok to leave our argument on the table and decide to take the interaction in a more positive direction or walk away. The option of agreeing to disagree to achieve a resolution is always available to us.
Effective communication, especially when it comes to conflict resolution, is quite an art. Developing more effective communication skills does take intentionality, but doesn’t have to be strenuous. Learning how to communicate more effectively allows for self-expression that benefits various aspects of an individual’s life. Think about all of our personal and professional relationships which could be improved through stronger, more mindful communication skills. Maybe, next holiday season won’t be so scary.

Creating the New Normal: Navigating the Holiday Season in Separate Houses

By Jennifer Webbe VanLuven, MSW, LCSW, CDM

 

Adults and stress go hand in hand during the holiday season. There is so much to do. Family to be seen, school holiday programs, gifts to be bought and wrapped, and special celebrations such as Kwanzaa, Chanukah, Christmas, and New Year. When parenting from two households, the stress can feel insurmountable.
You may also discover this time of year stirs up a lot of different feelings for your children. If this is their first holiday season following your separation or divorce, keep in mind the change in the family may hit them very hard. While you can’t take away the pain your children feel, how you spend the first holiday after a separation or divorce can really impact children’s perception about family change.
Too often, parents get caught up in issues like who is buying what or dividing up the holidays. One of the best things you can do for your kids is use this time to rebuild a sense of family. Create new traditions and events in each household. Kids need to know that life will go on and they’re going to be okay. While your child’s perceived loss of ‘family’ may hit them very hard during this time of year, there are ways you can help your children manage the experience in a healthy way.
Keep your emotions in place. Children take emotional cues from their parents. The holidays will be hard on parents, but they need to realize that it is doubled for the children. If you as parents need a little extra emotional support, don’t be afraid to call in the troops and take time to care for your emotions.
Silence isn’t always the best way to go. Be sure to talk to your children about the new plans for the holidays. Kids like to know what is going to happen and prepare their own minds and feelings. Talk to them about what will be different and what will stay the same. Avoiding this conversation, keeps kids on edge and guessing what the holiday will look like.
Focus on creating meaning. Focus on cutting back and on the true meaning of the holiday. Find an activity that will promote a deeper meaning for the holiday. Adopt a family or volunteer at a shelter. This will make new memories and place the focus on something other than old traditions.
Let your stress guide you. Newly separated parents often ask if they should spend the holiday together. This is a good idea in theory but eventually, parents move into new relationships and the “new normal” is only delayed. This can cause even more stress on parents and children are quick to pick up these cues. Start your new tradition as soon as possible and reduce the parental conflict from the beginning.
Different isn’t devastating. As parents, we need to ask ourselves which traditions are worth hanging on to and which can be replaced. We don’t have to recreate the whole holiday. Maybe think of one new thing that you can do as a family.
Make gift-giving painless for the kids. Children love to participate and give gifts. No matter how you feel about your ex, do not allow your child to arrive empty-handed. It is not about “you” giving a gift, it’s about your children giving a gift. Not only is this a reminder about the joy of giving, it strengthens a child’s sense of security.
Do not give gifts with strings. Do your best to coordinate gift-giving with the child’s other parent. If that is not possible, think before you buy. If you are hesitant about the child taking this gift to the other parent’s home, then don’t buy it. If a child cannot decide where the gift will go, then it’s not really a gift.
Creating the new normal is difficult. The difficulty is not only for the children but for parents as well. This list is not complete, there are many other ways to create happy holidays for your children and yourself. Take time to do a frequent status check with yourself. Knowing where your emotions lie is imperative in keeping children feeling safe and happy.

Mental Healthy Holiday

By David Stewart, PLMFT, CPT, HLC

 

I don’t know about you, but my family doesn’t look like a Hallmark movie around the holidays. How great would that be? Maybe a little cheesy and cliché for some, but you have to admit, it would be nice to just have everything work out and come together in the most magical of ways, all wrapped up with a perfect shiny bow. And while our inner child still dares to dream of “the perfect holiday season”, the adult version of us needs to get through holiday traffic, decorate the house, figure out finances for this expensive time of year, do laundry, go to work, run a household, etc. After all of these expectations are met, some of us might manage to squeeze in twenty minutes of peace without being constantly bombarded. Buckle up! The holidays are here!
Don’t get me wrong, I love the feeling of joy that comes around this time of year. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, this is the one time of year that people show a little more love and understanding than they normally would (unless you’re standing behind The Grinch in the Target check-out line). Even with the overwhelming list of tasks, you must complete, there will still be enough room this holiday season to welcome a little gratitude. It’s difficult to believe that we can feel grateful when we are so busy and daily life is moving at the speed of light. But maybe that is exactly what we need – to slow down a bit and remember why we are doing any of this in the first place.
This is a time of year to put your problems aside for a moment and embrace those you love. Don’t worry if you’re very attached to your problems, I promise they will still be there waiting for you in January. In the meantime, maybe the focus this holiday season doesn’t have to be how difficult life can feel at times. Maybe this holiday season, the focus can be on the things that are working well for us in our lives. Maybe it can be about noticing the smile that your kiddo is giving you, and how safe and secure they feel being in your presence. Or maybe it’s allowing yourself to enjoy the feeling of being snuggled up in a warm house on a cold winter night. Or maybe even, after everything you have been navigating this year, realizing that you are still standing and are going to come out on the other side – even better and stronger than you were before. Wherever you choose to find gratitude this holiday season, and whatever you are experiencing or have been through this year, I hope you allow yourself to keep your heart open and show yourself some kindness and compassion.
I’ve put together a little holiday guide for you that will help make things run a little smoother. If it speaks to you, then try it out!
Tips for a Mental Healthy Holiday:
1. Practice gratitude. Sometimes it feels like our situation is overwhelming, but when we take a step back from ourselves and reflect on why we celebrate the holidays in the first place, we can see a larger perspective and gratitude replaces that overwhelming feeling.
2. Create small moments of time for yourself over the holidays. Do things during this time that bring you joy such as reading, yoga, outdoor activities, and games.
3. Eliminate the Grinch’s from your environment.
4. Minimize or eliminate alcohol consumption.
5. Set boundaries around family events (example: DON’T talk about politics).
6. Create new traditions that speak to your values.
7. Be present and intentional – it will allow you to be more engaged and thoughtful with yourself and others.
8. Go for a walk or exercise before a big family event.
9. If you are hosting family, stay organized with preparation (If you are organized, there will be less stress on you the day of the event).
10. The holidays can be painful for those of us who have lost loved ones or are simply going through a difficult time. If this speaks to you, allow yourself whatever time you need to experience the pain, then make a conscious decision to move through it. This will allow you to grieve for your loved ones without letting the pain take your emotions hostage over the holidays.

Add Grief to Your Holiday Guest List

By Katelyn Siebert, MSW, LCSW

 

The past two years, right around October, I have attended funerals for family members of close friends. As we somberly drove away from one of these services, I remember telling my husband that we need to check in on this friend around the holidays. Holidays can be hard in the best of times, but doubly so when we are in grief.
Our hope and intention, of course, is always for the holiday season to be a time of celebration and happiness. We may go through the unavoidable moments of stress, but all in hope and preparation to gather together with loved ones and experience the “Joy of Christmas.” Unfortunately, for some who are grieving, joy may not be at the forefront of their holiday plans. There are a lot of “firsts” during the grief process that can bring up difficult emotions for someone who has experienced loss – and first holidays without a loved one can be among the most difficult.
Especially around the holidays, it’s kind to be aware of how grief might be impacting those around us. To do this, we first recognize that people grieve for all kinds of reasons and in many different ways. Some common causes of grief include the death of a loved one, a loss or change in job, divorce or marital separation, fertility struggles, the ending of a friendship, a new medical diagnosis, the loss of a pet, and military deployment. What can we do to support those grieving this holiday season?
Invite them AND their grief to your holiday party ~
If you invite someone who is grieving to your holiday event, you must also be open to welcoming their grief. This means accepting them and their emotions exactly where they’re at. You may even consider reaching out to them individually to let them know that if their grief shows up, it is a welcomed guest.
Don’t overcompensate, Don’t avoid ~
It can be easy to want to help the grieving person be happy. We may consider having an overly cheerful demeanor while ignoring their grief, which is sometimes termed toxic positivity. Many of us are uncomfortable addressing hard emotions; it’s easy to avoid saying anything at all about the loss to a grieving person. The most helpful response is one in the middle of these two extremes – don’t avoid the loss entirely, but also don’t try to push happiness onto the grieving person. Simple acknowledgment can sometimes be the best choice: “I am so glad you’ve joined us, I know that right now is a sad time for you and your family.” Recognize your own feelings about grief and how you may need to adjust to best support your grieving person.
Allow hard conversations ~
Be open to asking how people are doing. Be just as open to their honest response, especially if it isn’t a “happy” one. Consider acknowledging the name of the loss and recognize the importance of it to your grieving person. For example, “Your mom always made the best Christmas cookies. I’ve been thinking about her and you a lot lately. Would you like to come over sometime soon and make cookies together in honor of her?”
Pay Attention ~
Look for the less obvious signs of grief, which might include body language or avoidance of social interactions. When someone is sitting quietly alone, standing to the side with their arms crossed, or seems withdrawn at a gathering, consider engaging in conversation with them. If a grieving person declines attending a social event, you may consider asking them to spend time one on one in a more laid-back setting. Pay attention to how your grieving person is behaving. Check-in on those who you know have experienced a loss and offer support when possible.
At the end of the day, the most important thing to do is allow a grieving person space to come as they are. Using these strategies can help us prepare for all guests to feel emotionally safe and supported. Adding grief to your guest list might be the best gift you can give a grieving person this year.

Regaining Our Personal Power

By Hadley McIntyre, MSW, LMSW

 

It is the easiest thing in the world to allow those around us to take power over our decisions, our actions, and our sense of self. We do it all the time. It may look like letting your friend’s criticism cause you to lose confidence in yourself, or maybe by falling victim to a guilt trip even when you know you have not done anything wrong. It might even be as simple as letting a coworker’s bad mood ruin your day. There are likely a number of people in your lives who take your energy, your time, and your resources without thinking twice about it. Sometimes, when we give up our power it is extremely obvious, other times it is subtle, and we have no idea that it even happened.
Power can be construed as a negative word in our society. It is often thought of as using intimidation or force to get what one wants. But the power I am referring to in this article is personal power – the power to make decisions for ourselves simply because it is what is best for us, to feel how we feel without feeling bad about it, and to at times meet our own needs over the needs of others. How can we do this? Here are some tips to get started down the path of regaining your personal power:
Setting Healthy Boundaries
Boundaries are essential in regaining and keeping one’s power. One of the best pieces of advice I have ever heard is the following – “No is a complete sentence”. We can say “no” to whatever is asked of us if we feel that it is the right answer. It does not matter if the person we are saying “no” to does not like the answer.
Recognize that you are not responsible for others’ emotions
The only emotions we are responsible for are our own. We cannot take responsibility for how others feel, and we cannot feel guilty when our boundaries make others in our lives upset.
Speak up when someone hurts you
Every time we remain silent when someone mistreats us, we hand that person our power and permission to do it again.
Identify your values and live by those values unapologetically
Values can be simply defined as the things in your life that are valuable. Everyone’s values will look different. It is our responsibility to clearly define what our values are and to live a life that is in line with them.
Stop trying to prove others wrong
Do what you do because you love to do it, and because it’s what’s right for you. When we make choices in life or follow a certain path in an attempt to prove others wrong, we give away our power.
Recognize that your self-worth is not determined by how others feel about you
This piece of advice may be the hardest for me to follow. It is so easy for all of us to determine our self-worth based on how many likes we get on Instagram or views on our latest TikTok. At its best, our self-worth should come from within. Do your best to not allow the opinions of others to impact your self-worth.
STOP carrying resentment
Resentment only affects the person carrying it. The person you are resenting probably doesn’t even know it, and if they do, they probably don’t care. Holding onto resentment is like swallowing rat poison with the expectation that it is going to kill the rat.
Own your emotions
Your emotions matter. They are essential and should be your top priority. There are no invalid emotions. Own your emotions and don’t be afraid to share them with the world.
Only you can make yourself happy. Start the journey to regaining your personal power. The journey won’t be easy, but it will be beyond worth it. My hope for you is that once you have taken ownership of that personal power back, you will utilize it. Use that power to create a life that feeds your soul and brings pure joy. Personal power isn’t meant to control anyone. There is only one goal in reclaiming your personal power – being your authentic self.

When Life Throws Us a Curveball: Redefining Ourselves through Difficult Life Transitions

By Katelyn Siebert, MSW, LCSW
There are times in every person’s life where we are faced with transitioning into a new phase of our journey.  For some, these are planned or natural transitions such as school, marriage, children, career advancements, etc. However, there are also many times when we are forced to face unforeseen, unplanned, and often difficult, life changes.  These trying times are typically the moments that challenge us both physically and mentally, requiring us to grow and redefine ourselves in previously unimagined ways.
While natural life transitions are typically manageable, these unexpected changes can cause tremendous amounts of stress, anxiety, and fear.  What do we do when we are faced with having to make life decisions, we may not feel we have adequate answers to? How do we cope with the stresses these transitions bring?  How do we not lose ourselves as we grow in these experiences?  Simply put, how do we move forward?
There may not always be an easy answer to these questions, but the concepts below are a good place to start.
Identify a Support System – During difficult times, it is essential to know who we can count on to support physical and emotional needs as they arise. Connect with those supports often and directly communicate the desire to be there for one another through these transitions.
Become Informed – Many times during life changes, we will be asked to face the unfamiliar.  It is important to become informed and well-educated on options and facts regarding the situation at hand.
Ask for Help – Whether it be a trusted friend or family member within your identified support system or a trained professional, recognize the importance of asking for help. Know that you are not alone on this journey and there is always someone who can walk with you if you are willing to let them.  Asking for help is never a sign of weakness; it is always a sign of strength.
Make Time for Yourself – If you have been placed in a position where you are now taking on a new role in life, it is so important to keep the things that make you feel like yourself in your daily routine.  Make time for yourself and the things that bring you joy. In high-stress times, we should be purposeful in prioritizing our needs as individuals. When redefining ourselves we must always find ways to keep who we are at our core alive and well.
Allow Yourself Space to Grow – Full transitions don’t often happen overnight. There is a process of learning, changing, and growing.  Be kind to yourself during this process.  Allow yourself time to shift gears and figure things out.  If you must make a difficult decision quickly, remember that many changes can be temporary if needed.  Do the best you can and give yourself intentional grace during these times.
Know It’s Okay to Not Feel Okay Sometimes – As a society, it often seems frowned upon to be open and honest that one is struggling.  There may not be a better time to break that stigma.  A large number of people are really struggling right now, in one capacity or another.  Have empathy for others and yourself.
Get Help for Depression or Anxiety – While it’s normal and okay to feel down sometimes, it is also important to recognize if you are having increased feelings of “not being okay” or if you have been experiencing negative or harmful thoughts for extended periods of time.  Take this as a sign and opportunity to reach out for help from your doctor or mental health professional.
Seek Hope – When we are thrown into the unknown, there is so much uncertainty. Many times this can become incredibly overwhelming and cause us to lack hope for the future. In these moments it’s important to seek hope. Find things that you can look forward to. Create goals for your future, things you want to do or accomplish. Intently look for positives throughout your day.  It may be as simple as acknowledging the sun is shining, but over time finding these small glimpses of hope and joy will wire your brain to more optimistic ways of thinking.
Consider “Kintsugi” as a Metaphor for Transition- Kintsugi is the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with melted gold. The concept is built on the idea that, in embracing flaws and imperfections, we can create an even stronger, more beautiful piece of art.
While the past several years, for many, have been years of uncertainty, fear, grief, and change, we must remember that this has also been a time where we gained strength and resilience.  It has set us up to be much more equipped to work through any challenging transitions we may face in years to come. We may at times still feel broken, but, just like the Japanese art of Kintsugi, we are allowed to use our brokenness to create something new that has meaning. Together we can choose to see the beauty in the broken.  We can lean on one another to be the golden glue when we feel disconnected. Dare we suggest that this could even be the silver lining in redefining ourselves during difficult life transitions?
This idea that we are asked to keep all the pieces of ourselves and shift them into something new is a unique request.  It is often a difficult task, but the opportunity to mold ourselves into someone that has grown in strength and resilience is a very powerful thing. With the new year comes a renewed understanding that we are still beautifully crafted individuals.  We can find peace in knowing that we are capable of facing the curveballs life will throw our way and we can find hope in believing we are worthy, more than ever, of the promises our future holds.

Divorce and the Sense of Personal Identity

By Jennifer Van Luven, MSW, LCSW, CM

When you think of “trauma” you may imagine Big Trauma experiences: serious accidents, natural disasters, assault, or life-threatening illnesses. These kinds of events obviously and in a very public way transform the foundation of who you are and how you live. Other incidents can feel equally traumatic and life-changing. Divorce is one of them.
When the life and world you have built falls apart due to a divorce or separation, whether amicable or not, the way you see the world and your place in it changes. Accepting and evolving into a new person can feel distressing and painful as you give up a portion of your lifestyle, home, family, financial security, love, and dreams. To manage the shock of the change, you might find yourself letting go of activities you once enjoyed and implementing coping mechanisms geared toward reducing emotional pain, fear of the future, and the sense of loneliness and uncertainty that takes up space in your head. In fact, coping after divorce may have taught you to live with thoughts of being “less than.”
The main factor in how you define yourself is the context in which you understand where and how you belong. Your identity will change during and after divorce because your understanding of who you are and the world in which you live has dramatically altered. Losing a sense of safety, control, and certainty shifts you into a feeling of vulnerability. You may see yourself today as someone robbed of innocence, trust, love, well-being, and the feeling of being able to protect yourself. You may deeply feel that you are undesirable, physically damaged, emotionally or psychologically disfigured. This new self-definition impacts how you see the world, think about yourself and others, and make choices and take actions. If that’s the case, then it’s time for an identity makeover.
When considering how you can create a new, post-divorce identity, it helps to understand the characteristics of identity in general.  Identity relates to the idea of who you are and what defines you as a person in this world. Identity is how you describe yourself and the characteristics that make you unique. Identity development can change in a moment as you experience the divorce process and divorce becomes the lens through which you and others view yourself and the world around you. Your only choice at this point is to continue to move forward, make new choices about the direction you wish to move and create a post-divorce self that combines all of your best features and attributes.
Though your current identity may seem diminished, another part of you sees the bigger picture. This is the part of yourself that inspires and motivates you to move toward (re)claiming a more positive, solid, stable, and proactive sense of self. While your “less than” self may dictate who you are today, your “more than” self gains ground every time you work toward restoring yourself. It is your “more than” self that forms the basis of who you will become when you continue to create your new identity.
It is impossible to go back to who you were previously as a wife or husband. Right now decide: “I will stop looking back.” Though this process may feel uncomfortable, being forward-thinking works to your advantage.
Your personal identity develops according to your perception of the experience. You are an individual and your perspective of the world is your own; what feels traumatizing to you may not feel that way to someone else. Likewise, what feels traumatic to someone else may seem trivial to you. If perception plays a key role in trauma, then it can also play a key role after trauma. While it doesn’t feel this way at first, how you perceive yourself becomes a choice. Who you are during and after divorce is… Who you decide you are.

 

OVERWHELMED! MAINTAINING BALANCE AND CONNECTION IN A BUSY FAMILY

By Cari McKnight, MSW, LCSW
It starts with the best of intentions. Your daughter expresses an interest in playing soccer, so you sign her up at 4 years old. You want to make sure she starts early, so she doesn’t get left behind. Pretty soon, you sign her up for Girl Scouts. It’s a wholesome activity that builds character, right? Next, you enroll her in piano lessons – you think that you should expose her to an instrument as you want to make sure that she’s well-rounded. As time goes by and her friends start different activities, you want to give her those same opportunities… so you let her join the softball team. Then she wants to try basketball, so you let her do that too. Before long, you realize that if she is going to have any chance of playing soccer long term, she had better get on a select club team to be challenged and get good coaching. You soon realize that a club team is a big commitment – it is year-round, they practice twice a week and have tournaments every weekend – but you feel it is worth it because you want her to be able to play in high school, at the very least. You don’t mind letting her do a few clubs after school also, because you want to keep her occupied after school (we all know what happens to kids with too much free time!), and besides, it will look good on a college application. One day you wake up and look at your calendar and feel paralyzed: she has basketball and drama club on Mondays, soccer practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays, piano and Girl Scouts on Wednesdays, yearbook club on Fridays, and tournaments every weekend, some out of town. This doesn’t even count homework or school projects. And, this is only one child……
Today’s youth are stressed as never before. Academically, our children have shorter summers, fewer free periods, tougher grading standards, and are taking more college-level classes in high school, etc. Athletically, kids are encouraged to be on competitive travel teams that run year round (vs. just seasonally), specialize at young ages, have games at 10 pm some nights, etc. Socially, there is pressure to be available at all times – the constant buzz of cell phones, interruptions from texts at all hours of the night, etc. sets up an expectation that our children should always be responding to texts and participating on social media. It is very easy for both kids, and parents to feel completely overwhelmed and out of balance.
We ask ourselves – how did we get here? There are a few societal reasons that have combined to create this insidious phenomenon. First of all, we have been inundated with the message that the world is a dangerous place for kids these days. This has inspired a knee-jerk reaction to make sure kids are involved in structured activities instead of just letting them have free play time after school. While these fears are well founded in some areas, this has extended into many areas where crime is rare or nonexistent. In addition, we have also learned to be fearful that our children will miss out or be left behind. This fuels, early, intense involvement in activities, as many parents fear that if they delay starting a sport or a musical instrument that their child may never be able to compete. On top of all of this, because we have heard the message that colleges are looking for “well-rounded” applicants, we can fall into the trap of thinking the busier our children are, the better job we are doing as parents. Overall, there is just a general increased pressure on our children to achieve – from knowing their alphabet and colors before school, to being expected to be on the select teams at a young age, to worrying about what colleges will accept them (far earlier than is necessary) – our youth are very driven by their achievements and resume of activities.
No doubt, most parents usually just want what seems best for their kids. Even when intentions are good, though, kids can easily become overscheduled. The pressure to participate in a handful of activities all the time and to “keep up” can be physically and emotionally exhausting for parents and kids alike, and can leave us all feeling disconnected.
Sooner or later, kids who are too busy will begin to show signs. Every child is different, but overscheduled kids may exhibit these red flags:
  • feel tired, anxious, or depressed
  • complain of headaches and stomachaches, which may be due to stress, missed meals, or lack of sleep
  • fall behind on their schoolwork, causing their grades to drop
  • want to drop out of previously enjoyed activities
  • difficulty making, keeping or enjoying the company of their friends
  • a reluctance or refusal to go to school or get out of bed
  • self-harming behaviors or thoughts of suicide
It is important to pay attention, as the effects of being out of balance can be far-reaching and impact all of us. Individually, we are more prone to both mental and physical illness when we are stressed and overwhelmed. Our cortisol levels increase – which physically shrinks the hippocampus, one of the memory centers of the brain. Cortisol affects our white blood cell functioning, and we end up sicker more often. Elevated cortisol also negatively impacts serotonin (a brain chemical key to depression and anxiety). We end up with tired, irritable kids who aren’t learning as easily and who are more and more dependent upon us because they are not able to successfully manage their own lives independently.
Family life also can suffer — when one parent is driving to basketball practice and the other is carpooling to dance class, meals are missed. As a result, some families rarely eat dinner together, and may not take the extra time to stay connected. Plus, the weekly grind of driving kids all over the place and getting to one class, game, or practice after another can be downright tiresome and stressful for parents. This can all impact the connection between kids and parents, and between couples as well. We can easily end up feeling very disconnected from one another… this can lead to poor communication, being out of touch with kids’ lives, and marital struggles.
SIMPLE SUGGESTIONS TO MAINTAIN BALANCE:
  • Agree on ground rules ahead of time. For instance, plan on kids playing one sport per season or limit activities to two afternoons or evenings during the school week. This may make for some difficult choices, but this is one way to keep a balance.
  • Know how much time is required before committing to an activity. For example, will there be time to practice between lessons? Does your child realize that soccer practice is twice a week, right after school until dinnertime? Then there’s the weekly game to consider, too. Is travel involved? Be very clear about expectations as you make decisions to join a new team, musical, or activity.
  • Keep a calendar to stay organized. Display it on the refrigerator or other prominent spot so that everybody can stay up-to-date. And if you find an empty space on the calendar, leave it alone!
  • Create structured family time. If you’re eating fast food on the run every night, plan a few dinners when everyone can be home at the same time, even if it means eating a little later. Numerous studies have shown that families who eat dinner together report stronger relationships and better grades. According to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Abuse at Columbia University, kids and teens who eat dinner with their families at least five times a week have a much lower risk of substance abuse. Schedule family fun time, too, whether it’s playing a board game or going on a bike ride or hike. We can easily forget or underestimate the importance of family connection in protecting our children.
  • Take charge of technology! Set up a central family charging station so that our children can turn in technology each night. This helps kids set a boundary with their peers – for example, no phones after 9 pm. In addition, it keeps kids from being disturbed in the night, and also helps prevent them from making poor choices online late at night.
  • Try to carpool with other parents to make life easier, and to free up more time for our other children, spouse, and/or ourselves. When you do end up driving, turn off the radio and use the time to TALK. Kids frequently open up while you are driving and they aren’t looking at you….it can be a surprisingly good time to connect.
  • Build in time to do things for yourself. It is important to make some time for ourselves – whether we make time to read, take a walk, chat with a friend, or whatever, we need to do this so we don’t get too burned out.
  • Help your children set priorities. If kids start struggling academically, they may need to drop an activity. Or, consider avoiding some AP classes if students can’t keep up at that pace. But while school is a priority, remember to not let the focus be all about academic achievement. We need to have talks with our kids about finding a balance – let them make choices about where to put their energy. Let them know that taking care of themselves (having some free time, being involved in some other activities) is at least as important as making that 4.0 that they are striving for. So many young people are obsessed with having straight A’s that they start developing anxiety and perfectionistic tendencies. Help your children see that having balance and stable mental health is important for the big picture of their lives, and that they are valued for who they are, not what they achieve. Assure them that their performance does not define them!
  • Know when to say no. If your child is already doing a lot but really wants to take on another activity, discuss what other activity or activities need to be dropped to make room for the new one. And don’t be afraid to set boundaries to protect your family time! It is perfectly ok to say no to a practice or game when you want to protect your family time (ie. traditional family activities around holiday times, weekends to the lake, family gatherings, etc.). Let children see that it is acceptable to make family connections a priority!
Essentially, it comes down to realizing that it is our job, as parents, to protect our children and families. We need to be brave enough to set boundaries and take the lead on this. While this is a cultural struggle, it is up to us as individuals to start drawing the lines and take back our families. We can’t expect change unless it begins at home. We need to give our children the message that they are not defined by their achievements, as society is telling them that they very much are. And, while many of us are fearful that if we miss games or don’t feed into societal expectations our children will pay the price, it could be argued that the price our kids pay is much greater if we do nothing. Our children need us, they need their families. Let’s show them that we will make that a priority.

The Business of Play: Youth Sports in America

By Tony Tramelli, LPC
The culture of youth sports in America has changed dramatically over the past decade. Not too long ago youth sports were for the most part community-based organizations which did their best to give every child the opportunity to be part of a team, to get some much-needed physical activity, and to learn the many valuable skills that come with competition. In the past ten years or so we have seen youth sports move away from this model and develop into a $17 billion industry, which makes it larger than the business of professional baseball and the same size as the NFL.
This financial boom has occurred not with the increase in participation but with a significant decrease in children’s participation in sports. Going back to 2008, regular participation in youth sports is down in almost every category. One would think that the decline in youth sports is a result of the sedentary, technology-dominated lives of young people. Children are certainly prioritizing screens overplay, but this is not the primary driver for the decrease in participation. To explain this phenomenon, we have to look at income inequality.
Among wealthier families, youth participation is rising, and among the poorest households, it is trending significantly downward. According to a report from TD Ameritrade most American families whose children are involved in sports spend about $500 a month for each child to play, about twenty percent spend $1000, and roughly ten percent spend upwards of $2000 a month. These costs have made it impossible for thousands of children to participate in sports. There are also many cases in which families, who are struggling financially, to go into debt or make other financial sacrifices with the dream of their investment paying off down the road in the form of college scholarships or even professional careers. The fact is however that youth sports are a seriously flawed investment. Only two percent of high school athletes are awarded financial scholarships and only two percent of college athletes go on to professional careers.
Even with these dire statistics, we have seen an explosion in the pay-to-play travel team model of youth sports. Expensive travel leagues take talented young athletes from well-off families, leaving behind local leagues with fewer players, fewer involved parents, and fewer resources. When kids move from community teams to elite travel teams, it sends the message to the kids that didn’t make the team or whose family couldn’t afford it, that they don’t have a place in sports. The American system of youth sports, serving only a select few, at the expense of so many, has destroyed an institution that once prided itself on the values of participation, teamwork, character development, and physical exercise. Youth sports has become, like so many institutions in this country, a business.
The lack of access to youth sports for so many kids is only one of many consequences of this culture around sports. We also must look at how this culture is affecting the athletes and families who do have the opportunity to be part of these teams. Because parents are investing so much financially with the rare chance of a future payout, naturally more pressure is put on the athlete to perform. Kids are experiencing a tremendous amount of pressure and expectations from parents, coaches, and peers alike. At the heart of this pressure is a fear of failure; if they don’t perform well, they fear that something bad will happen to them (even if this is objectively untrue).
Based on the research of thousands of young athletes participating in elite sports the most common causes of fear include;
– Disappointing their parents
– Being rejected by peers
– The end of their sports dreams
– That it will all have been a waste of time
– Failure in sports means the child is a failure
These beliefs produce;
– Negativity, worry, doubt
– Fear, anxiety, stress
– Muscle tension, increased heart rate, adrenaline pumps
– Self-sabotage and avoidance behaviors
These beliefs and fears are why so many children are dropping out of sports by their early teens. About seventy percent of kids are giving up organized sports by the time they reach high school.
Kids are also experiencing pressure to play a certain sport and even a certain position within the sport based on the probability that it will land them a college scholarship. More and more kids are becoming single-sport athletes, playing their select sport all year round, which leads to physical deterioration and burnout. The irony in this is that most college recruiters are looking for athletes who play multiple sports throughout the year. Some kids are even being told to ignore defense in favor of scoring because it is easier to get recognized that way.
With all of this pressure being put on these children, one would think that success at a young age is a valid predictor of future success, but this simply is not the case. Unless a child is one of the rarest prodigies in their sport, results at a young age do not predict later success. What matters in youth sports in regard to future success in sports are not the results, but rather the passion and willingness to work hard to improve one’s skills, developing the resiliency necessary to manage loss and failure, and to develop physically and technically.
We also see family systems affected due to the current culture of youth sports. For many families, life revolves around the team; practices, games, private coaching, out-of-town tournaments, fundraisers, etc. The extent to which and how families are affected by this of course depends on the family, but for many, no time is left for anything but the sport. This leaves families without opportunities for family dinners, vacations, downtime, and social lives outside of the team. We also know of many families in which resources or talent allows only for specific children to participate in sports. This leaves the other child or children to feel left out and less than.
Youth sports could and should be a powerful and healthy developmental opportunity for children. In a healthy sports culture, children develop resiliency, commitment, teamwork, sportsmanship, and have an opportunity to get some much-needed physical activity. We, as parents of young athletes, need to do a better job of encouraging this type of culture. We do this by changing our family’s culture around sports. We do it by reminding ourselves why we have our kids in sports in the first place and by removing our focus from the results and putting it on the effort that our kids display. We do it by making sure that all children have the opportunity to participate no matter what their skill level or family’s financial situation may be.

Back To School: Acknowledging and Understanding School Stress

By Katelyn Siebert, MSW, LCSW
“Back to School”… three words that typically hold some level of both excitement and worry for children and parents alike. Parents are excited for some return to “normalcy” while also feeling worried about all the new hurdles the school year could hold for their family. Children on the other hand are usually excited to see friends but also aware that going back to school might mean more stress or anxiety in their life. It’s safe to say that school stress is a very real thing for both children and their adult caregivers.
So, what do we do with these mixed emotions about going back to school? Specifically, the feelings that are causing us some level of emotional discomfort. The answer here is to first acknowledge it. Acknowledging these feelings allows us to start to process them. For adults, we may be able to acknowledge these emotions on our own but for some children, guidance may be needed in starting this conversation and self-reflection. As the adult, it is encouraged to provide a safe emotional space for your child to discuss how they are feeling about going back to school. A safe emotional space is created by using active listening and non-critical conversation. It is also important to recognize the importance of not trying to “fix it” but more so being present with the child as they acknowledge these feelings that exist. Practice sitting in the uncomfortableness of these feelings together. Acknowledge the feelings then move forward to processing.
When we think about processing our back-to-school emotions, specifically the negative ones, we can benefit from writing them down. After writing down our worries or concerns we can prioritize them to determine which worries hold the most weight for us or are causing the largest amount of stress. We then tackle those “big worries” first. Many times, children’s worries are about the unknown or based on past school experiences. With some problem-solving skills, together, you can support your child in answering questions or figuring out who they can go to if they need more clarification about something. Some questions may not have quick or easy answers. If that is the case, it’s important to consider what strategies could be used to reduce anxiety when there is a lingering “unknown”. Many times, when there are too many “unknowns” for children they begin to show signs of needing more control through undesired behaviors. Answering questions and providing a space to figure out as many stressors as possible can reduce some of that back-to-school anxiety as well as a potential increased need for control.
It’s important for parents and caregivers to remember that children’s brains are still learning how to navigate difficult or confusing transitions. They need frequent guidance and support in learning how to handle difficult emotions and situations in a healthy way. School can be looked at as a child’s full-time job. They are there 7-8 hours a day Monday through Friday. They have expectations they are expected to meet and are evaluated daily on their performance and increase in skill. They may encounter peer struggles and have difficult or confusing interactions with their teachers. For most adults, the demand of their job is at times stressful so it’s only natural that children would feel this way too about their “job”. Considering this perspective allows us, adults, to have ongoing empathy for a child and their return to school. It helps parents and teachers understand how children may be viewing school and the stress related to it.
With this said, it is also important that parents and educators are taking appropriate measures to handle their own back-to-school stress. Believe it or not, using the same strategies as noted above for supporting children, will also help you. Acknowledge the emotion and allow yourself space to process it with a friend, spouse, family member, or therapist. Then begin to problem solve to the best of your ability. Recognize what you DO have control of and what may take some time to figure out. For example, one thing parents do have control over is how they discuss their own back-to-school stress in front of children. It’s important to be mindful of the way adults talk about school as it can set the tone for a child’s opinion of it too.
By acknowledging and processing back-to-school feelings, you are allowing yourself and your child the opportunity to understand both the thoughts and the feelings that are currently present. When we can better understand our thoughts and feelings, we are more in tune with what supports or strategies we may need to utilize to get us through the situation at hand. School is undoubtedly both a source of happiness and stress for children and parents. By working together, the upcoming school year can be approached with courage, optimism, and excitement for all of the good things this year could bring.

Your Greek Letters DO Not Define You

By Hadley McIntyre, MSW, LMSW
It is that time of year again – The buzzword around my therapy room lately has been “recruitment”, formally known as rush. ‘What do I wear?’ ‘What do I say?’ ‘I absolutely must be in XYZ house because that is THE house.’ The truth is that nothing can prepare you for the chaos and confusion that recruitment week will bring into your life. Recruitment season is exciting, chaotic, maddening, and exhausting all wrapped into one. While these emotions can be overwhelming, there are some keys to surviving recruitment season.
The most important thing you can do to not just survive but to thrive is to be your true and authentic self. When going through recruitment you are searching for what will become your home away from home. Who wants to be a part of a home that they had to pretend their way into? You should be striving for a home where you feel comfortable, where you can be yourself, and where you feel safe. At the end of the day, being a part of the coolest house on campus won’t matter if you are having a really hard day and you don’t have a house of friends to turn to.
Another thing to keep in mind while going through the process is knowing that every feeling you are feeling is valid. Recruitment isn’t always the happy experience that we see on “Bama Rush Tok” or every cheesy and generic college movie ever made. It can be exhausting, infuriating, exciting, and at times disappointing. You may find yourself questioning your self-worth. Many of these houses will try to make you second guess every move you make. The bottom line is that you matter. You are worthy of love and acceptance. I beg each and every one of you – do not let the recruitment process take your worth. Those Greek letters do not define you. Keep in mind that those members you are trying so hard to impress have been up since 5 am preparing for you that day, and are trying just as hard to impress you as you are them. They have been exactly where you are. They are feeling a mix of emotions as well.
Lastly, keep an open mind. There are so many twists and turns – both good and bad – during the process. That so-called “bottom tier” house might be the house where you meet your future maid of honor. That house that cut you might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Even
if recruitment ends up not being for you, it is a fabulous way to meet new people and see parts of campus before the hustle and bustle of school begins.
Parents – This is a process that from your end is likely anxiety-inducing and sometimes heartbreaking. You’ve spent the past 18 years raising this outstanding human being whom you have just sent away to be on their own for the first time, and it may not go as either of you planned. Here are some things you can do to make this transition easier on you and your child:
1. LISTEN! Be an ear for your college student to vent. Give advice when it is asked for but keep in mind that listening is the biggest asset for your college student. Let them laugh, cry, scream, and do whatever else they might need. Remember you are their safe space.
2. If you’re able to visit, plan a visit after a few weeks of school starting. Let them get settled and comfortable on their own.
3. Reiterate to your college student the importance of choosing a house where they feel at home – not the coolest house on campus.
4. If recruitment doesn’t pan out or Greek life isn’t for them, help them identify other groups or organizations they can join prior to even stepping foot on campus. A support system at college is essential. There are plenty of options on college campuses – anything from student associations to the movie-watching club. There are endless
options!
5. Remind your child just how amazing they are.
6. Have a conversation with your college student that being dropped is a possibility. Piece together a Plan B so they don’t end up in their dorm room alone for the rest of the week.
7. Help your college student find their new path. Whether that path includes Greek life or not, this is the beginning of four imperative years.
8. If you were a member of a sorority, don’t push them too hard to follow in your footsteps. You never know if the experience that you had will be the same experience that your child is searching for.
As someone who had a firsthand look into Greek life, I want parents and college students to know that being in a Greek organization can be awesome, but there are plenty of other fun and fulfilling ways to keep you busy while at school. As cliché as this will sound, you will end up exactly where you are meant to be. So, take a deep breath, be yourself, and remember that the letters which might soon adorn your shirt do not define who you are. You are starting college and you have the world at your fingertips. Don’t limit that experience by feeling the need to earn a particular set of Greek letters or by trying to be someone you aren’t – just be authentically YOU.