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How to Actually Fit Self-Care Into Your Busy Life

The term “self-care” gets casually thrown around all the time. Overwhelmed at work? You need self-care. Kids stressing you out? Engage in self-care. Problems in your marriage? Self-care. Feeling down? Self-care. For some people, the term itself may sound abrasive, almost like an accusation that you’re not doing enough. As a parent, finding time for self-care is no easy feat, and our best intentions for making space are often overruled by temper tantrums, needing to get dinner on the table, and bedtime routines.

All that said, the value of self-care is immeasurable. You know when you get on an airplane, and the flight attendant says, “In case of emergency, put the oxygen mask on yourself before you assist others?” There is true sagacity in this guidance. You can’t be there to help your kids, your spouse, your parents, your coworkers, your friends, etc., etc., etc., if you can’t breathe. But self-care does not have to be a hard-fought endeavor. There are ways to tend to your needs that don’t require immense amounts of time, money, and, most importantly, stress!

The key to self-care is to practice it mindfullymeaning that you stay present in the moment. When you are taking time for yourself, your mind may wander to think about all the things you have to do today or how worried you are about the staff meeting tomorrow. That’s okay. Just notice that your mind drifted, then try to bring it back to what you’re doing. It takes practice, but it gets easier. Read on for some simple guidelines to build mindfulness into your daily dose of self-care:

Quality Over Quantity

If you’re able to get away for a spa day or take a 90-minute spin class, that’s awesome. Good for you! But for many of us, that kind of time for ourselves is just a pipe dream. That’s okay! What matters more than the amount of time you can give to yourself is how you use the time you have.

I encourage parents to be creative about how they use the time they already have for themselves. For example, taking a shower. Even if you don’t have time to take a shower every day, or your shower is only five minutes long with a crying toddler banging on the door the whole time, you can make that time count by mindfully engaging all of your senses:

  • Watch the stream of the waterfall coming out of the showerhead. Notice how thick or thin the stream is, what color the water appears, how it splashes on the ground below you, what water beads look like as they accumulate on your skin.
  • Listen to the sound of the water pouring down, the squishy sound of soap as you lather it in your hands, the sound your feet make as they slide along the floor.
  • Buy shampoo with your favorite scent. Inhale deeply as you lather and let the smell coat your nostrils. Pay attention to what feelings come up – the sense of smell is very closely associated with memory and emotions!
  • Taste the water as it streams past your mouth. What does it taste like? What does the temperature feel like? What is the texture like?
  • Feel the slipperiness of the water on your skin. Feel how soap changes from smooth to bubbly as you rub it between your fingers. Pay attention to the sensation of shampoo running from the top of your head, down your back, between your toes, and off your skin.

You might be surprised how many daily activities can be transformed into moments of self-care with intentional practice. Even washing the dishes or folding laundry can become a grounding time for yourself to focus on how these activities engage all five senses. 

“Zone In” 

So often, when we do get alone time, we want to zone out. How many times have you sat down to an episode of television at the end of a long day only to realize 22 minutes flew by and you can’t remember anything that happened? It may seem desirable to zone out, but we get so much more out of zoning in. Meaning engaging with that moment. If you’re watching a comedy, notice what it feels like when your body erupts in laughter. If you’re watching something sad, attend to the changes it evokes in your body and state of mind. Even if you feel too exhausted to actively stay present, notice that feeling and honor where your body is in that moment.

Pack Snacks

This may sound simple, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met with a parent for a 2:00 pm session and noticed they looked pale and tired, only to have them realize they haven’t had anything to eat or drink all day. Sometimes we get so caught up in everybody else’s needs that we completely forget to think about our own. It’s okay. You are doing your best. But just like that oxygen mask on an airplane, you won’t be able to tend to other people’s needs if you don’t meet your basic ones first. Sure, there may be days when you don’t have time to sit down for breakfast. But you can plan ahead by always having snacks in your bag – such as a granola bar, some trail mix, a packet of peanut butter, a couple of clementines – anything quick, portable, and ideally filling! It’s also essential to make sure you carry a bottle of water with you. It would be way more disruptive to end up hospitalized for dehydration than to stop and take a sip of water every once in a while!

Regular mindfulness practice has been shown to reduce stress, improve mood, and even increase productivity. If the above suggestions feel confusing or challenging to implement, you may want to start with something more guided. A quick YouTube search for “mindfulness meditation” will give you a selection of guided meditations of differing lengths of time – some are 1-2 minutes, some 5-10, some up to 30, depending on what works for you. The app Headspace also has a great selection of guided mindfulness tapes to get you going.

Whatever you do to engage in self-care, remind yourself that you are not just indulging yourself. Making the space for self-nourishment is not only self-serving; it serves your entire family because it means you will have the mental and physical energy to continue to be there for them, too. It’s also a great way to model for your children that everybody must take care of themselves! You need to have your own needs met, and you deserve to take some time for yourself. Happy self-caring!

Maintain Family Stability by Decreasing Your Own Emotional Arousal

Picture this: a parent sits down to dinner with their child. The child sees a pile of broccoli on his plate and begins to complain that he won’t eat it. The parent retorts, “Oh yes, you will!” They lock eyes and prepare for battle. Within minutes, everybody is riled up, screaming, and frustrated with each other, and the broccoli sits on the plate untouched. Moments like this happen often in families. An instigating event is followed by a sharp increase in everybody’s emotional arousal, which leads to breakdowns in communication, overreactions, saying things people don’t mean, hurt feelings, and friction in relationships.

When tension runs high between a parent and a child, the single most effective way to bring the energy back to baseline is for the parent to decrease their own arousal. Children are still developing the capacity to self-regulate and often struggle to manage their own strong emotions. One way that children learn to self-regulate is by co-regulating with their parent – meaning that whatever the parent feels, the child’s emotions are likely to tip in the same direction. This tendency is a direct factor of how close your relationship is and how much your child identifies with you, which is really beautiful…until broccoli ends up smashed all over the walls!

Basically, the more escalated you are, the more escalated your child is likely to be. On the other hand, the more you are able to stay calm, the more it helps your child to do the same. But staying calm is not always so easy. The following are some tips that have helped parents keep their cool in the midst of family conflict:

Learn Your Signs.

man staring into the ocean

Start observing yourself to notice patterns in your arousal level. There is often a moment when your blood pressure starts to go up, your heart rate begins to accelerate, and your breathing quickens just a little bit. Practice attending to your own bodily signals – at first just to observe, not with the goal of changing, but rather to learn and understand how your own body tends to respond to triggers. Can you identify the exact moment your body begins to process the stress?

Practice Cooling Down Your Body. 

woman smelling flowers

Once you’ve gotten the hang of identifying the start of your arousal, it is important to utilize this technique. This works best when your arousal level is still pretty low, before you’re so upset that you no longer feel in control. If you notice your heart beating just a bit faster or your breath just starting to get faster and shallower, take a few deep breaths. You can keep one hand on your chest or wrist to monitor your heart rate and see if you can feel your body coming back down to baseline. The more you are able to respond to and subsequently regulate your body’s reactions (this process is called biofeedback), the more you will feel in control of stressful moments.

Distract Yourself From the Situation

person looking a map

If your arousal level has already ticked up, you need more ammo to bring it back down. Take a mini mental vacation from an argument by thinking about something else. What exactly you try to think about will be different for every person. For some people, it helps to focus on a rote task, such as thinking about your grocery list. For other people, that causes too much stress! Some people get a lot out of visualization (like imagining yourself on your favorite vacation – maybe before you had kids!); others find it hard to conjure a happy image when they’re upset. It takes some trial and error to figure out what kind of thinking task works for you, but others that you can try include: doing math problems in your head, “replaying” an episode of TV you recently watched, planning out the steps to a task (such as the order in which you might prep dinner ingredients tonight)…and if all else fails, you can even whip out your phone and scroll through your Instagram feed for a minutes.

Leave the Room

person walking outside

This may be necessary if the arousal is too high for you to access any of these aforementioned skills. Separate yourself from the situation entirely until you have time to cool down. Staying in the room when you are upset increases the chances you will say or do something you don’t mean because your emotion has taken over. Make sure it’s safe to leave the room (you don’t want to leave your child unattended if they are unsafe, such as if they are engaging in self-harming behaviors), but as long as there are no glaring immediate threats, everybody in the family will probably be emotionally safer if you have some time apart. If you don’t feel comfortable leaving the child alone and you have a partner available, this is a good time to tag them in.

When we experience conflict with our children, we tend to focus more on how they are responding to the situation than on how we are. But as the parent, you and your actions set the frame for how an interaction will play out. So just remember… when tensions are running high, the first person to calm down is yourself!

Table Top Sensory!

OT/Sensory based table top activities for school-aged children

Play is an important aspect to a child’s growth and development. It is a child’s primary occupation to play. The occupations of a person are the meaningful and purposeful activities we participate in during the day. Adults have different occupations than children, but sometimes it is important for everyone to play! A child develops functional skills, motor skills, language skills and interpersonal skills through play. Engaging in different types of activities at home can even help your child develop skills in the classroom. Play helps encourage all areas of development, from cognitive and physical to social and emotional. Some benefits of play are it builds self-esteem and confidence, develops problem-solving skills, encourages new vocabulary usage, teaches children to be alone and independent, allows children to release their emotions and encourages planning and thinking ahead. It can be a great tool for children to connect with their peers and the adults around them. Fine motor development is important for children to develop as well as gross motor development. At a preschool age children are working on both. Gross motor (large muscle groups) development can impact fine motor (small muscle groups). As a child builds stability in their core it allows more control in the hands etc. Since play can be filled with opportunities for development, here are some activities children can play at a table while encouraging fine motor growth and development.

Tape play

Picking at the edges of the tape is a fun way for little hands to develop fine motor dexterity. They are working on a pincer grasp (tip-to-tip pinch of the thumb and index finger)
Playing a word spelling game with boxes made out of tape. Have the child help tear the tape into bits (tripod grasp, working on small motor strength of the hand arches)

Tweezers play

Pick up large or small objects with tweezers. Put things in sand, rice or beans and have children try to tweeze them out. (Tripod grasp, working on separating the two sides of the hand in a small motor task)
Sort pom –poms by color or size with tweezers into cupcake tins, bowls or empty egg cartons. Have the child tweeze a pom- pom from one side of the body to the other. (Tripod grasp, working on crossing mid-line.)

Play dough play

Press thick beads into play dough with the thumb in a bent position. This helps encourage development of an appropriate pencil grasp. (Working on the muscles needed to oppose with an open web space and flex the tip of the thumb.
Using play dough mats or the surface of a table play utilize play dough by pushing, smashing, rolling, and pulling it apart. Make sure the whole arm is involved in manipulating the dough! (Working on finger, shoulder and arm strength that helps support an age appropriate writing grasp.)

Pipe cleaner play

After tying a knot at one end, have the child hold the pipe cleaner with one hand and bead with the other. Using beads with smaller openings will require the child to use more finger strength. Make patterns with colors or shapes for more fun! (Working tip-to-tip pinch of the thumb, index finger and eye/hand coordination. )
Place an upside down colander on the table. Use various sized pipe cleaners to poke through the holes. Make designs and patterns using different colors. Try to get the same pipe cleaner in more than one hole. Add a time challenge for older children to see how many they can place in 30 seconds. (Working on pincer grasp, eye/hand coordination, bilateral coordination and sequencing.)

Water play

Sort water beads by color or size using a spoon or measuring cup. Place water beads in a bin or a sink and have the child scoop and sort into cups or buckets.
Filling up a container with water, have the child use a turkey baster or plastic pipettes to squeeze water in and out.. Add food coloring, sparkles or bath toys for more sensory play. For younger children, use a sponge he or she can squeeze out after dipping it into the water bin. (Tripod grasp, working on pinching and fine motor strength/ coordination.)

Setting Your Child Up For Success: Helping to Master New Skills

Children are constantly learning, and not just in the classroom. Every book they read, every toy they play with, every person they speak to…pretty much every situation they encounter is filled with opportunities to develop cognitive, motor, social-emotional, and problem-solving skills.

While some of this learning can happen independently, the importance of an “instructor” has been well documented. If there is a particular skill your child is working hard on, read on for guidance on how to help him master the next step!

Work in the Zone of Proximal Development

young boy reading books

Lev Vygotsky, a pioneer of social constructivist learning theory, developed a concept called the “Zone of Proximal Development.” The idea is basically that there is a subset of knowledge that children can attain on their own. Meaning they can master a skill to a certain extent without any other assistance. There is also a level of knowledge beyond the child’s reach – no amount of independent learning and exploring will be sufficient for them to reach that level. The Zone of Proximal Development (or ZPD) is the area in between. In the ZPD, an instructor, or what Vygotsky called a “Knowledgeable Other” (i.e., someone who has already mastered the skill), facilitates the child in skill-building by challenging them to work one step above their current level of mastery.

So what does this mean in practice? Let’s start by thinking about how the ZPD could apply to a younger child. For example, say you’re working on fine motor skills. The child may be able to play with large building blocks, such as Duplos, on their own. But after a while, no amount of playing with Duplos will further their fine motor skills.

Perhaps the goal is to build with smaller Legos, but they’re not quite ready yet. If you simply hand them the Legos, they’re likely to get frustrated and give up pretty quickly. Instead, to inch them towards the next stage of learning, scaffold them by providing hands-on assistance. Maybe at first, they guide the Legos to the right place, and you help to click them together. Keep challenging your child to push one level past their current mastery while providing direct support to complete the task. Once they master placing Legos on top of each other, you can work towards having you both push the Legos together, then working together to complete more complex configurations, and so on until you’ve got a Lego Master on your hands!

For older children or teens, this could mean speaking to them using vocabulary that is one level above what they’ve mastered—or asking questions about their homework that pushes them to think one level above their current inferential abilities.

An excellent way to gauge whether you’re in the ZPD is to look for the anchors: if they can complete the task without any assistance, they’re ready for the next challenge. If it’s too hard to do, even with you supporting them one on one, dial it back. You’re looking for the sweet spot where you can serve as a symbolic “step ladder” towards making progress. 

Give Positive Feedback

mom helping son on the computer

Learning a new skill often carries a certain level of excitement and intrigue with it but can also evoke a good deal of frustration and self-consciousness. As parents, we often point out when our children take a misstep when learning something new (“No, the puzzle piece doesn’t go there…”), but we sometimes forget to give feedback on what they are doing right (“You’ve got really strong follow-through on your baseball swing!”). Giving this feedback helps children know what to keep doing – without getting honest feedback about what’s going well, they might not realize it’s something they should keep up!

To do this, give labeled praise as much as possible. Tell them exactly what it is they’re doing well using language that shows that you are proud of them or they’re doing a great job. I love how nicely you’re sitting still at the dinner table! You’re doing a great job focusing on studying. That was some excellent balancing you did on your new bike! The more feedback they get for the good, the more they’ll build on those skills, the better they’ll feel about themselves, and the longer they’ll stick with a difficult task!

Focus on Progress, Not Outcome

young girl coloring a picture

We can’t expect perfection on our first try – beyond beginner’s luck, perhaps! If you wait for your child to nail a difficult task, you’ll both be waiting forever. Instead, help build momentum by breaking challenges into steps. For example, if your child is working on their golf skills, keep them close to the hole. As their aim and swing improve, move them further and further back. If your child is working on contributing to household chores, start with simple tasks (like carrying their plate to the sink), then work up to the next step (running the plate under water) until they’re ready for the Full Monty (scrubbing dishes with soap and sponge). If your teen is learning a new language, start by helping them study simple vocabulary (like putting index cards on different everyday objects around your house), then work up to more complex vocab and grammatical structures!

How to be Your Child’s “Emotion Coach”

We are born with an innate capacity to feel. In fact, our emotions serve a survival function. A newborn baby lacks the ability to communicate verbally with her parents – she can’t tell you that she’s hungry, tired, or needs a change. What she can do, though, is express her discontentment with a sharp cry, which immediately mobilizes you to tend to her needs. She doesn’t produce this cry intentionally – it’s simply her body’s natural mechanism to protect her livelihood.

Thus, we are hardwired to experience and exhibit different emotions (including the six universal emotions: happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust, and anger) long before our brains are mature enough to really process and understand them. The frontal lobe, which is the brain’s emotional control hub, as well as the system that is responsible for logic, reasoning, judgment, and personality, doesn’t fully develop until age 25. This means that as children and teens mature and experience more complex emotions, their ability to comprehend and regulate those emotions is still catching up.

While kids are in the throes of learning to process their feelings, parents can help scaffold them towards healthy emotional expression. Read on for some tips on how to help children become masters of emotions:

Build Their Emotional Vocabulary. 

In order to master emotions, children need to be able to name them. Having a label for what they are experiencing is comforting because it creates a sense of familiarity (“I know what this is, I’ve felt this way before”) and puts your child in control – he can draw on memories of when he’s felt that way in the past and how he’s handled it. Labeling also creates some distance from the feelings (think of the Snickers tagline: “You’re not you when you’re hungry”) – it helps your child separate his personality (which is more stable) from his emotions (which are constantly changing). Finally, feelings labels are validating – they help remind him that he is human, and that his feelings are totally normal.

A fun way to build emotion literacy is by playing feelings charades. Sit down with your child and make a list together of every single feelings word you both can think of. This is a great opportunity to assess how expansive his vocabulary is and help teach some new words (if he understands the word “surprised”, maybe he can learn more nuanced off-shoots of that emotion, such as “startled”, “confused”, “amazed”, or “excited”).

Once you’ve got a solid list, cut out each feeling word, throw them all in a hat, and take turns picking words and acting out the feelings for the other to guess! When it’s your turn to guess, comment on what you’re seeing your child do (“Hmm, you’re furrowing your brow, your mouth is turned down a little, and you’re holding your hands in fists – I think you’re angry!”). When it’s his turn, ask him how he knew what feeling you were acting out!

Following is a sample list of feelings words to help you get going:

HappyBraveSickCourageous
CalmLovingCuriousFrustrated
ProudShyJealousWorried
ExcitedAfraidInterestedScared
SadAnxiousEmbarrassedDisgusted
TiredAngryAshamedGuilty
ExhaustedMadDisappointedPleased

Label Emotions. 

Now that you have a good idea of what emotions she knows and can recognize, use those feelings words often in everyday conversation. Label what you’re feeling (“I’m feeling really happy playing this game with you”), label what she’s feeling (“I see that you’re crying. You look like you’re feeling sad that your friend couldn’t come over today.”), label what characters in books or TV shows are feeling (“Wow, Alexander feels really mad about his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day!”). This practice helps build her emotional awareness and teach her that it’s okay (in fact, it’s good!) to talk about feelings.

Coach Them to Use Feelings Language in the Moment. 

We naturally feel emotions very physiologically, but it takes practice to articulate those feelings verbally. Now that you’ve been practicing learning and using emotional language, guide him to describe his own feelings. Some children start by verbalizing their feelings inappropriately, such as making comments such as, “I hate you,” when they’re mad with you. Rather than getting upset with your child for making this comment, try to read between the lines and help him learn to say what he really means – this can be as simple as responding, “You’re really mad at me.” By showing him that you understand, it will help build trust in your relationship and scaffold him towards being able to use more effective means of communicating his feelings.

Praise Emotional Expression. 

Give your child positive feedback for any attempts she makes to communicate her emotions, even if she doesn’t do so in the most productive way. For example, if she is throwing a massive temper tantrum (think stomping feet, throwing toys, rolling around on the ground…), but at some point in the mayhem, she’s able to say, “I’m mad!”, jump on the opportunity to thank her for telling you how she feels. If she’s calm enough to hear you, you can add, “Now that I know that you’re feeling mad, we can work together to help you feel better.” This will show her that sharing her feelings, particularly when they feel out of her control, can beget the help she needs to learn how to manage them.

Model Emotional Expression and Control. 

To help your child learn how to communicate his feelings using words, show him how. Talk about your own feelings in developmentally appropriate ways, and talk out what strategies you might use to help yourself feel better if you’re feeling bad. Be careful to maintain appropriate boundaries – I’m not suggesting you go and air all your dirty laundry to your child! But a lot of parents feel like they need to hold it together and not show their children when they’re distressed. The reality is that no matter how good an actor you are, your children know you well and can probably guess how you’re feeling, so you might as well own your emotions as an opportunity to build their emotion muscles. Children also have a tendency to feed off their parents’ emotions, so by sharing and working through your own feelings, you are simultaneously helping them work through theirs.

Let’s say there’s a sick relative in the family, and you’re worried about them. Your child probably feels the same way. It’s healthy to have an open conversation about this. You could say something like, “You might notice I’m a little down today. I’m feeling sad because grandma is sick, and I wish she were feeling better.” Now that you’ve put your feelings out there, you and your child can talk about what it’s like for each of you when you’re sad, and what helps each of you to feel better. You can even solicit your child’s help in engaging in an activity that would help you both feel more regulated (for example, “I think it would make me feel better if I sent her a letter with some pictures. Would you help me pick out which pictures to send?”). 

Discussing feelings openly helps to demystify them and empower your children to feel in control of them. The more you can coach them to be “emotion masters”, the more effective everybody is likely to be in communicating with each other!

Letting Your Kids Work It Out On Their Own

We want our kids to succeed, plain and simple. We want to see them thrive, accomplish things, feel good about themselves, and reach their potential. For some parents, though, the pathway to mastery can be pretty painful. So if you ache to watch your child trying to learn a new skill, if you feel an impulse to jump in and rescue them from a challenge, or if you have an even harder time than your child does coping when they miss the mark, this article is for you!

First off, your compassion for your child is beautiful. The fact that you feel so deeply for them is a visceral sign of how deeply you love them, how connected you feel to them, and how far your empathy travels. However, if your level of discomfort exceeds theirs when watching them tackling a difficult challenge, it might get in the way of their ability to master a skill.

Following are some tips to help you navigate moments when your child is facing a challenge. These are ways to help you balance how much to help versus how much to lay off. In addition, how to resist that pesky impulse to intervene at the wrong moment!

When to Step In

 It is healthy for children to confront some challenges. Facing novel tasks head-on encourages them to develop their problem-solving skills, build grit and resilience, use creativity, work on self-regulation, and cultivate independence. But when the challenge is too steep, it can be discouraging and promote feelings of inadequacy.

When you’re trying to figure out whether to step in, first consider your child’s developmental level. Think about what skills they already have, and take a beat to determine whether you have good reason to believe they can apply those skills to the current situation. If the task seems entirely beyond their reach, consider the least possible intervention to make the task possible. A little bit of frustration on their end is okay – in fact, it can even be motivating – so long as the frustration doesn’t rise so much that they can’t cope with it. The goal here is to scaffold them towards mastery of a new skill. The sweet spot is when they have to work a little harder and use a little ingenuity to figure it out.

Wait It Out

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a task is at the right level for a kid to take on independently. If you’re concerned that you might intervene too soon and get in the way of their progress, hit pause. See if you can hold off for 5 minutes before stepping in. This will give you and them some time to see if they can figure it out independently.

But how do you fight that all-consuming urge to step in??

Find Your Mantra

Come up with a short and snappy phrase you can repeat to yourself in the moment to remind yourself why you’re stepping back. He can do this. This is how she’ll learn. My anxiety doesn’t need to be his anxiety. Find the thought that fits for you and say it in your mind as much as necessary. If you need something even more substantial, you can write the thought down on an index card that you keep in your wallet as a visual reminder.

Observe Your Feelings Like Clouds

Feelings don’t last forever. If you wait long enough, each feeling will pass, and new feelings come along. If your distress level is high and makes you want to “rescue” your child (when your child is doing okay on their own…), label your feeling. Do you feel scared? Anxious? Uncomfortable? Find the word that fits your emotional state, and imagine that word plastered across a cloud overhead. Observe the cloud floating in, covering you in its shade, then moving along until it’s out of sight. This practice not only grounds you in the moment and makes you feel more in control of your emotions, but it also serves as a distraction to help you wait it out!

If All Else Fails, Step Away

If the urge to intervene is too strong, and you know it could cause negative repercussions (like embarrassing your child in front of his friends, perhaps!), separate yourself. Pace out of sight, turn your head away from the situation, distract yourself by talking to someone else, or even scroll through your phone. Bonus: taking the time to help yourself cool down when your emotions get the best of you is excellent modeling for your children to learn how to cool down when their emotions get the best of them!

Remember, we all need to stumble to learn how to get back up again. It’s okay to let your kids work some challenges out on their own, so long as they have the skillset and self-confidence to do so. The more opportunities they have, even if they don’t end successfully, the more they’ll grow!

Seven Back-to-School Strategies

Set your child up for school success in 2020-21 with these back to school strategies.

Most years, the back-to-school time is filled with excitement and hopefulness for kids, and relief for parents glad for the return of the structure of a school schedule.  This year, of course, is not a typical year.

As we move into the new school year, the range of emotions expressed by our children, parents and teachers could not be broader. While there is certainly the excitement of seeing friends, and the hopefulness of a bit of normalcy, there are also feelings of uncertainty, confusion, and stress regarding the many unknowns and things beyond our control. As we navigate the new environment, we will all need to be prepared to “roll with the punches.”

Although these months will require significant flexibility on everyone’s part, we have compiled seven strategies to help your child (and you) during these topsy-turvy times:

  1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
  2. Enter the Home Classroom
  3. Meet the New Assistant Teacher
  4. Allow For Transition Time
  5. Create Structure & Consistency
  6. Strike The Home / School Balance
  7. Learn New Behaviors

1.    Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Hopefully you’ll find a better method (Photo by Andrea Piacquadio)

Be as fully prepared as possible to answer your child’s questions and establish good communication with school staff.

  • Attend school activities and meetings, albeit through the remote platforms that we are able to access. During these meetings, your school will be disseminating information, answering questions, and soliciting feedback.
  • Clarify how your child’s teacher/school will be communicating with you. Stay up to date on emails/websites/texts so you know what your child is supposed to be doing.
  • If your child is having trouble staying focused and motivated, consult with your child’s teacher or a designated member of your school’s social-emotional learning team, and be creative to incorporate more hands-on activities.

2.    Enter the Home Classroom

The apple is for you (Photo by Photo by VisionPic .net)

Create a “Home Classroom” to help your child stay productive, engaged, and focused throughout the day.  Whatever the new school year brings, students will be engaged for part, if not all, of their week in remote learning, and either way, it is essential to get your home school space ready to go.

  • Have all possible school supplies necessary in one space to limit your child’s need to get up and down during learning time.
  • Limit distractions in this area by removing extra electronics, games, and toys.
  • Having a space designated for “school” allows the child to differentiate between school and home time. If space does not allow for a separate area, identify a designated workspace with all their supplies in a tub or laundry basket nearby. Ideally, this should be an open space where you can visually check in with your child to ensure they are engaged in their learning. If possible, your child’s workspace should not be in their room (though for some older kids/teens this may work fine – it depends on your child).
  • Keep usernames and passwords readily available.
  • Have a water bottle and snacks (fruit, almonds, etc.) nearby to limit the ups and downs throughout the day. Having healthy choices readily available will improve your child’s overall functioning and provide them with the fuel they need throughout the day.

3.    Meet the New Assistant Teacher

No, that doesn’t mean you do the work for them (Photo by August de Richelieu)

Like it or not, you’re now the new Assistant Teacher.  While few of us have actually been trained for the role, there are some things we can do to do the best best job we can.

  • Be prepared to help. If your child is struggling, they will likely quickly become frustrated and unmotivated. After a couple of independent attempts, try doing a practice example together and then move on to the next problem/question.
  • Help your child organize tasks. Assist in breaking down large tasks. Prioritizing tasks helps them become less overwhelmed throughout the day.
  • Do regular check-ins. Whether or not your child is working independently throughout the day, plan a check-in at the end of the day (or multiple times throughout the day depending on your child’s level of independence) to make sure your child is on track with learning and teacher expectations. This allows you to ensure they do not fall behind and provides an opportunity to teach them life skills about organization, procrastination, and asking for help when needed.
  • Create a reward system, particularly for younger children who may be less intrinsically motivated. Based on your child’s age you can provide rewards by the day or week. Rewards can range from a special dessert if all school tasks are completed during the day to a bigger reward such as a new game for completing their work throughout the week. Relationship-based non-monetary rewards are even better, such as choosing a family game to play or movie to watch together, choosing what’s for dinner, or an extra book at bedtime.
  • Create visual signs to maintain boundaries. When you are working from home and your child is doing schoolwork, there are times when you cannot be interrupted. Setting up signs can help give visual cues to teach your child when they can ask for help and when they need to wait. For example, you can put a stop sign up at your workspace when you cannot be interrupted and take it down when you are available. You can similarly create “Help” signs for your child that they can put on their workspace.

4.    Allow for Transition Time

*Child’s desk may not be as neat (Photo by Burst)

Plan for time between different activities: hybrid learning, working with pods in the neighborhood, or even sharing time between two homes.

  • Coordinate with those sharing responsibility in your child’s education to create as much consistency across environments as possible. (Examples – scheduling, expectations, use of reward systems, etc.)
  • Share successful strategies with teammates.
  • Help your child to create checklists to ensure needed materials are successfully transitioned between locations so your child has the supplies they need each day. (Depending on your child’s age, you may be responsible for the entire list.)

5.    Create Structure

Chalk walls are always fun, too (Photo by Julia M Cameron)

Provide structure; consistency is key is success in the new learning environment.

  • Create a schedule. Your school will likely provide you with a schedule, noting times for check-ins with teachers and peer-to-peer group learning opportunities. If your school does not provide a specific schedule, creating one can help your child stay on track. It allows your child to establish a routine so they understand expectations and can work more independently. A schedule also increases the child’s inner sense of “control”, further reducing stress.
  • Include both movement and brain breaks throughout the day (put them in the schedule). Some great ideas are doing three yoga poses between academic tasks or drawing a picture. To foster independence, you can write each activity on a popsicle stick and put them all in a cup. When a break comes up in the schedule, your child can randomly pick one and do it! (FYI- TV, video games, etc. can make it difficult to re-engage in school activities.)

6.    Strike the Home / School Balance

You won’t find me up there (Photo by Marcelo Moreira)

Support your child’s emotional health by keeping the balance and boundaries between “home” and “school.”

  • Be ready to manage stress…your child’s and your own. Make sure you are allowing times for self-care, individual recreational activities, and family activities. Both stress and calm are contagious. To set your child up for calm, it is essential that you are taking care of your own emotional needs first.
  • If you and your child are experiencing conflict surrounding school, it is especially important to balance them with positive experiences unrelated to “school” to maintain a healthy parent-child relationship.
  • Include transition activities at the beginning and end of the day. The trip to and from school provides this by allowing your child to “gear up” for school and “wind down.” If your child is learning remotely, it is important to keep these transitions for your child. It may be as simple as cleaning up, organizing, and preparing the space for the next day. The point is that by scheduling “transition activities” creates closure and separation between various areas of your child’s life.
  • Establish expectations surrounding screen time. Given screen time will naturally increase with virtual learning, it is important to limit additional screen time. The neurological and emotional impacts of screens can occur regardless of the content. The point here is to find a balance between tech time and other activities.
  • Keep the social connections. This can be virtually or in person with distancing. Ongoing peer interactions will foster healthy social and emotional development.
  • Exercise. Get your child moving and get them outdoors.
  • Schedule family game night/movie night/basketball night, etc.

7.    Learn new behaviors

Now, if she’d only stay six feet away (Photo by Yaroslav Danylchenko)

For those returning to the school environment, there are some new behaviors you need to introduce or reinforce. With the return to the classroom, we want behaviors to protect their safety to be second nature.

  • Practice wearing a mask in as many environments as possible. This includes washing your hands before and after you touch your mask.
  • Model social distancing. Increase your child’s awareness of their personal space and space of others keeping 6 feet apart.
  • Point out one-way signs and floor tape indicating directions to walk.
  • Point out floor markers showing spacing while waiting in line.
  • Show your child what 6 feet is with a tape measure or piece of string.
  • Identify items in your child’s environment that are 6 feet long (their bed, the width of the dining room table, two hops, etc.).
  • Teach and practice coughing/sneezing etiquette. Reinforce coughing and sneezing into your elbow or a tissue, then immediately washing your hands.
  • Avoid touching your face. Some tips to help kids do this include keeping their hands in their pockets or sitting on them.
  • Model and practice proper hand washing. Use soap and warm water, singing “Happy Birthday” twice, using a paper towel to turn off the water (not their clean hands). Create a habit of all family members washing their hands as soon as they return to the house.
  • Be on the lookout for hand sanitizer and use it frequently.
  • Teach your child about lunchroom practices for their school which may include eating in the classroom, eating with their pod, or eating in individual spaces in the cafeteria. Their lunchtime structure will likely look significantly different than it has in previous years. Being prepared for change helps.

Remember

If you or your child are struggling with the “new normal” you are not alone. Some of us have handled these challenges admirably, but the reality is that children and adults alike have been asked to adapt to huge changes in a very short period of time with limited clear guidance on best practices. (For proof that you’re not alone, see this NYT piece “School Chaos Is Breaking Me”)

Keep self-compassion and self-care as your top priorities, and help your child prioritize healthy ways to stay emotionally and physically balanced. At the same time, do not hesitate to seek out personal and professional supports to help see you through these challenges and pave the way for smoother transitions ahead. If interested, see our Services page, or send us an email at hello@sascoriver.com.

How to Play

Come on, let’s play! (Photo by Skitterphoto)

How to Play
(With Your Child)

A lot of parents find the idea of “play” to be a source of frustration. Some find it boring, some find it confusing, and many simply feel that they don’t know how to play. I often hear parents say, “Nobody played with me when I was a child, so now I don’t know how to play with my child.”. The good news is that you don’t need to work nearly so hard in order to engage meaningfully with your child. Children come preprogrammed to play – it is how they learn to explore their environment, make sense of their world, and build a whole host of skills – so if you take a step back, you’ll see that your child can teach you everything you need to know.

The importance of play

Research shows that play serves a number of integral functions in a child’s development. Play:

  • Offers opportunities to build mastery (for example, playing with small kitchen equipment builds fine motor skills),
  • Helps develop self-regulatory capacities (when things don’t go as planned during play, such as a tower falling over, children practice frustration tolerance),
  • Allows them to work on problem-solving skills (such as how to rebuild that tower with a stronger foundation). It also exercises their communication skills. Think about how much language they can use during a tea party or when playing doctor; and
  • Gives them an opportunity to try out and rehearse different roles, practice following societal expectations, and work through difficult moments.

While children can build on each of these skills through independent play, playing with a parent offers opportunities to expand on these skills, to play out more complex themes, and most importantly, to deepen and enrich intimacy and bonding in the parent-child relationship. Particularly in the era of social distancing, when children are largely suffering the loss of a peer group, they need us more than ever to support them in fulfilling this foundational task of childhood.

So if the idea of playing with your child seems off-putting or tiresome, read on for some simple strategies to take off some pressure, increase the positive impact, and actually make play fun for both you and your child.

Let Your Child Take the Lead

He’s the boss, sort of (Photo by Pixabay)

Letting your child take the lead is perhaps the single most important advice I can give. This is particularly true for parents who struggle to figure out what to do during play. Your child knows what to do, and he will show you. Children spend most of the day following the rules and expectations of adults. Free play is an opportunity for them to explore, to feel in control, and to take a load off from trying to do the “right” thing all the time.

So if your child uses playtime to order you around or doesn’t seem willing to accept your suggestions, that’s okay. Resist the impulse to assert yourself, and just watch how the play unfolds. If you’re playing with dolls, and you have one doll say to another, “It’s time for dinner,” and your child responds, “No, he doesn’t say that,” this does not mean that your child is being bossy or uncompromising. Rather, your child is hard at work exploring the environment in a way that is meaningful to him. Follow his cues and play along with the scene he is concocting. You may find that he’s actually trying to work through a problem he’s facing or make sense of things he’s observed in his environment (more on that in a minute…).

But Also Structure the Environment to be Tolerable to You!

It’s okay for you to have fun, too (Photo by Gustavo)

Yes, it’s important to let your child choose the activity and be in control of how the play unfolds. However, if you absolutely hate playing dress-up or building with Magnatiles, nobody’s going to have a good time. So when you are playing together, take some pressure off yourself and keep any activity that would drive you up a wall in a closet for another time. Instead, lay out two to four different activities that you can see yourself enjoying for your child to choose from, and let her take the lead from there.

You Don’t Need to Give Up Your Whole Day, but Be Consistent

It’s hard to find the time to sit down and play when you have so many competing demands – cooking dinner, cleaning the house, helping an older child with homework, attending to any of your own work you may have, the list goes on. If you’re short on time, that’s okay!

According to studies done about one type of play-based therapy called Parent Child Interaction Therapy (or PCIT for short), you can have a positive impact on your child in as little as five minutes per day. So long as two things are true:

  1. You spend five minutes playing with your child EVERY day – that means seven days per week, 52 weeks per year. And,
  2. you make those five minutes count. That means being totally present – not checking your phone, not folding laundry, not spacing out.

If you can give your child at least five minutes of one on one playtime every single day, you are likely to see a decrease in difficult-to-manage, attention-seeking behavior at other times. Knowing he can count on having that important bonding time with you no matter what will provide him a sense of stability and connection in your relationship that will pay off for years to come!

Finally, Listen to What They’re Really Telling You

Listen… (Photo by Gustavo)

You can learn a lot about how your child experiences the world by paying attention to the themes that come up in his play. This is another reason letting her take the lead is so important. Parents often feel they need to “correct” their child if she does something socially awkward or out of the norm when playing. For example, if your child uses one doll to hit another doll, you might feel an urge to pivot the play to make the doll apologize. But it’s actually really healthy for your child to play out those impulses – it could be that she is discharging her aggression in a safe way (through toys rather than with her own body), or that she is experimenting with what it feels like to be the aggressor and/or the victim. Playing out aggressive themes doesn’t necessarily mean your child will become aggressive – if anything, chances are it will decrease aggression behavior because she has an appropriate outlet.

The easiest way to spot a deeper message in your child’s play is if you notice something recurs. Sometimes parents get tired of their child playing out the same exact scene over and over, but this is actually a fascinating strategy children use to come to terms with what they’ve experienced.

I was recently playing with a family friend’s daughter who wanted to play doctor. For over an hour, she had me pretend to be different patients – and each one had the flu, and each one died. Unsurprisingly, I learned that she had recently had the flu and had spent a lot of time at the doctor’s office. By playing out her biggest fear over and over, that having the flu could result in death, she was using play (the language of childhood) to communicate her feelings, face her fear head on, and work through it. After we played out this scene about a hundred times, she was satisfied and wanted to go play with Legos instead. According to her parents, that was the last time she brought up the doctor for a while.

Come on, let’s play!

So when it comes to playing with your child, you don’t have to worry about coming up with the perfect activity or maximizing “teachable moments”. Your child will gain the most from playing with you if you take a backseat and let him direct the show!

Managing Strong Emotions

Managing Strong Emotional Reactions in Children and Teens

Woman in Gray Tank Top

Have you ever been so overwhelmed with an emotion that it felt all-consuming? Like you were stuck in a deep, dark emotion pit without a ladder? When emotions take the reins, they can make it really hard to focus on the situation at hand, to process logical reasoning, and to problem-solve. The crippling impact of overwhelming emotion is even stronger for children and adolescents, because they are still developing neurologically and don’t have the same capacities as adults to self-regulate. So what is a parent to do when their child is swallowed up by fear, worry, anger, or sadness? Following are some tips to help you help your child manage strong emotions:

Address the Emotion

Father holding cheeks of son in face mask

When children or teens are having meltdowns, many parents try to speak to them rationally. While parents do this with the best of intentions, the problem is that when somebody is in an emotional tailspin, the logical part of their brain is completely shut down. Even the most revelatory comment will go straight over their heads until the emotional arousal comes down.

So when emotion carries your child away, instead of trying to problem-solve, start by addressing the emotion. If they are too far gone to access language, label the emotion for them (e.g., “I can see that you are very upset”) and validate why they feel so upset, even if you feel they are behaving inappropriately (e.g., “I understand that you are really mad that you have to finish your homework before you watch TV”). Oftentimes having somebody acknowledge how you feel helps bring the level of the emotion down to a tolerable level, which then makes it easier to reflect, redirect, and problem-solve.

Help Your Child Ground

Person Wearing Red Hoodie

Another way to bring down emotional arousal is to force the brain to think about something else. “Grounding” skills are techniques that are designed to direct your focus to something occurring in the present moment, rather than having your brain carried off by emotion.

One helpful grounding skill is the 5 Senses Activity. Guide your child to identify:

  • 5 things they can see
  • 4 things they can hear
  • 3 things they can touch
  • 2 things they can smell, and
  • 1 thing they can taste.

In a pinch, you can do even simpler grounding activities, such as counting activities (e.g., How many light switches do you see in the room? How many tiles are on the floor? How many surfaces can you sit on?). Try it yourself right now – the more you have to focus on something in your immediate environment, the harder it is for your brain to get distracted by anything else, which gives your emotions time to cool off.

Preempt the Emotion

Close-up Photography Of A Girl Eating Bread

These first couple skills are for use in the moment, when the emotion has already taken over. In the long run, it can help to identify patterns and warning signs. Spend some time observing your child and getting a feel for common triggers. This can help you preempt significant escalations in emotion (for example, if your child tends to get “hangry”, save difficult conversations for after they’ve had a snack).

That said, it’s also good for children to learn to “build the muscle” of tolerating difficult emotion (the world won’t always be able to accommodate them as well as a parent can!), but this needs to happen in a graduated way. In calm, quiet moments, work with your child to help them identify when they tend to get upset and how they know their emotions are rising. What do they feel in their body? What thoughts go through their head? Once they become familiar enough with their own signs of emotional arousal, they can practice self-regulation skills before it’s too late, such as deep breathing, positive mental imagery, or separating themselves from a difficult situation. At first, you may need to help guide them to use these skills when you notice an uptick in emotional arousal, but in time, these skills will become more automatic, and they will be better able to initiate self-regulation strategies independently.

Model Self-Regulation Skills

Child With Woman Holding Map

Children learn about emotions from those around them. The more you are able to regulate your own emotions, the more they learn to do so themselves. This doesn’t mean being an emotion robot – many parents worry about their kids seeing them upset. What’s most helpful to kids is to see that it’s okay to feel these feelings (at safe levels), and that there’s something they can do about it. So when you’re upset about things, it’s healthy to let it show in front of your kids in small doses, to talk about your feelings in developmentally-appropriate language, and most importantly, to talk about what you’re going to do to help yourself feel more calm. Young children will enjoy joining you in self-regulation activities, such as the ones listed above, and it will be good practice for them to get into the habit!

Build Your Own Tolerance For Their Distress

Ethnic father and kid relaxing in bedroom

While children are growing, their bodies are too small to handle the big emotions they sometimes feel. It is typical for children to have big reactions to strong feelings while they get the hang of self-regulation. The goal is to help them feel confident in their abilities to self-soothe, but this doesn’t happen overnight, and too much pressure to regulate faster than their bodies are capable of can hinder the process. 

When your child is having a meltdown, remind yourself that they are doing their best in that moment, and you can continue to help them build their regulatory muscles when they are calm again. Take a few deep breaths, and trust that if you are able to stay regulated yourself in those most difficult of moments, it will help your child see that they are safe and protected by you even when they don’t feel safe and protected in their own bodies. And remind yourself that you are doing your best, too! Learning to self-regulate is hard work for everybody. It’s okay if it feels impossible sometimes. It will become easier in time!

Still too much?

As always, reach out to us if you need more information or help.