Benefits of Therapy for Children During the Summer

The countdown is on! Days are getting longer, sun is getting warmer, and the last school bell is right around the corner (35 days away if your counting!).

For many children, summertime is a break with less responsibilities, more freedom, and less stress. Due to increased time for free play, promoting independence, and strengthening interpersonal relationships it may be a great time to start thinking about taking some of the availability in schedule to address certain symptoms you may have noticed your child demonstrating during the school year.

Before the School Year Ends

Take time to schedule parent-teacher conferences, follow up with guidance counselors, 504 contacts, and coaches to get a clear picture on how your child has adjusted throughout the school year. It is unlikely children will “grow” out of certain mood, impulse, behavior, or social struggles in a matter of months without support. In my clinical experience, abatement of school year stressors are likely to return, in more severe forms during the next school year if not addressed.

Availability to Focus on Home Based Challenges

If your child or teen struggles with behavior problems at home and in school, summer can be a great opportunity to hone in on improving skills in the home environment. Therapists can work with your child and family on identifying mood disturbances, increasing problem solving skills, planning and organization, and increasing positive communication in the family system. During the school year hustle and grind, it can be easy to allow these important goals fall to the wayside. Summer is a great time to tune up our emotional growth inside the family system (where change is most likely to stick!)

Structure

Change in routine can be wonderful, but also can cause uncertainty in the lives of school aged children and teens who are hardwired to schedules. Adding weekly therapy appointments provides routine and structure to the laid back feel of the summertime. Keeping children on consistent schedules has been proven to increase sense of security, positive self-image, and control in numerous environments.

Increase Your Family Tool Bank

Therapy provides an opportunity to learn and develop healthy coping strategies in a safe environment, but the benefits extend past changes in your teen or child. By engaging in this collaborative effort you are letting your child know the family is working to improve together, and it is a priority to the family to be the best you can! Benefits such as improved communication, reflection of feelings, and increased emotional connection are only some of the wonderful outcomes of investing in you and your child’s mental and emotional health this summer!

For more information on booking an appointment or consultation for your child, teen, or family contact Michelle Smith MS, RMHCI

405-323-1786

Understanding Anxiety

Anxiety. We all know the feeling. An all-encompassing emotional response to a real or perceived threat. Right now with FSA testing happening in school districts across the state, anxiety levels are sky-rocketed for students, parents, and teachers alike. During times of increased stress you may notice changes in your child’s behavior such as irritability, rigidity, outbursts, and attempting to gain control of the world around them. Although anxiety is a normal emotional response, it can become detrimental especially if ruminating thoughts regarding what “might” happen take over.

During high emotional times such as state testing, you may notice your own anxiety increasing more than normal. Anxiety, like many emotions, is contagious and just being in a setting with high anxiety can increase another’s feelings of anxiety. So how can parents “weather the storm” of testing anxiety season and support and also encourage our students to be the best they can be?

Encourage and Validate

Parents, teachers, and adults sometimes struggle to validate children who are dealing with anxiety because it may not make any rational sense. For instance, maybe you have an honor role student who consistently performs well on standardized tests; however, they are feeling an overwhelming sense of dread the morning of the test. You may feel challenged to validate your child without agreeing or dismissing their feelings. Validate and encourage your child or teen’s feelings anyways, note how difficult it must be to feel so out of control at times. Use statements like these below:

“It makes sense that you are nervous about your test, and I know you will do your best and make it through anyways!”

“I can tell you are worried about the test coming up, especially because you have been picking your nails more lately. Is there anything we can do to help you feel better about it?”

When validating remember anxiety feels REAL whether it is a perceived or imaginable threat. Try to take a trip down memory lane to your middle school or high school years and connect to your experience with anxiety. Allow your child to vent if necessary, and reward them for taking steps towards their future.

Model Healthy Coping Strategies

The history of anxiety comes from our caveman ancestors who were driven by fear to escape life threatening situations such as being chased by a bear. In 2018, anxiety comes from worry thoughts that trigger the same “fight or flight response”. The problem comes when there is nothing to run away from, then you or your child can be left with symptoms such as rapid breathing, increased heartbeat, sweating, or trembling. You can help encourage your teen to begin utilizing healthy coping strategies in times without high emotion, so it is easier for them to practice the skills during anxiety.

Breathing Exercises

Teaching simple 4 count breathing in through the nose, and out through the nose is a wonderful tool to teach children at a young age. When our mind is on overdrive, we can calm the body which sends a message to calm the mind. Deep breathing helps bring our body to a relaxed state and out of the “fight or flight” response. Bring your teen or child to a free community yoga or meditation class, make a date of it to tune in and focus on your breathe.

Get Into Logical Mind

Many times when anxiety becomes paralyzing, we can make a shift in mood by engaging our logical mind, or the part of the mind that focuses on logic versus emotion. To engage this part of the brain help your child focus on a number game, count backwards, or engage in a writing exercise. This takes attention off the emotion and brings the body back to an equilibrium state. Sudoku, meditative coloring, even math problems can help in times of intense emotion. Engage with your child and model these behaviors for most effective practices.

Acceptance

Although your child or teens emotions may be more intense in the next couple weeks than normal, it’s important to remember anxiety is a part of life that your child can and will learn to manage to live a fulfilled life.

It may be easier to minimize or dismiss your child’s anxiety, taking the time to acknowledge it may be the difference between learning how to cope and manage these feelings or burning out. And remember… testing season will pass!

 

For more information on anxiety, mental health services for your child or teen, or psychoeducation for families contact Michelle Smith, MS, RMHCI and Middle School Guidance Counselor at 405-323-1786 for a consultation.

What Parents Need to Know About the Social Media Children and Teens are Consuming

It would be an understatement to say that social media govern the lives of our youth at any given moment. A recent study reports that tweens ages 8-12 spend an average of 6 hours in front of a screen a day, for teenagers 13 and above that number increases to 9 hours a day. Our youth are spending more time online than they are sleeping, in school, or doing any other activity.  As a parent, it can be confusing and concerning navigating the waves of the technological boom and deciphering an appropriate boundary when it comes to social media.

The internet is a vast plethora of 7.4 million people’s imaginations. The information shared can be dangerous, violent, sexually exploited and worse. Our children’s minds are not fully developed to consume this content and distinguish the validity or even make decisions about it. Even adults at times have trouble distinguishing this content, can we expect our children and teens to be able to decipher it without support or knowledge from a caring adult?

You may be thinking “Well my child is advanced enough to understand it”. Unfortunately, science says otherwise. The prefrontal cortex, the area which covers the front part of the brain, controls planning, complex thoughts and behaviors, decision making, personality expression, and moderates our social behavior. Essentially, it governs our executive functioning. Because the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until age 25, many of our children do not have the ability YET to carry out the critical thinking necessary to be safe online.

In addition, studies have also shown that social media can be addicting. In fact, app developers are actually working to make these apps addicting so they increase their revenues, spending thousands of dollars on studies of the brain to market and reel in our vulnerable youth. Scientists have found that teenagers can even experience withdrawal symptoms from social media. You may have seen witnessed some of these in your own children such as panic attacks when electronics get taken away, anxiety about being away from electronics or wifi, anger, and temper tantrums. We wonder why our children’s attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. The media they are consuming is a large contribution.

Consistent social media usage also leads to low self esteem, cyber bullying, and can increase suicidal ideations for teenagers already struggling with depression. Bullying no longer stops when your child gets in the car to go home from school. Now harassment follows them home on their devices, preventing the opportunity for children to recharge and engage in self care.

If you haven’t downloaded and looked at some of the things your child is consuming online, you are living in parenting La La Land. Teens post nude photos, suicide ideas and plans, gang related or violent material, and drugs and alcohol. 30% of teens have reported in a recent study that they believe their parents know “nothing” or “a little” about what they do online.

Last week I spent a lot of my time providing support to a family who recently found out their 14 year old son was sending sexually explicit content and sharing homicidal ideations with an active plan to friends on an app called Hangouts.  This app is accessed through Gmail accounts, and friends can message back and forth in group chats. It broke my heart to watch a loving and caring mother begin to see the reality of what is happening on her child’s social media. For this family, early intervention is no longer an option. They are now playing catch up trying to provide the support needed for this young man.

Be proactive when it comes to restricting media content from your children. Taking away electronics if they have already had unlimited access will be harder than setting firm and clear boundaries in the beginning. Provide regular restrictions on the amount of time your child spends in front of a screen. Encourage them to engage in their own imagination and be mindful in the moment instead of SnapChatting it. Look for signs of social media addiction such as anger and anxiety from being away from electronics, being up all day/night in front of a screen, and being secretive regarding their social media usage. Make sure you know your teen’s phone and computer passwords, Apple ID, and the multiple accounts they may have.

Parents are responsible to protect their children. Social media provides a false security because we do not see the danger in the moment. It is our responsibility to research and discuss the dangers of social media with our children. Provide incentives for them to be without social media until 16 years old, when the brain is more capable to consume such confusing messages. When you do allow social media, track it on a regular basis using apps like Onward, Onpact, and Life360. There is an effective way to parent in the world of technology and social media!

If your teen is engaging in alarming content or you see signs of internet addiction it may be time to talk to a professional. For a free consultation for therapeutic services contact Michelle Smith RMHCI, MS at 405-323-1786

When Distance Becomes a Warning Sign

If you have spent any amount of time around teenagers you know eye rolling, sarcasm, and distance are a part of the package deal. Many of these signs are very common; however, with the recent tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School and the national attention on mental health, people are becoming more aware now than ever before. Many parents are concerned and questioning when does isolation become a warning sign that greater issues may be on the horizon, and when is the appropriate time to reach out to a professional.

To understand adolescence fully we need to take a trip back a couple thousands of years to the prehistoric era. Adolescence historically was a necessary part of survival. Lifespans were much quicker, puberty brought the ability for women to reproduce, and the important task for men to learn how to hunt and feed their families. Early civilization encouraged distance from the family system to increase social interaction with other humans their age to learn important survival techniques.

Fast forward a couple thousand years to 2018. Teenagers are growing up in a completely different world than our prehistoric ancestors. Technology, social media, and instant gratification rule the minds of our teens. Adolescents are distancing themselves quicker and quicker from family. So how can we truly know if this distance is normal or something to question? As a parent, it’s important to put some precautionary measures in place so that early intervention can happen if necessary.

Encourage Consistent Communication with Your Teen

This may be the most important step to make sure the distance does not turn into isolation. Distance is normal; however, consistent isolation can be a warning sign that there are deeper concerns happening with your teenager. As a family, it is important to have time scheduled where family engagement is required. Make a weekly date to put the phones, TV’s computers, and emails aside and talk to your children. Not only does this increase positive social skills, but it provides an opportunity for the family to discuss thoughts, emotions, and bring up concerns. As a teenage parent, you want to encourage your teen to be as open as possible with you. You may be thinking, “But I don’t WANT to know everything that is happening inside the mind of my teenager”. While this may be true, it is important that they have an opportunity to share with you. If your teenager is not sharing their feelings with you, they are sharing with someone else, and that someone else may be someone dangerous! Set a weekly day that family engagement is required. Keep your child accountable. If your child cannot attend, they need to inform the family in the same manner they would calling out sick from their job or a prior commitment. This will encourage social skills, responsibility, and give an opportunity for your child to know it is a safe place to share inside the family.

Monitor Your Child’s Electronics

Many children being born today will be more technologically advanced than we can even imagine. From the beginning of the lifespan, we are utilizing electronics now than ever before. It is common to see 7 even 8 year olds with their own cell phone, iPad, Snap Chat, and Instagram. Technology is not a bad thing, but it is a very powerful thing. A piece of technology in your child’s hands means your child has access to limitless information which may be dangerous. Since you know your child better than anyone, you have to assess when you feel your child is mature enough to handle this enormous responsibility. It may be that one sibling is more equip to handle the responsibility than another. You as the parent have the power! Don’t give in to pressure because all their friends have a device. If you are concerned about the safety of your child not having a device but feel they are not ready for a smartphone, purchase a flip phone without internet and wifi to call and text one number only. Prior to purchasing a device for your teen, have a sit down conversation about the rules and guidelines that come along with the device. Monitor your child’s device usage, go through your child’s phone with their consent and create a consistent time to do so. Discuss the benefits and concerns with the use of technology, and encourage your teen to continue to talk to you if they see concerning or questionable things on their device.

Make sure that you allow opportunities for your teen to gain more and more freedom with their device as they consistently demonstrate responsible technology usage. For instance, maybe for the first 6 months of having the device they are only allowed 2 social media apps and the phone has to be turned in at 9PM each evening. After 6 months, sit down and provide evaluation on how well your child did with the guidelines, than provide opportunity negotiate a little more freedom such as adding a new app or increasing usage time by 1 hour.

Reach Out to a Professional

You may follow all the guidelines provided and still find your teen distant and defiant. If so, this is OK. Do not stress, simply begin by stating that you are aware of your child’s behavior and you would like to provide a solution for them to connect with someone trustworthy. Utilize your insurance, recommendations from friends and family, and set up an appointment for your teen to talk to a mental health professional. Your teen will have the safety of confidentiality, but due to their age you will also be notified regarding any suicidal or homicidal ideations, danger concerns, and can request treatment updates from the therapist.

If you or someone you love could utilize a consultation for therapeutic services in the Palm Beach area contact Michelle Smith at 405-323-1786

The Secrets Emotionally Strong Families Know

You know those families, the ones who seem to have it all together. Close bonds, loving relationships, and appropriate conflict resolution (well, at least most of the time!) Maybe it’s your neighbor or the lady on the soccer field, but we all know a stable family that make us curious and motivated. So what’s the secret?

My experience working as a family therapist helping to restore families has uncovered some common themes of families who seem to have deep, personal, and loving connections. Families who create and sustain loving bonds, appropriate boundaries, and value each member’s unique contribution to the family system are most likely to raise emotionally and mentally strong children and teens.  With all the information on different parenting strategies, cultural accommodations, and always changing technology, these themes remain consistent across generations of emotionally strong family systems:

Validation

Family is our first introduction to language, social interaction, and our first lifeline to begin deciphering the world that we are living in. As a parent, it is our job to guide and protect our children into becoming the individual they are meant to be; however, our never ending to do lists, busy work schedules, and lack of energy and sleep can frequently get in the way. To build emotionally strong children, parents need to send the message children are heard, understood, and also have a place in the hierarchy of the family system. Parents have a daunting task of balancing the role between authority and love, compassion and compromise.

Emotionally strong families have parents who validate their children. That means putting down the cell phone or email to listen about the mundane details of their day and “showing up” for the little moments of life. Many parents tend to confuse validation with encouraging our children’s every decision. Validation does not mean that you are agreeing with your child’s point of view, it simply sends the message “I hear you, and what you’re saying is important to me”. To add some validation to your family communication patterns, be mindful when your children may be looking for encouragement or acknowledgement. Spend time without phones and send the message that you are ready to listen if/when they are ready. 5 Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman is a great resource to identify the way your child best receives validation. Children require love and validation in different ways, and siblings likely have differing love languages. Getting to know your child’s unique needs and sending a message of inclusion is a key part of an emotionally strong family.

Clear Boundaries

Emotionally strong families have a unique balance between togetherness and separation that provides the boundaries necessary for a well-adjusted family system. One way to combat confusion is setting family guidelines or expectations. Notice I did not utilize the word “rules” because a guideline is something different. Guidelines, unlike rules, are created and enforced by the entire family system. For instance togetherness is an important part of keeping a family bond strong, but how you spend that time is unique to your family’s needs, schedules, and interests. Sit down with your family and discuss the feelings about your boundaries, allow each member to share their feelings on the time spent with family. You may be surprised the amount of insight your child or teen has into the communication patterns and their ideas. An example of a guideline may be every Sunday the entire family comes together for pasta night, or the last Tuesday of the month the boys get to decide the next family outing. This provides an opportunity for your children or teen to have some power in decision making, while also providing structure to their requests.

Don’t Treat Your Children as Fragile

Today our society is very focused on inclusion of all people, which is wonderful; however, it has created a fear of rejection that is becoming overwhelming to some degree. We are overly concerned if our children are fitting in, being treated fairly, and constantly making sure to catch them before they fail to a point of no return.  Although by doing this we may feel that we are protecting our children, we are actually hindering their ability to overcome adversity. Children are EXTREMELY resilient as these experiences of being the last to be picked on the soccer team, having an unfair detention or consequence at school, or struggling to create friendships shape them into empathetic, understanding and well-adjusted adults. Always coming to the rescue for your child will hurt in the long run, as you foster dependence and send the message that your child cannot effectively overcome adversity without your help. Inform your child it’s OK to fail, it’s OK to be angry, and it’s OK to have bad days. Talk about it, and teach coping strategies to let it go. Encouraging your child’s independence is an important strategy for emotionally stable families.

Parenting is one of the most difficult and least rewarded jobs in the world. There is no manual to becoming perfect family because guess what, there is no perfect family! Take the tips above and see how you can incorporate them into your unique family needs.

Michelle Smith MS, RMHCI

Talking to Children and Teens About Violence

Last week we witnessed one of the deadliest mass shootings unfold right in our backyard and once again lost precious human lives due to unnoticed mental illness. As a middle school guidance counselor and clinician, this incident left me feeling heartbroken and overwhelmed with emotion. The past week has consisted of conversations with students who lost family members in the shooting, are scared for their safety in school, or just need a safe place to be validated and comforted.Finding the right way to have age appropriate discussions with children can be tough; therefore, I have listed some tips below:

1. Reinforce That Your Child is Safe

This news can be very frightening no matter the age of your child. Your child needs validation and reassurance that they are safe in their school and at home. Allow your child to express feelings and be sure to normalize them. It may look something like, “Thank you for sharing that with me. It’s okay to be scared about what happened. It’s scary for mom too, and our schools and community work hard everyday to protect us and keep us safe”. It’s important to provide a safe place at home to discuss their fears. Once fears are brought into the light they hold less power.

2. Talk About It

This is probably the most important tip I can provide. As parents we want to protect our loved ones from the harsh reality of the world we live in today. We may turn off the news if our child walks into the room because it may be easier to dismiss the conversation than figure out how to address the tragedy appropriately. Although this likely will be a tough discussion with your child, it’s important you talk in your family about the tragedy that has unfolded. By dismissing the conversation, your child is receiving the message that this is something to be feared. This creates a mixed message or dialectical dilemma in the family system.

Allow your child’s questions guide the information you provide them. Notice signs that your child may want to talk such as hanging around the living room/kitchen. Younger children may express feelings artistically. You may sit down and ask them about the meaning of their artwork to prompt a discussion. Provide age appropriate responses. For instance, younger elementary students need less details than a high school student.

3. Notice Your Child’s Emotional State

During this time it’s important to be on the look out for changes in behavior patterns such as isolation, extreme anger or sadness, or anything out of the norm for your child. Look for changes in sleep or eating patterns which may indicate anxiety or emotional disturbance. If you do notice differences in your child’s behavior, let them know you are noticing in a curious way. Say something like: “I notice since we found out about the school shooting you’ve been spending more time in your room than normal. I’m curious how you are feeling and I want you to know I’m here when your ready to talk”

If your child’s abnormal behavior continues, it may be time to seek out a professional who specializes in children and adolescent counseling. Sometimes children hold information from parents due to concern that they will be a burden to your busy life. Allowing a third party to step in and provide a safe place to share is a great solution.

It is an unfortunate reality that our children are growing up in the midst of witnessing violence on the news, in their schools, and communities. As parents we have an important role to provide a safe and secure space for our children during this tragedy. In the upcoming weeks and months to come attempt to keep routines as normal as possible and reinforce the ideas listed above.

If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, grief, or how to talk to your children about tragedy contact me for a free consultation to see if I would be a good fit for your therapeutic needs.

Michelle Smith MS, RMHCI

(405) 323-1786