Finding Purpose in the Pain

If you haven’t figured it out already, life is not all rainbows and butterflies. It hurts. It stings. It changes constantly. It is unpredictable. As a psychotherapist, my job is to guide clients to find purpose in their pain, to put meaning towards their experiences, and utilize them as a catalyst for growth instead of allowing these experiences to defeat us.

Here are 3 reasons that pain is necessary for growth on your journey:

1) To Learn Healthy Coping Skills

A diamond does not start out as the rock we know it as. It begins its journey as a piece of coal, and with pressure and time it becomes the lustrous rock we lust over. Humans are similar in the sense that without painful experiences many life lessons cannot be learned. Think back to your childhood and adolescent years, you likely have many memories that stand out. Some may be happy, and some may be not so happy, but they have molded you into the individual you have become today. Whether you accept it or not, more adversity will come your way. You have learned a specific way to cope with this adversity. If you don’t like the way you are coping, it may be time to change your habits.

2) To Connect You to Others

As humans, we are social beings. We need human connection to thrive, to be successful, and to grow in our life. We are not isolated in our journey. As we navigate through painful experiences, we are able to empathize and understand others in a way we may not be able to do without personal experience. Great wisdom comes from becoming resilient to the ever changing tides of our lives. The ability to be able to connect to universal human feelings such as sadness, rage, loneliness, and fear is something unique to human beings. Our connection is what isolates us from the rest of the mammal population. Your pain will shape your human connection.

3) To Prove, “You Got This!”

Whether you like it or not, at this point you are winning in your life. That’s right! You’re winning! You may not feel like it, but you are attracting what you are bringing into your life! Really think about the mindset and goals you have for yourself. You may be holding yourself back from growing from your experiences due to your self-talk and inner chatter. If you tell yourself, “I just need to make it through today” then you will do exactly that, but if you change the script to saying “Today I will find purpose and meaning in the painful moments” you are more clear in your intention.

If you are going through life transitions and are interested in allowing a psychotherapist to help guide you to finding your purpose contact me at 405-323-1786 to see if I would be the right fit for you.

Wishing you purpose, passion, and positive mental health!

Michelle Smith

MS, RMHCI

Individual, Couple, & Family Psychotherapist

(405) 323-1786

The Importance of Mothers (and Other Parental Figures)

This weekend we celebrated all the hard-working, dedicated, and loving mothers and mother figures for Mother’s Day. This week’s blog post is dedicated to all the wonderful mothers (and parental figures) out there!

Harry Harlow, a psychologist in the 1960’s understood the importance of parental figures to the social-emotional development of humans. Prior to his study with monkeys, many people believed babies and children depended on their mother’s due to their need for a food source and survival.

Harlow thought different, he felt the comfort provided by caretakers was also a factor to development, and he was right!

Harlow studied the effect of monkeys on two different types of “mother figures”. One “mother figure” made of wire only had the monkey food, the other had no monkey food but was covered in a comforting terry cloth. Harlow was fascinated when he noticed the monkeys would spend the majority of time with the terry cloth mother, running only to the wire mother just long enough to fill up on milk. Harlow founded the importance of love, compassion, and validation to our development thanks to this intriguing psychological study.

For humans, the same is true. It has been proven time and time again that children with secure attachments to their parental figures have the best chances at healthy physical, emotional, intellectual, and social development. Love, encouragement, and compassion given by parental figures is vital to effective growth and sends the message that our children can trust in us to meet their needs.

A recent study even linked parent-child communication to children’s successes. The study founded that quality conversations were a key factor in successful development. These imperative interactions foster connectedness to our families. Warm and positive communication with purpose help children more accurately understand family values, morals, appropriate communication skills, and increases confidence and self-esteem.

If you’re having trouble finding time to have conversations with your child, take the car ride to and from school or doctor’s appointments as an opportunity. Ask your child or teen open ended questions to get them talking about their feelings and day. Instead of “What did you do at school today?” Try something like “What was your favorite part of your day?” This question warrants a little more pondering and also cannot be answered with the overused “It was good, Mom!”. Not only will it help foster your child’s development, but it will increase the quality of your parent-child relationship and encourage healthy relationships in your child’s future.

Whether you are a mother, father, or parental figure you are appreciated! No one works longer, more strenuous hours, or a more important job than parents!

If you or someone you know is struggling with parent-child communication, self-care and work/life balance, or other mental health issues and would like to set up an appointment for psychotherapy please contact Michelle Smith, RMHCI, MS at 405-323-1786 for a FREE 15 phone consultation!

Mental Health Awareness Month

May marks mental health awareness month, a time to reflect and honor the 43.8 million people with mental illnesses around the globe. Many of these unsung heroes are living among us without our awareness. Family, friends, coworkers, and people you know are wearing invisible scars many silently suffering in their day to day lives.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just over 20 percent, or about 1 in 5 children, have had a seriously debilitating mental disorder. With a large number of the population diagnosed with mental health disorders, there is still many barriers to effective care such as the stigma & shame associated with receiving mental health services.

Equality Between Physical and Mental Wellness

If you found out someone you love had been diagnosed with a physical illness such as diabetes, there would be no hesitation to encourage that person to receive the utmost care necessary to return to normal functioning. Unfortunately, many people do not feel the same way about mental illness. Often clients are told by loved ones to “just handle it” or “stop thinking about it”. It’s important for people to know mental illness cannot just “be handled” by the client on their own accords. Just like a patient with diabetes utilizes a number of doctors and specialists, people with mental illnesses are recommended to utilize mental health professionals, psychiatrists, and therapists to manage symptoms and return to a normal level of functioning. Changing the perspective can help bring empathy, and also encouraged clients to get the help they need and deserve.

When Do I Know I Need Help?

Another side effect of the stigma of mental health is that many clients wait too long to be seen by professionals. As a general rule, if you notice your mood, affect, and behaviors change to a point where functioning in any area your life is compromised (such as at work, relationships, social activities) and the symptoms have persisted consistently for a duration of two weeks it is time to see a professional to explore further. Some clients suffer with severe symptoms for years in silence due to the shame associated with their mental health. If your concerned about a change in your mental health, contact a professional for a screening, you won’t regret taking the time to care for yourself. After all, there is no health without mental health.

Resilience

I am consistently amazed at the resilience, determination, and stamina of my clients. I chose this field because as a young professional I was eager to help people who needed it. In reality, my clients have taught me lessons in resilience. I have personally witnessed the willpower and determination of my clients to work towards creating a thriving and successful life. They motivate me to be the best clinician I possibly can, each and every day.

Just like symptoms of a chronic illness are managed over time, mental illness is a process of recovery. Clients wok to manage symptoms and have good and bad days during the process.

If you or someone you love is suffering in silence with mental illness I would love to chat with you to discuss supporting you on your journey towards recovery. Contact Michelle Smith RMHCI, MS at 405-323-1786 for a free phone consultation

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.

Why Knowing Your Child’s School Counselor Is So Important

Let’s face it. School brings out another side of our children that maybe parents do not get to see at home. Our children spend the majority of the hours in the day at school. Children spend more time at school than they do spending time with family, participating in extracurricular activities, and even sleeping! As a middle school counselor, I have had the privilege of serving over 500 middle school students this past school year, and I would encourage each and every parent to establish a close relationship with your child’s school counselor. Here’s why:

Not All Counselors are Created Equal

School counselors wear many hats in school. Likely they are the ones encouraging your child’s academic success, helping students apply for high school and college, and providing social-emotional support as well as juggling other administrative tasks. My personal background is mental health focused. My goal this year was to increase student’s understanding of self, and increase their coping skills to navigate life challenges academically, socially, and emotionally. At my school, both guidance counselors have a mental health lens and provide support to the entire school from this perspective. I believe this is vital for many students and families.

It may surprise you that many school counselors have no or little understanding of counseling whatsoever. Some school counselors hold teaching certifications and were “promoted” to this role through effective work in the classroom. Unfortunately effective classroom management does not mean this individual is ready to handle the reality of the real life issues that come about in the guidance offices such as suicidal ideations, family conflict, low-self-esteem, broken families, poverty and more. I have seen many school counselors push these extremely important issues to the side, just because they were not trained on how to effectively provide support to a student or family.

School Counselors Are Busy

Establishing a good rapport with your child’s counselor opens the door for future communication regarding your child’s academic success, behavior, and changes that are noticed in the school. Working in a smaller charter school, I have been blessed with the opportunity to get to know my students on a very personal level. In larger schools, counselors may not have the time or ability to do this. A recent study by the American School Counselor’s Association (ASCA), suggests that the average guidance counselor spends about 38 minutes with your student in an entire school year! If you are present and send the message you are engaged in your child’s schooling, the counselor may be more likely to give you vital information happening at school such as conflict between peers or teachers, concerning drawings or messages, or just a sudden change in mood or affect. This is important information parents need to know so that you can follow up at home and to create a bridge between school and home life. If you haven’t yet, make an appointment with your child’s guidance counselor to introduce yourself. Face to face communication goes a long way!

Teamwork Between Families and School

Many times when I contact families to provide referral for therapy, resources for food or clothing donations, or insight into their child’s behavior I receive resistance. One thing parents and guardians need to know is that school administration wants to work as a team with you and your family. When school administration contacts you with information regarding your child, it is for your benefit and understanding. The intention is never to place blame, but to work as a team to provide consistency throughout the child’s life at school and at home. Remember that school is a whole different setting for your child, and it may bring out another side you have not seen yet. Trust in your school administration that they have your best interest at heart!

Michelle Smith

RMHCI, MS

Middle School Counselor

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

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