Monday, August 26, 2013

Tools for Back to School

It seems that as school supplies begin to line the shelves of our local stores, and Back To School advertisements begin, the “back to school jitters” often invite themselves into our homes.  Although the start of a brand new school year can be exciting, this time of year can also bring some not-so-welcome changes to lives of students and parents alike. In general, there are several things that parents can implement into their daily routine to help ensure a successful school year for their children.

Communication: Even in this age of technology, it is important to balance communication with your child as well as your child’s teachers and school staff. The younger the student, the more interaction a parent will have with their children’s teachers.  It is a good rule of thumb that as a child gets older, he or she will find more success in using their parents’ guidance while approaching teachers on their own.  Parents can model effective communication for their child and also follow up to be sure that the desired result was achieved.  Important things to help students consider are appropriate communication styles as well as etiquette for phone, email and other technology based interaction.

Organization and Preparation: Assisting and teaching children to organize and prepare themselves for school and other activities will help them feel ready and less anxious.  Teaching a child to prepare for school the night before by setting clothes out, surveying their backpack for completed homework and signed papers, as well as making a plan for lunch, will save time the next morning and help a child to feel most prepared as they lay their head on their pillow each night.  At least a couple of chaotic mornings each school year are inevitable, but having a place for and knowing where each school item can be found, can help for a smooth transition each day.

Routine and Schedule: Putting in place a set routine and schedule will help create calm evenings and may even multiply a family’s time. Children and adults alike, benefit from knowing what is coming up each day and what the basic overview of the week looks like. Creating a family calendar that can be put in a common area for all to see is a tool that works for many families. All of the recurring events like school and weekly extra-curricular activities are the staples on the calendar, but added to each week are the special occasions or scheduled tests and appointments. Be sure to schedule a time to go over this calendar as a family at the beginning of each week. 

Monitor sleeping and eating habits:  Children are sure to be set up for success when they are sent to school with enough sleep and good fuel in their bodies. In this age of busy schedules, it is often easier to gain precious time by turning to convenience foods and delaying bedtime by an hour or two, or more. Although, it is important for children to learn flexibility and that schedules change from time to time, establishing a bedtime as well as planning a family menu as a part of the weekly schedule will help students get to school on the right foot and ready to learn.  Another culprit to delayed bedtimes and difficulty in sleeping are those electronic devices.  Many parents consider setting a “bedtime” for electronic devices as well.

Special Time: Even the most well-oiled family machines, with the most organized schedule in place, can find themselves feeling like they are missing out on quality time with one another.  Many families find success in adding two very important items to their weekly schedule/routine: one-on-one and family time. Depending on the number of members in your family and what the activity is, one-on-one time may need to be scheduled every other week.  The great thing about this calendar entry is that it can be whatever a parent and child want it to be, a dinner date with each child or even 10 minutes a day of reading or uninterrupted time to talk.  The same goes for family time. Planning an outing or even a game or movie night at home is a plan that works to help many families stay connected in this time of busy schedules.

Although equipping families with general tools will result in a successful start to the school year, sometimes there are specific concerns that can affect many children at home and at school. 

Whether the result of a move or simply moving to the next grade level, changing schools can be a difficult adjustment for children. Many students feel that as soon as they have learned the hallway map and the rules of the cafeteria, it is time to switch schools. As with any big change, the best thing we can do for our children is help them prepare for the change and encourage them along the way.  Equipping older students with a school map and bell schedule can be useful. Encouraging students of all ages to ask questions and find a peer role model who seems to know the ropes, are useful tools for students of all ages.

Regardless of whether a child is a veteran student in a school, or it is their first year on their campus, many children experience anxiety about school performance. Sometimes this anxiety is unfounded because the student has always performed well, but some children find school very difficult.  It is important to equip students early on with tools that will increase both their confidence and performance at school.  In addition to teachers sharing tutoring information in class, schools often give an overview of their tutoring policy and schedule online.  When a plan that includes utilization of teacher websites and email addresses, sets of textbooks for use at home, and implementation of organization is put in place early on in the year, a child’s anxiety often decreases.  It is important to let students know that we believe that they will be successful, and part of that success is assuring them that we have put a plan in place to handle the difficult times as well.

Seeing friends again after a long summer is often one of things that children look forward to.  It doesn’t take long however, for our children to be faces with the children who are not so easy to get along with. Even more common, are the very typical, every day friendship issues that every student has to learn to maneuver.  Even from an early age, it is important for parents to help their children learn how to work through difficult friendship issues.  Empowering our children with advice of how to compromise, and effectively communicate is a life lesson that begins in the early years of school, but is a gift that lasts throughout adulthood. Of course, when the situation is more serious in nature and there is concern that a child is being put at risk, adult intervention is mandatory.

It seems that the older children get, the more demanding their schedules become. This is true in school, but also in extra-curricular activities, where we find that very busy extra-curricular schedules begin to have an impact on children’s preparation and success in school. Less sleep, less time for homework and studying, less free time, and less balanced meals can all be a result of afterschool activities.  Many parents want to support their child in their extracurricular sport or activity, but also help them succeed academically.  The best way to do this is to equip children with preparation and balance.  Just as there will be a long-term benefit from learning social interaction skills, children will also benefit from learning time management and prioritization skills.  Involving students in schedule making and time management as it pertains to his or her life, is a useful exercise.

In all, the best thing parents and teachers can do for a child as we begin a new year is give them the tools they need to be successful.  While the strategies and implementations above will provide a structure of success to any family, the truth is that no one can do it alone. Our children will benefit the most when teachers, parents, mentors, school staff and other influential adults band together to equip and positively influence a child to create success in his or her future.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Parenting in the Midst of Divorce

by: Pam Adams, LCSW-Intern
Supervised by: Stephanie Washington MSW, Ed.D., LCSW-S

Breaking up a marriage is hard for everyone.  Kids can feel hit the hardest by the end of their parents’ love relationship.  Some children are asked to be peacemakers for fighting spouses, at the same time they are grieving a parent who has suddenly moved out.  Other children may have to deal with parents who out of the blue can’t cope with everyday tasks. 
While a parent is in the midst of a divorce amid a rollercoaster of emotions and distractions, it can be hard to remember to look after their childs needs, especially emotional ones.     
Helpful Hints for Divorced Parents:
1.     With the loss of one parent from the home, your child needs structure because to them everything seems to be falling apart.  Your child needs acceptance and assurance that they still have a solid family.  The key is to maintain normal routines, a predictable family life and a sense that their life will not continue to change on them.  Discipline needs to be consistent and with positive consequences for good behavior. 

2.     Children frequently believe that they are somehow to blame for the divorce.  You need to reassure them that the divorce is between you and your ex and about that relationship only.  Tell them that they are blameless and the divorce is not about anything they have done or not done.

3.     Avoid making the child the messenger between you and your ex.  This causes a child a great deal of emotional stress.  It also forces them to deal with a situation that you and your ex could not handle. 

4.     Do not allow your child to be the person you confide in.  If you need someone to talk to, either talk to a friend or if you feel you need more help, find a therapist for yourself.  Your child needs to be able to be a child and not handle adult problems. 

5.     Try to understand your child.  After a divorce, children may be in emotional turmoil.  Listen to what they say.  Don’t tell them how they should feel or think.  As hard as it may be, avoid criticizing your ex in front of your child.  Respond specifically to what they are telling you.  “It sounds like you are feeling mad about your dad’s new girlfriend?”  Stay focused on your child’s feelings, not yours. 

6.     If you feel that you have made mistakes with your children during the divorce process, it is o.k. to identify to them what you did wrong and apologize for it to your child.  Saying  you are sorry goes a long way with children in terms of healing.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Surviving the Loss of a Child

by Pam Adams, Licensed Clinical Social Worker Intern
Supervised by Stephanie Washington, MSW, Ed.D., LCSW-S

Hopefully you have never experienced the death of a child.  But there are some families that are hit with such a loss. 
Whether the child dies as a result of a car accident, drug overdose, serious illness or other cause, the loss of a child is extremely painful  and unlike the loss of any other person in life.  Parents feel that a part of them has died and been ripped away from them. 
The first reaction of parents is to feel numb.  They don’t feel pain, but they don’t feel pleasure either – more of a sense of deadness.  They go through life doing daily chores as if they are on autopilot.    Slowly the pain of grief creeps into life.   
Soon parents find themselves in a period of acute grieving, where the emotional pain is very great.  Very little has meaning to the parent.  Some of the symptoms of this stage are shock, depression, anger, guilt, difficulty making decisions, trouble with tasks requiring thinking, sleeping and eating problems.  This stage tends to last about a year or can take longer.Finally, the parents begin to adapt to life without their child.  One part of this involves things like deciding what to do with their clothes, but yet keeping special items of the child’s to preserve memories and a continuing sense of connection even while living without the child.
            Things to Remember:
1.      Grief of a parent is a long process.  Wherever you are in the process is o.k., it is where you are.  (Ignore the comments of others who believe you should “snap out of it” or “you should be better by now”.) 

2.     Connect with people with whom you are able to be honest and still be accepted.  Grief is too much to bear alone.  Sometimes parents in your situation are the best support.  Compassionate Friends is a good support group for parents who have lost a child. They have numerous locations in Houston and the surrounding area.

3.     Expect a roller coaster of emotions.  At one moment you will be composed, but in the next minute you are hit by a memory and are sobbing.  Mourning parents easily feel that they are crazy because of the up and down nature of their emotions.  You are not crazy; you are grieving your child.

4.     Allow all your feelings to emerge.  Don’t try to stuff them even if they don’t seem acceptable.  Sometimes parents find it helpful keep a journal and write down their feelings as they go through the grief process.

5.    Feel free to see a counselor if you are concerned about yourself or are disturbed by your grief process.  The counselor can reassure you as to what is normal or help you if you feel stuck.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Power of Play: A Parent’s Guide to Engaging your Children

By: Kristin O’Connor, M.S., LMFT-A
Supervised by: Judy DeTrude, PhD, LPC-S, LMFT-S
Play comes very naturally for children as they are innately imaginative and creative; however, it wasn’t until relatively recently that therapists and researchers started to view a child’s play as a form of emotional communication, rather than just a creative outlet. Researchers and therapists have found that children often use play to sort through their past experiences, learn about future possibilities, and most importantly, express their emotions. Play is the language of children.
This new understanding of a child’s play has many implications for parents. Learning to engage your child in play correctly could open lines of communication long before communication and emotion regulation skills are fully developed. So what is the right way to play with your child? Are there wrong ways to play? What can result from playing with your child? The following is a list of do’s and don’ts to enable you to enhance the quality of play with your child:
Do: Let your child lead the play
Don’t: Correct your child, or try to teach your child “proper” ways to play 
This can be the hardest skill for parents. Parents tend to naturally lead, direct, and teach their children. While this is important, playtime is not the time for parents to be in charge. The best, and most therapeutic playtime for children is when the child feels that they are totally in control. This type of play empowers children to feel confident about their decisions, accepted by their parents, and proud of their ideas. Try to avoid asking any and all questions during play to eliminate the possibility of your child feeling like they are being judged, or that they are doing something wrong.
Do: Be fully present with your child
Don’t: Get distracted during play, be on the phone, or go in and out of the room 
The best way to remain fully present during play is to designate an amount of time during the day that is dedicated solely for playing with your child (10-15 min.) During this time, try to limit distractions and remain engaged.
Do: Reflect your child’s emotions
Don’t: Tell your child how they should feel about certain toys or play scenarios 
Reflecting your child’s emotions is extremely therapeutic. Examples of reflecting are: “Wow! You are so excited about building that tall tower!” or “You are very frustrated about not getting that block to balance.” Don’t worry if you are unsure about exactly what your child is feeling. Do your best to label your child’s emotions and allow them to correct you if needed. Keep at it! This skill not only allows your child to feel understood, but it also helps them learn how to label their feelings.
Do: Engage in imaginative and creative play with your child’s direction
Don’t: Let creative play feel foreign or awkward, you are speaking your child’s language! 
It is easy for adults to feel uncomfortable while engaging in imaginative play. Sometimes children will ask their parents to play a certain character, act as a figurine, or put on a play, requiring parents to be creative and imaginative. Just go with it! Remember that you are speaking your child’s language, and he/she loves spending this quality time with you. Allow your child to direct your imaginative play. Try not to ask questions, instead, do your best to interpret what you think he or she might want. If you get it wrong, allow them to correct you.
While there is no wrong way to play, using the 4 do’s above can greatly enhance the quality of your play, strengthen your connection with your child, and build their self-confidence and self-esteem. For more information about playtime with children or play therapy, give us a call!