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“It’s a Wonderful Life!” – Every parent’s response: “is it really?”

“It’s a Wonderful Life!” – Every parent’s response: “is it really?”

What does Family Systems teach about being Parent-Oriented?


Let me paint a fictional yet very real picture: 

“I can’t take it! This yelling is killing me,” Trish cried out to her husband in frustration.

Trish: 41 years old, married to Owen, mother of two boys (Jake, 9, and Sam, 14), and working part time at a Marketing firm – sat down with her head down. 

She went on, “I’m exhausted… and feel more tyrant than parent! I can’t take much more…”

So much for the classic Christmas exclamation (yes, I’m still in the Christmas/New Years reflective mode) we wish we could all shout from the rooftops: “It’s a wonderful life!” 

Trish’s internal dialogue: 

What an absolute battle! Shouldn’t swimming lessons be fun? Nevermind my lovely intentions for him to make some friends, something he is clearly struggling to do.

Our internal critics can be ruthless in their judgements: 

The tone you used was too intense! What sort of mother screams like this at her kids? Hopefully none of the neighbors heard that. It’s hopeless! I cannot stop this yelling. Am I just a bad mother?

It’s one of those moments when you have intrusive thoughts about how you wish you could escape all the commitments you have. You are trying to uphold an image of order and yet the cracks are forming and your will power is running dangerously low.

If this is you, breathe in and out deeply. Right now. Try it. It helps. Slowly breathe in and out again. Take your time. I’ll explain in a second. This is important.

There is hope.

There are new dance moves to learn! New songs you and your family can move to. 

There is hope.

Do you sense a little doubt rising up? If so, go ahead and acknowledge that part of you that is skeptical. Take a moment, and acknowledge that inner skeptic. Listen to what it’s saying. Makes sense. Change is difficult. We’ve gone down this road too many times. Hope often feels out of reach.


Well, as a therapist and fellow human (who is new to the parenting game), I want to encourage you and share some steps you can take to become that peaceful presence you long to be within your family.

Take the First Step.

I want to encourage you: walking up those stairs to confront your child, to investigate the brewing chaos, or to engage in the struggle to get your kid to swimming lessons is so important. Being a parent is a sacred duty. As much as I can through the medium of a blog, I want to say this: Well done! Parenting is so important.

Some of the biggest names in psychology and parenting – Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté – together wrote a book called Hold Onto Your Kids and they repeatedly highlight the importance of our children being attached or connected to us as their parents. Perhaps this seems obvious but, in fact, researchers are seeing a trend of children becoming increasingly more attached to their peers than their parents. This means our kids are getting their cues or primary validation from their friends over us, their parents. Do your kids lean towards being peer-oriented or parent-oriented? A helpful sign is who do they turn to when in crisis? Or this: when your child is freaking out at you it’s a sign of their safety with you. 

Whatever the answer may be, your involvement is critical. And that means walking up those stairs over and over again.

I think of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life where George Bailey doubts whether his life has made any difference in light of the chaotic forces of big business creeping in and widening the inequality gap. In a moment of despair George wishes he had never lived! The classic parental exclamation: “is anything I am doing making a difference!?” Spoiler warning. George Bailey gets his wish to see what his community would look like if he never lived…and what does he discover? His life, in fact, has positively impacted countless lives. This movie is a beautiful witness to the power of a life well lived. The takeaway? Our lives, our love, and each little decision we make has a significant impact in ways that, more often than not, we will never see.

Your attention, your love, your concern for your kids, even if it comes across not perfectly, is worthwhile, essential and life changing.

Take the Next Step.

So back to our main question: how do we end this seemingly endless screaming match and attain that wonderful life we all want?

Deep breath in. And breathe out slowly. 

Here’s an answer according to Family Systems research:

One of the best things you can do for your kid is to focus NOT on your kids but to focus on yourself.

What? This is a strange invitation indeed. 

Hal Runkl, a seasoned family therapist, puts it this way, “We all feel incredibly anxious about our kids, and their choices, and we don’t know what to do about it. We fret and worry about how our kids will turn out. Inevitably, we’re so focused on our kids that we don’t realize when this anxiety takes over—and we get reactive.” (Runkl, 2009, p. 9). 


Hal continues, “First, it’s a given that there are things in this world we can control and things we cannot control. Now ask yourself this question: How smart is it to focus your energy on something you can’t do anything about, something you cannot control? Answer: Not very. Follow-up question: Which category do your kids fall into? In other words, are your children something you can control or something you cannot control? Here’s an even tougher question: Even if you could control your kids, should you? Is that what parenting is all about? And what if it’s not the kids who are out of control?” (Runkl, 2009, p. 11). 

Compelling right? Take a moment to think about that paragraph. Not fully sold yet? That’s okay. Stay with me just a bit longer so I can paint a picture of what this sort of parenting might look like. 

So the natural next question to ask is: what does it look like to focus on ourselves as parents? 

Take A Different Step.

It means doing what I got you to do above.

First, breathe in. Breathe out. 

Then, acknowledge the parts of yourself that rose up (the inner skeptic we acknowledged earlier). 

And then finally, move towards your kids.

Hal Runkl puts it this way: calm down, grow up, get close.

This sort of parenting is less about mastering the available parenting techniques but harnessing what Edwin Friedman (another family therapist) calls a “non-anxious presence.” It’s less about skills to learn and more about managing our anxiety. It’s difficult but doable. And it works! 

The power of harnessing a non-anxious presence is that if change occurs in one part of the family system, it affects the entire system. When anxiety rises in one person, it instantly impacts the entire family system. Like certain house heating systems: if the temperature drops, instantly the heating system alters to adjust the temperature. Thus, as the parent, when one lowers their own anxiety (perhaps through our three steps – calm down, grow up, and get close) you will immediately impact the entire family. In fact, our heightened anxiety often creates the very outcomes it seeks to prevent (check out counterwill and Otto Rank for more on this).

This is why the first step of harnessing a non-anxious presence is breathing or getting calm. This aligns with new research that teaches us about mirror neurons which activate in those around us in response to our emotional state (Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004). Our brains are beautifully programmed to be really good at mirroring, or “getting in tune” with those around us. So, as you manage your breathing in high intensity situations, it will impact those you are around. So, first: calm down. Breathe.

Think Things Through.

Some questions to ponder related to our first step: what situations with your children make you the most reactive? What is said that typically triggers you? What are you feeling at that moment? Have you ever remained calm in the midst of family chaos? How did that affect those around you? 

The second step – grow up – is about how we handle the anxiety that is inherent in our families. It’s about avoiding speedy responses (emotional reactivity), increasing our self-awareness, and taking time to really think. 

Can you, in the heat of the moment as you walk up the stairs in response to the apparent chaos brewing, acknowledge the sadness, anger, and anxiety in you that is rising up? 

Hal puts it this way, “the only way to retain a position of influence with our children is to regain a position of control over ourselves” (Runkl, 2009, p. 16). Part of growing up, and thus infusing peace into our families, is our ability to embrace the emotional intensity present, the painful words unleashed, and the immediate discomfort for long-term pay-off. This is the process of maturity: our sacred responsibility as parents. 

“I hate you!” “You’re no fun… I want to go out Friday night.” “I don’t know how to do this homework!”

Cue anxiety. Do you feel it in your shoulders? This anxiety leads to two usual responses: Scream or avoid! Instead, each time this anxiety rises up it is an opportunity for us to grow up. And this process of pausing, thinking, and becoming aware of our own emotions, gives us enough space to think and respond from a non-anxious position… or as close as we can get to it.

So, the second step is to grow up: embrace your own anxiety, name the thoughts and emotions that come up, and take a moment to think.

I’ll keep the third step simple. The final step is to get close, which simply means remaining connected. From this place of calm move towards your kids. 

The Take Home Message. 

Let’s put this all together:

Your kids are fighting upstairs. Your heart rate starts to increase.. Angry thoughts start to arrive: “I’ve got dinner to make…I just put out five different fires today and now this kid is at it again!” These intrusive thoughts and more flood your brain. 

Here is what you need to do.

Walk upstairs… slow your pace… (unless danger is truly on the table… but it probably isn’t)…. Breathe in and out… attempt to slow your heart rate… even a little bit. Become aware of the part of you that is angry… where do you experience it? What is its job for you? Then, enter the room…

In conclusion, peace enters our families not in the way we expect, not through focusing on our kids – something we cannot or shouldn’t control – but through focusing on ourselves. Calming down, growing up, and getting close.

 

References

Neufeld, G., & Maté, G. (2004). Hold On to Your Kids: why parents need to matter more than peers. Vintage Canada. 

Rizzolatti, G., & Craighero, L. (2004). The mirror-neuron system. Annu. Rev. Neurosci., 27, 169-192.

Runkel, H. E. (2009). Screamfree parenting: The revolutionary approach to raising your kids by keeping your cool. Broadway. 

Parenting a Young Adult

Parenting a Young Adult

Parenting your Chronically-Ill Young Adult

Becoming an adult is a challenge these days. It’s even more challenging if you have chronic physical or mental illness, pain and/or disability. And it is equally challenging when parenting one of those kiddos. Here are some suggestions about what tends to work, and what tends not to work – although, of course, every child is different, and every parent-child relationship is different – so, take these as suggestions only and use what works for you.

Separation Anxiety

By separation anxiety, I mean yours! It is normal for young adults to become more and more autonomous as they separate from their family of upbringing and learn to stand on their own feet. This can be very anxiety-provoking when you are acutely aware of their struggles. Maybe you know that they have extreme anxiety around dealing with paperwork or making telephone calls. You may wonder, “how are they going to manage in their own place?” But hovering and fussing around isn’t helping them or you. Take a breath, do a guided meditation, and learn to be more patient than you ever thought possible.

If you have a young adult who sometimes goes ‘quiet’ and you have concerns about self-harm, it can be a good idea to have the name and number of a partner, friend or coworker who you can contact to check on how they’re doing. However, this must only be on rare occasions. Don’t use them as a way to deal with your anxieties.

They’re Still Here!

If your young adult is still living at home because of their health, and you are both happy about that, then there is no problem. If either of you are less than enthusiastic about it, then it’s time to give them their own space as much as possible, set boundaries and ground rules that work for everyone, and negotiate for shared time rather than assuming that they want to be around you 24/7. It may also be time for them to assume some of the household duties (to the extent that their health allows) so that they are building transferrable skills, and learning that being an adult comes with responsibilities.

Mind Your Own Business!

Privacy is something which everyone deserves. Our children get less privacy when they are young because that is tempered by the need to have some level of control over their lives to ensure that they are healthy and safe. However, adults have the right to privacy, period. Your kid’s computer, cellphone, finances, diary … all off-limits. If you have concerns, talk to them – it’s the grown-up thing to do and they should be able to expect you to model what being an adult means. They don’t need your permission to go out, but they may need your help with transportation. If you’re willing to do that, you’ll meet their friends and be part of their life way more than if they get grilled every time they leave the house.

What They Need versus What You Want to Do

Often we think we really know our kids and their needs – and we probably do, more than anyone in the world … except them. If we insist on helping the way we want instead of what they need, then we prevent them from growing. For example, if they tell you that they can handle taking the bus to work this week, and don’t need a lift – you may not be sure they can do it. But what’s the worst that can happen? They try it once and then need assistance. But what’s the best that can happen? Maybe they make progress and conquer a new skill! Don’t second guess them. Yes, it’s hard watching them struggle a bit. But that, as the kids say, is a you problem. Don’t make it theirs.

Work together with your kids to make contingency plans that help keep their lives on-track. If they take prescriptions, and you know they have difficulty filling them – keep a few days’ supply so that they won’t ever run out completely. If they’re travelling, and you worry that their ADHD will cause them to lose their passport – take a scanned copy backed up to the Cloud and make sure you both have a photo of it on your phones. There are creative solutions to most problems. Oh, and the occasional home-made mac and cheese never hurts, either!

Parenting Without Judgement!

Make parenting a no-judgement zone. If they get into trouble, they won’t ask for help if they know they are going to hear ‘I told you so’. Minimize issues and let them know that adult life is hard, but manageable, and most things can be fixed. Be ready to help when it’s needed, and be prepared to feel a touch neglected when they’re having a good spell and don’t really need you as much! And quit judging yourself, too. You’re navigating one of the most difficult tightrope walks of all – being there for a child who wants to be independent but who can’t quite manage it yet. You aren’t always going to get it right, and neither are they. Don’t beat yourself up about it. The best thing you can do for your kid is be there for them when they need you to be, and love them, always.

If you find that you are struggling with parenting, don’t be afraid to seek help. It can be a relief to realize that many other people struggle with the same issues. I know it’s hard, but try to let other people in. It can be easy to assume that you are the only one who can help your kid. But even if that’s so, maybe other people can help YOU. Maybe your partner can do the laundry or the supermarket run this week. Don’t get so blinkered that you exhaust yourself completely, because then you won’t be able to help your kid. I am not suggesting that you always put yourself first – no parent of a chronically-ill child I have ever met is able to do that. But I am suggesting that you don’t put yourself last.

Look How Far They’ve Come

It can be hard, when you have a kiddo with chronic health issues, to get bogged down in doctor visits, prescriptions, rough nights, trips to the ER, sensory overloads, etc, etc. But looking back a couple of years usually lets us see the progress which has been made. Maybe things don’t look like you expected them to. But maybe your journey, and your young adult’s, will end up being more meaningful than you ever expected. Celebrate the wins!

We’d love to hear what works for you and your young adult. And if you could use support in your parenting journey, contact us to see how we can help.

What does art have to do with healing?

What does art have to do with healing?

The pandemic has been tough on everyone, and according to both UNICEF and Statistics Canada, it’s been exceptionally tough on our children and teenagers. It’s impacted their social lives, their schooling, and their personal development. The challenges of social distancing, feelings of isolation from being away from friends and family, and the abrupt switch to remote learning have all contributed to the toll on their mental health. Now, more than ever, our young ones need new skills to adjust and flourish in this new normal.

Art and Healing

But here’s the silver lining – we’ve all seen the healing power of the arts during these difficult times. Remember the boom in virtual art sessions? The touching signs made for healthcare workers? The painted rocks scattered about? The spontaneous musical performances on streets and in hospitals? All these were clear signs of how art was used as a powerful tool to create meaningful connections, express our sense of community, and build resilience. And guess what? Our teens can harness the same power of art as they navigate their path towards adulthood.

Arts proved their worth in our toughest times, and they’re just as crucial for our kids today!

Our ‘Name it to Tame it’ art class is the ideal space for your teen to start reconnecting with the world. With its small group setting and nurturing, safe environment, it’s designed to help them develop healthy ways to cope through fun, creativity, and self-expression. So, your teen won’t just learn to create art in this class, they’ll also learn to create resilience and thrive in life.

Click here to learn more about Name it to Tame it — Mindfulness and Art for Anxious Teens.

Is “Name It To Tame It” art therapy?

Is “Name It To Tame It” art therapy?

Our Name It To Tame It group for anxious teens isn’t run by an art therapist, it is run by a teaching artist, Meg Neufeld. What’s the difference you might be wondering?

Art therapists are professionally trained clinical counsellors with specific training in art therapy, who use creative expression and art-making as way to help clients explore their emotions and experiences in specific ways and with clinical support; teaching artists are practicing professional artists that place an importance on teaching people how to engage in art in a meaningful, helpful way that can have a positive impact on mental health and resilience.

Teaching Art for Teen AnxietyPhoto of participant making art in our Name it to Tame it group.

Art therapy and teaching art can be game-changers in your teen’s wellbeing. Imagine them enjoying fun art activities that not only keeps them engaged but also makes a real difference in their lives. These creative sessions can help them let go of stress, motivate them to take care of themselves, and promote their personal growth. It’s about more than just painting or drawing, it’s about growing their confidence, boosting their self-esteem, and helping them build resilience. Art provides your teens with a fresh, creative outlet to explore and express their thoughts and emotions, and along the way, they’ll be acquiring crucial life skills. It’s a win-win situation, and what more could we as parents ask for?

As a professional and teaching artist, Meg Neufeld is in a unique position to draw from her own experience as a practicing artist and as an educator in the community. Meg has over two decades of experience as a professional artist, along with training in education and in mindfulness-based art techniques that can be passed on to teens struggling with anxiety. She also has personal lived experience about what it is like to make art for one’s physical, social, mental, emotional wellbeing as a result of her own journey with chronic pain.

Anxiety: Name it to Tame it!

If your teen is struggling with anxiety, we’d love to bring them into the world of art, and help them find a safe place to land, and explore how art can help them in their journey with their anxiety, and have some fun!

If your teen’s anxiety would prevent them from coming to a group, we’re also able to provide this service 1:1 and in pairs with parents – let us know if your teen would benefit from individual sessions!

Click here to learn more about the Name it to Tame it group (Mindfulness and Art for Anxious Teens).

What do art and mindfulness have in common?

What do art and mindfulness have in common?

They both are excellent tools to manage anxiety! In recent years, mindfulness has emerged as an effective strategy for children and adolescents dealing with conditions like ADHD, anxiety, autism spectrum disorders, depression, and stress. Coupled with the health benefits of art-making, mindfulness skills can be instrumental in managing anxious or negative thoughts for children and youth.

Mindful Art MakingMindful art project that reads "find what makes your heart sing and create your own music."

A recent study from the University of Waterloo shows that just 10 minutes of mindfulness-based activity a day can reduce anxiety and prevent your mind from wandering. Mindful art making activities, especially those that require repetitive tasks (like knitting), with sensory elements (like clay), and reflective components (like journaling) work to calm the nervous system, and soothe symptoms of stress and irritability.

Focusing on the process rather than the product, and approaching the art-making experience with compassion and a non-judgmental attitude can be instrumental in managing anxious or negative thoughts. Supporting child and youth mental health using mindfulness-based art activities is a no brainer (pun fully intended).

If you’re interested, check out the study from Waterloo: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/05/170501094325.htm

If you’d like your teen to learn how to do this, check out our Name It To Tame It group starting this September! Click here to learn more.