It Takes A Village

Our current clients are familiar with the parent folder in our waiting room,  I love finding tidbits of helpful, sound advice that I can pass on to worried parents.  The confusing, often terrifying yet simultaneously thrilling and joyful world of parenting, relies on sharing and collaboration.  Learning from veteran parents and simple recognition that we are not alone, most challenges we face are normal and experienced by others, is essential for healthy parenting.   I hope sharing those brief articles and blogs gives parents in our office "ah-ah" moments and the opportunity to breath a sigh of relief, even for just a second.

Click on the arrow by the title to read an article from one of my favorite publications out of England, The Guardian, "How to Survive the Teenage Years: A Parent's Guide."  It is full of practical advice for parents of adolescents that is modern, grounded in sound developmental theory and respectful of the adolescent and parent experience.  

I hope to provide this folder digitally so check on the blog periodically, you may find what you have been looking for! 




Mindful Parenting

Mindfulness is a state of being that involves a mind-body awareness of the present moment through all five senses.  An active pursuit and practice of mindfulness allows us to live a more full and productive life as we focus on only what matters at any given time.  The art of being mindful is a lifelong process of turning our attention to the present and clearing our minds of judgment and clutter.

Why is mindfulness important as parents?  Take some time and (without judgement!) notice how you would answer these questions:

  • Have you ever caught yourself talking to your children, but not looking in their eyes?
  • How often do you multitask (check your emails, text) when you're at the dinner table with your children?
  • How frequently are you taking photos and uploading them to social media, rather than giving full attention to the moment at hand?

In this age of constant digital connection, we are moving farther and farther away from mindful living. Mindfulness reduces stress and improves productivity and general wellbeing, but the practice of mindfulness is more and more difficult to achieve. It is a particular challenge for busy parents with endless demands on time but the more complicated our lives are, the more important it is to live in the present moment.  Children are wired to be experts of mindful living.  Allowing yourself to be present with your child by letting go of outside pressures will promote a deeper connection with your child and a less stressful parenting experience. 

The following tips may help you get started on your path to becoming a more mindful parent

  • Begin to take 5 minutes every day to just sit still and relax. Take deep, even breaths and simply focus your attention. If your mind wanders, return your focus back to your breath. You can also implement this routine while walking. Pace your steps to your heart beat and recite with each breath an affirmation or calming word of your choice.
  • When faced with a challenging parenting moment, try not to react right away. Ask yourself:  What is truly important here?  Approach your child from a place of compassion, not frustration.  Mindful breathing allows us to control our behavior and act from a place of compassion rather than anger. 
  • Make mindful parenting fun!  I like to suggest that parents play simple mindfulness games with their children.  “Freeze and Feel” is a good example. Use a type of signal ie. a bell, clapping, flickering of lights, to determine when you and your child will FREEZE, right where you are. Take a couple of deep breaths and take a moment to notice what you are feeling, what your body is doing. Are your hands clenched? shoulders tight?  Tell your child to be a detective and search his/her whole body.  Give the signal again and bring attention back to the room.  Talk to each other about what you noticed. 
  •  Establish device free time every day. Take a break from technology and enjoy the moment.  Constant interaction with technology is an experience opposite of mindfulness. Set screen time limits that you also follow and establish daily, non-negotiable screen free family time. You will develop a deeper, more trusting connection with your child and improve your overall parenting experience.

Deflate the Worry Bully with Connection and Kindness

One of the greatest challenges that parents with anxious children talk to me about is managing the negativity that surrounds anxiety.  The overly anxious brain is on alert for bad things, it sees risk and demise at every turn.  Our job as caregivers is to actively help children re-wire that easily activated worry circuit.  There are many ways that we practice this every day like recognizing the anxiety as the "the worry bully" that it is and daily mindfulness and relaxation to calm the body and mind.  We also actively prompt children to consider new ways of looking at things, turning their minds to the good around them.  Gratitude and intentional acts of kindness are fast antidotes to anxiety and guaranteed to flood our bodies with positive feelings.  This is a key element in anxiety treatment and teaches children that they are in control of their worry bully, it does not control them!

Parents of children with anxiety have the opportunity to make intentional choices to increase positivity and wellness every day. When you focus on setting these intentions you will notice little gems of ideas all around you.  Here's one I came across today, a daily action calendar for the month of February that focuses on kindness and relationships.  Print it out and hang up in a prominent place at home.  Each day look at the goal with your child and talk about how each of you will accomplish it.  I guarantee this will let the air out of the negativity balloon and fill it with happiness and hopefulness.  

Jennifer Tsappis, LICSW


Getting To Good Enough: How to Help Your Perfectionistic Teen

Recent media coverage of the striking increase in adolescent and young adult anxiety highlights what therapists and pediatricians see every day, sleep deprived, overly stressed and unhappy patients and families.   Rising rates of depression, anxiety and suicide, requires us to attend to a vulnerable group of students who are often overlooked, perfectionists.

Perfectionism in our society is associated with motivation, a drive to do well and a willingness to work hard. Unhealthy Perfectionism is emotional torture afflicting children already vulnerable to anxiety. It can be nearly impossible to distinguish a healthy persistence from unhealthy perfectionism. These students look great to the outside world and they go to great lengths to mask their struggles.

Unhealthy perfectionism is marked by:

  • Excessively high standards for oneself and others
  • Measuring self-worth only in regard to productivity or accomplishment
  • Over-emphasis on “shoulds”
  • Persistent self-doubt, never feeling good enough
  • Belief that others are easily successful
  • Intense fear of making mistakes and of failure

Underlying traits that are often precursors to unhealthy perfectionism include:

  • Rigid adherence to narrow sets of rules or expectations
  • Strong need for external approval
  • “All or Nothing” patterns of thinking; leading to belief that all mistakes are failures.
  • Anxious, ruminative and obsessive thoughts or behaviors

Academic perfectionism afflicts student prone to perfectionistic standards but with an obsessive and compulsive drive to achieve perfection at almost every level of academic expectation. Academic perfectionists are terrified of making mistakes or failure. They maintain a belief that academic imperfection will result in overall life failure and rejection.

Specifically these students might:

  • Hyper focus on grades
  • Obsess about work appearing perfect
  • Miss the big picture because of focus on minor details
  • Have great difficulty starting assignments, particularly writing, because of the need to “get it right” the first time.
  • Catastrophize
  • Struggle to work through obstacles because of intolerance of mistakes
  • Anticipate and expect disapproval and rejection
  • Appear in control and focused, at odds with internal experience of loss of control and negative pre-occupations.

How does perfectionism become a problem?

Reinforcement: Family members, teachers and other important adults often inadvertently reinforce unhealthy perfectionism. Praise, admiration and focus on the achievement, strengthens the child’s core belief that failure equals rejection. The pressure intensifies as expectations increase until a breaking point occurs. Parents feel confused or shocked, as their child seemed “happy”, “focused” and “successful”

Procrastination and Avoidance is inevitable. The need to “get it right” the first time and rigid thinking does not allow for prioritizing, writing drafts or mediocrity. Falling farther and farther behind and fear of asking for help, leads to crisis.   When the student is “found out” the situation is often beyond repair and serious mental health symptoms have begun.

What can we do?

Teachers, Guidance Counselors, Pediatricians, School Nurses and most importantly parents, are in key positions to recognize the signs of unhealthy perfectionism and intervene quickly and with authority. For those with a “bright”, “gifted”, “high achieving” or “stressed out” student in their lives it is important to watch for following signs:

  • Social isolation
  • Performance anxiety
  • Procrastination
  • Limited interests
  • Excessive time spent on one task with little outcome
  • Disruption in sleep
  • Changes in appetite
  • A tendency to talk about all or nothing beliefs “If this isn’t perfect I will fail”
  • “The harder I work the better I will do.”
  • "I can’t relax or be happy unless I have all A’s”

1.  Find a Therapist

Careful diagnostic assessment is necessary and your child should be evaluated for Depression and all Anxiety Disorders. Specific assessment of perfectionism is fundamental. Therapists will collaborate with family and teachers to identify and reduce perfectionist behaviors and routines. A therapist trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is suggested; there are developing cognitive behavioral treatment (CBT) plans specific to academic perfectionism and CBT has long-standing evidence-based success in the treatment of Anxiety.

Therapy goals include:

  • Learn flexible coping strategies for periods of uncertainty 
  • Increase awareness of maladaptive thinking.
  • Understand biopsychosocial factors that may interfere with healthy identity development
  • Examine core values that are separate from external achievement.
  • Exposure to vulnerability

Confronting mediocrity and failure while developing coping strategies for uncertainty, can lead to core self concept change: “I am lovable even when, especially when, I am not perfect.”

2. Learn Coping Skills in Therapy and Beyond

  • Encourage realistic assessment of outcomes to address fear of failure and focus on setting realistic goals.
  • Learn to break up overwhelming tasks into small pieces and work on one thing at a time
  • Set time limits and learn pacing
  • Focus on the here and now rather than the “future” or “regrets”
  • Deliberate exposure to mistakes to reduce fear and reinforce the value of mistakes
  • Learn relaxation and distress tolerance skills
  • Practice compassionate self-talk, assign pleasant event tasks
  • Prioritize routines that promote balance:  sleep hygiene, nutrition, exercise and relaxation

3.  Model balance and focus holistically on healthy development and core values.

  • Communicate deliberate and mindful messages about achievement and success. Model the importance of intrinsic self-worth. Focus on the development of compassion, contribution, love and health as primary sources of life long happiness.
  • Insist on balance and be vigilant about supervision. Monitor deteriorating sleep, appetite or self-care. Develop family self-care rules and discourage a “success at all cost” attitude.

Careful attention to students presenting with unhealthy perfectionism and deliberate, early intervention and treatment could go a long way in turning the tide of the anxiety epidemic in our adolescent and young adult populations.

Photo by {artist}/{collectionName} / Getty Images

Photo by {artist}/{collectionName} / Getty Images

Enter the age of internet addiction

This morning's CBS Sunday Morning Show with Charles Osgood featured a video commentary by Paula Poundstone titled, "Stop flat-screen addiction!".  There is ample evidence in the medical literature that a loss of control over one's Internet technology use poses serious risk to their general health, mental health and relationships.  Despite this evidence the official diagnostic manual of mental disorders has only peripherally recognized this serious condition.  I am glad to see commentary like this calling attention to this problem so that we as concerned adults might consider not only our children's but also our own technology use behavior.