Parenting Through the Storm Blog

Parenting information and support for parents who have a child who is struggling. The official blog for Parenting Through the Storm: How to Handle the Highs, the Lows, and Everything in Between by Ann Douglas (HarperCollins Canada, January 2015 + Guilford Press, September 2016), a guide to parenting a child with a mental health, neurodevelopmental, or behavioural challenge.

Summer Parenting Challenges

It’s summertime and the living is easy – or so the song says

But what if you happen to be a parent? 

Sure, for some parents, summer offers a much-needed break: a chance to relax and coast after a frantically busy school year. 

But, for others, the challenges of parenting actually ramp up during the summer months.

I know what it feels like to welcome the arrival of summer -- and to dread the arrival of summer as well -- because I've experienced both types of summers as a parent. 

The joys of summer

Let's start out by talking about the joys. 

The best thing about summer is the lack of structure and routine -- and the freedom it promises kids as well as parents.

Remember what it felt like when you were a kid as you walked out the classroom door on that final day of school? How free you felt? You knew that, for the next two months, you could do pretty much whatever you wanted. You could sleep in as late as you wanted to (or as late as your parents would allow you). You could make on-the-fly plans with your friends, deciding, at a moment’s notice, to go for a bike ride or explore a nearby ravine. It was all about possibility. The squares on the calendar were deliciously blank for the next two months and you were ready to make the most of that freedom.

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Some parents are lucky enough to get to enjoy a taste of that very same freedom. They celebrate the fact that they’re liberated from the tasks of making lunches or supervising homework or getting kids to the bus stop on time. And if you’re the parent of a child who tends to experience a lot of struggles at school (a child who has a learning disability, a child who has a lot of behavioral challenges, a child who is dealing with any number of other types of social or academic challenges), you may welcome a break from all these added school-year stresses. 

 

The challenges of summer

Of course, you're only able to enjoy the freedom of summer if you’re not simultaneously worrying about how you’re going to keep the kids busy and entertained for an entire summer, while you, the parent, go to work or run a business. And, these days, the majority of parents find themselves grappling with these challenges.

That's because the entire landscape of parenting has changed dramatically in recent decades.  As recently as the mid-1970s, it was still the norm to have at least one parent home full-time – a parent who could provide the round-the-clock supervision that kids need during the summer months. But today, the norm is to have two parents employed full-time outside the home -- which kind of begs the question: “Who exactly is supposed to be taking care of the kids during the summer months?” 

It's a problem that individual parents are left to solve for themselves -- and most parents end up with a patchwork of summer childcare solutions.

They might end up using some or all of their vacation to care for the kids for at least some of those weeks.

They might send the kids to summer activities for a week or two, if they can swing the logistics of getting the kids to and from those activities and come up with the necessary cash to pay for them, too.

They might be able to convince a grandparent to pinch hit for a little while (assuming, of course, that the grandparent isn’t working full-time – as many are).

But it’s all very pieced together, very expensive, and very stressful. 

Add to this the fact that a growing number of Canadian parents are precariously employed and you can see that the challenges ramp up even further. How are you supposed to make summer plans for your kids when you have no idea what your work schedule is going to be? Or how much money you’ll be making? 

And then there are the challenges that go along with being part of the so-called "gig economy." Sure, if you're self-employed, you have some flexibility when it comes to setting your own work schedule. But your workload doesn’t magically vaporize during the summer months, just because your kids are out of school. In fact, depending on your line of work, it might actually become even busier. Back when I had four school-aged kids and was working as a freelance magazine writer, August was always a challenge. That’s when magazine editors would start assigning articles for their meatiest issue of the year: the holiday issue. So I’d find myself trying to schedule interviews at times of day when my kids were least likely to need me (something that was pretty much impossible to predict). So much for the so-called freedom of working from home! I soon discovered that it meant the “freedom” to work at all hours of day or night – and right through your summer vacation, if need be. Some freedom!

 

Why summer can be extra challenging for some kids and some parents

All parents have to deal with garden-variety parenting challenges that result from changes to the family’s school year routine. They have to find ways to ensure that the kids aren’t glued to a screen all summer long. They need to make sure that the kids’ sleep and eating habits don’t get totally out-of-whack – because, when they do, everyone in the family pays the price. But, for some kids and some parents, the challenges can be far greater.

We humans are creatures of habit -- we thrive when life is predictable; when we’ve settled into a comfortable routine (or even rut). 

For some kids, routine isn’t merely something that’s nice to have. It’s something they need to have in order to feel secure and function at their best. I’m thinking of all four of my kids, who have ADHD, and I’m thinking of my youngest son who has an autism spectrum disorder. Summers were particularly tough for him. He really missed the structure of the school-year routine. 

And then there are the challenges faced by parents who share custody of their kids. They may have to come up with creative ways to make shared custody work at a time of year when many school-year routines go out the window – and when shifting schedules and vacation plans have to be factored in as well. And none of this is easy.

How to deal with summer parenting challenges

Wondering how to deal with these challenges? Here are two strategies that have worked well for me.

Join forces with other families. I know: I seem to offer that particular piece of advice a lot. But that’s because a lot of the problems that we’re grappling with as parents are too big for any individual family to solve on their own. So look for ways to pool your energies and resources so that every child on your street gets taken care of throughout the entire summer -- and so that every parent feels supported at the same time.

Tap into the wisdom of your kids. Rather than just spewing out a long list of family rules, talk with them about what it’s going to take for everyone in the family to have a great summer – and how every member of the family can help to make that happen. Your kids are more likely to want to buy into solutions that they helped to create – and, what’s more, kids often come up with creative solutions that adults can’t even imagine. So don’t be afraid to tap into the wisdom of your eight year old or your eighteen year old when it comes to keeping the lid on screen time, getting everyone fed, and ensuring that everyone’s getting the sleep they need to function at their best. Or when it comes to making time for fun.

Speaking of fun....

Remind yourself that summer is a limited time offer -- just as childhood is a limited time offer. Look for ways to make as many happy memories you can this summer (but in a low-stress, 100 percent guilt-free way).

This is something I was speaking to Nora Spinks about recently for my CBC Radio parenting column on this topic. She’s the CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa. And this is what she had to say: "Families can make the most of summers by taking time. Be together. Laugh. It's a time to create memories. It's a time where you can try new things -- where you can be really present with your kids. You might not be able to be with them all the time, but, when you are, be present."

So it’s not about trying to turn every single moment you have with your kids this summer into a picture-perfect moment (because that’s impossibly high stakes for any parent). But it is about making at least some of these moments really count: about pausing long enough to ask yourself what you want your child to carry with him when he reflects back upon this particular summer in his childhood and what memories you want to carry with you when you reflect back on this particular chapter in your life as a parent. Have a great summer!

Related Post: The Recipe for a Perfect Childhood Summer

Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about pregnancy and parenting, including, most recently, Parenting Through the Storm. She has just finished writing a brand new book about parenting. That book will be published by HarperCollins Canada in February 2019. 

What Moms Really Want for Mother's Day

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What do moms really want for Mother’s Day? Flowers, candy, breakfast in bed, a homemade card? Perhaps — or maybe that mom on your list has something else in mind.

Here's what's on my Mother's Day wish list this year -- and what's also making the list of a lot of other moms I know....

Sleep

I know this one's hard to wrap, but it's guaranteed to be a hit, if only because it's in such chronically short supply.

One study found, in fact, that each time you add an additional child to your family, you increase your odds of not getting at least 6 hours of sleep each night by an astounding 50 percent. (Pretty mind-boggling, I know.) 

Sleep deprivation tends to be more of a problem for mothers than for fathers -- and not just because mothers still tend to take the lead on middle-of-the-night parenting. Women are more likely to have difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep than men, with roughly 35 percent of women as compared to 25 percent of men reporting sleep problems. And there may be an additional factor at play as well (although the jury’s still out on this one): UK neuroscientist Jim Horne has argued that women need more sleep than men (about 20 minutes extra each day) because their brains spend more time multitasking, which means their need for recovery time is greater. 

Time with our kids

We sometimes overlook this simple yet all-important fact: that what moms actually love most about motherhood is simply spending time with their kids…. Because here’s the thing: far from being the source of misery, the time spent with our kids is actually the stuff we love most about parenting. It’s the other stuff (the laundry, the grocery shopping, the endless to do list of life) that drags moms down and reduces their enjoyment of motherhood. 

This is something I was speaking with Toronto mother Karen Leiva about recently. I asked her how she was planning to spend Mother’s Day and she told me how much she was looking forward to simply spending time with her son Nicolas, who is two-and-a-half year: "I guess what I really want to do is to have a day where we can kind of slow down: turn off the phones, turn off the computer, turn off the TV and get outside and play and spend some fun time together." 

It's all about hitting the pause button on everyday life and making room for the fun!

A little less guilt

The job description for “mother” tends to be pretty guilt inducing. Consider the kind of messages moms receive from these two so-called inspirational quotes about motherhood.

“If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.” – Jacqueline Kennedy 

So your entire sense of self-worth as a person should be wrapped up in the experience of being someone’s mom? That puts a lot of pressure on moms, to say nothing of their kids.

“A mother is a person who seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie.” - Tenneva Jordan

So motherhood is all about self-sacrifice? What if you’re a mom who happens to really love pie? Do you always have to do without the pie?!!!

Feeling less guilty is all about getting real about motherhood—being willing to talk about the challenges as well as the joys. The more we’re willing to do that, the more we ease the pressure on ourselves—and the easier we make it for other mothers to ease up on themselves, too. 

It’s the Mother’s Day gift you give to other mothers, in other words.

 

A "get out of parenting jail free" card

Every mom would appreciate being given a “get out of (parenting) jail free” card that could be applied to her next parenting faux pas. Because it’s not a case of whether you’re going to make a mistake as a mom. It’s simply a matter of when. And when it happens, you can simply use that “get out of  (parenting) jail free” card to forgive yourself and move on.

Being a mom means experiencing many guilt-inducing moments. And as the mother of four children, I have many. One memory that really stands out is the time I sent my four-year-old son to school on a non-school day. These were the days of every-other-day kindergarten and there’d been some sort of disruption to the schedule—a school holiday or something like that. I sent Erik to school as per usual and then midday through the day, it suddenly dawned on me that this wasn’t actually a school day for him. I rushed to the school only to discover that the teacher hadn’t actually noticed the error at all. (Yes, that made me feel a lot better.) “I noticed he kept looking at me with a really quizzical expression,” the teacher told me. “I guess he was trying to figure out why the teacher was the same, the classroom was the same, but the kids in the class were all different kids. He was trying to puzzle that out.” So, yeah, that experience was more than a little humbling. I definitely could have used a “get out of (parenting) jail free” card that day!

 

A chance to reflect on what it means to be a mom

When you become a mom, you become a member of “the motherhood club.” You feel this strong sense of connection to every other mother you pass on the street and all the other mothers of the world. 

This is something Karen Leiva thinks about a lot. For the past six years, she’s been volunteering to raise funds for children in an orphanage in Uganda. The dollars she raises help to make it possible for the children in that orphanage to pursue post-secondary education. So far, she’s managed to raise enough funds to put ten kids through school. 

She told me that, on Mother’s Day, she’ll be thinking about the fact that 80% of the children in that orphanage ended up being there because their mothers died in childbirth. She’ll be thinking about global health inequities and how not having access to adequate healthcare has a huge impact on the lives of mothers and babies in other parts of the world: “We have so many opportunities in Canada. I think sometimes we take it for granted because it’s always there. We can expect that we’re going to go to the hospital or we’re going to stay home with a midwife and deliver our baby in a healthy way -- but that’s not the reality around the world.” 

So, if you think about it, Mother’s Day is the perfect day to reflect on your motherhood club membership: to feel buoyed by that sense of connection and to allow it to inspire you to do your part to make the world a better place for other mothers and their children. 

Not just in your neighbourhood, but around the world. 

And not just on Mother’s Day. 

This blog post is based on my May 2018 parenting column for CBC Radio. If you'd like to listen to the actual column, you actually have three options to choose from. Happy Mother's Day!

What moms want on Mother's Day, in numbers (Fresh Air)

Sleep, reflect, love: what moms really want for Mother's Day (All in a Weekend Montreal)

The gift she really wants for Mother's Day (Daybreak Alberta)

Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about pregnancy and parenting including, most recently, Parenting Through the Storm. She is also the creator of The Mother of All Books series and the weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio. 

Sure, Let's Talk -- But Let's Invest, Too!

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Today is Bell Let's Talk Day in Canada -- a day devoted to having frank and open conversations about mental health. It's a day when people share stories of their own experiences with mental illness: the triumphs and the struggles. 

I've been a passionate supporter of Bell Let's Talk Day over the years because I think the campaign has done an amazing job of getting people talking about mental health.

#BellLetsTalk conversations on Twitter were what inspired me to first speak openly about my own struggles with bipolar disorder. 

And, this year, I'm hoping we can ramp up the impact of these all-important conversations by using #BellLetsTalk Day as an excuse to broaden the conversation. Specifically, I am hoping that we can use it as an opportunity to reach out to our elected officials -- the very people responsible for ensuring that there are adequate services in place in our communities to support people in need of mental health diagnosis and treatment.

Because here's the thing: it's not okay to encourage people to talk about mental health -- and then leave them in the lurch when it comes to actually accessing treatment. And yet that's happening far too often across this country -- because government investment has failed to keep pace with the skyrocketing demand for services.

This past year, I have watched a member of my own family struggle to obtain access to mental health care. What I've learned is that

  1. You have to be incredibly persistent to obtain access to care. You have to be willing to be the squeaky wheel which, if you think about it, is a pretty major burden to put on a person who is already struggling. 
  2. You have to be incredibly lucky -- lucky enough to live in a community where timely access to mental health treatment is available. I don't think it should come down to luck. (There have been times when I thought my family's luck was going to run out: that it wouldn't be possible to help a family member in trouble to access care soon enough. And that's a terrible feeling.) 

So here's my plea to you on Bell Let's Talk Day, 2018.

Please take a moment to write to your MPP to urge them to make mental health funding a priority this year. Or, if you prefer, call his/her office and ask for a face-to-face meeting to discuss the issue. And, while you're making a plea for more mental health investment in general, please take a moment to spotlight the chronic underfunding of child/youth mental health services and the terrible cost of such shortsightedness. 

As I have learned through my volunteer work with Children's Mental Health Ontario's #kidscantwait campaign, we're actually losing ground when it comes to investing in the mental health of children and youth -- this despite the fact that requests for services are skyrocketing and the impact on families is immeasurable. 

Bottom line? We can do better and we must do better. 

So, sure. Let's keep talking.

But let's start investing, too -- in mental health care for every Canadian who needs it.
 

Ann Douglas is the author of Parenting Through the Storm and the weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio.

How to Get Your Parenting Resolutions Back on Track

 Change is possible! Here's how to get your parenting resolutions back on track.

Change is possible! Here's how to get your parenting resolutions back on track.

We’re roughly two weeks into the New Year—which means it’s just about time for even the best-intentioned New Years’ resolutions to start to fall apart. Hey, it happens: enthusiasm fades, reality kicks in, and resolutions end up being forgotten or abandoned.

But what if your resolutions have something to do with parenting? Do you really want to put those resolutions on hold for an entire year? 

The good news is that you don’t have to! I've been reading up on the science of habit change and I've identified four key strategies that can help you get back on track. Here's what you need to know....

Strategy One: Engage in Some Mental Time Travel

The most effective trick that I came across while pouring through the research on the science of habit change literature also happens to be a strategy I stumbled upon on my own, simply by chance. I found that if I was having a really tough day as a parent  (let’s say, I woke up with a headache; and my husband was working midnights; and all four kids were acting up), I could keep my emotions in check and parent in a way that I could feel good about at the end of the day by focusing on the kind of relationship I hoped to have with my kids in years to come.

It was all about engaging in mental time travel—connecting with my future self.

I’d mentally picture my kids when they were all grown up, talking about me with one of their friends, saying things like, “My mom was the kind of mom who….dot, dot, dot” Or  “I grew up in the kind of family where….dot, dot, dot” – and I decided that if I wanted them to have good things to say after the “dot, dot, dot,” I needed to make our relationship the priority in the here and now.

Well, as it turns out, there’s some pretty solid science to support this particular strategy. The science of habit change tells us that you’ll find it easier to stick with a new habit if you make a point of mentally projecting the outcome for your future self (as opposed to giving into temptation in the moment). In other words, parenting with your big-picture parenting goals in mind.

Strategy Two: Make an Identity Shift

As it turns out, this piece of the puzzle is huge. Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do to shift your behaviour is by shifting your identity—or, in some cases, your entire family’s identity.

Let’s say that your parenting resolution is to make the shift from being a family of couch potatoes to a family that is active together on a regular basis. If you start telling yourself “We’re the kind of family of family that does something physically active together every weekend,” you’ll find it easier to make this your family’s new normal. That’s because you won’t have to make the decision about whether or not to be active together each and every weekend: your family’s new identity will simply remind you that being active is what you do because, hey, you’re that kind of family!

Of course, this will feel really awkward at first. You’ll feel like an imposter (“Who us?!! We're the poster family for couch potatoes!”) But, over time, your behaviour and your identity will shift. In the meantime, all you’ve got to do is to heed that old advice to “Fake it until you make it.”

Strategy Three: Anchor Your New Habit to an Existing Habit

One of the most effective strategies for getting a new habit to stick is to anchor that a brand new habit on an existing habit

For example, let’s say that your resolution is to spend a bit of time at the start or end of each day, reflecting on what is (and isn’t) going well in your life as a parent, so that you can learn from that. 

The easiest way to remember to do this thinking is to anchor this thinking habit to something you already do on a regular basis, like brushing your teeth—to say to yourself, “I always reflect on how my day is going while I’m brushing my teeth.” Over time, this moment of self-reflection will become as automatic as reaching for your toothbrush and your toothpaste!

Strategy Three: Seek Support from Your Parenting Village

Don't overlook that fact that other people who care about you and your kids may be able to offer practical assistance or moral support or both.

If, for example, you’ve resolved to make more home-cooked meals this year, you might decide to get together with another family (or even a group of families) to swap recipes and/or to batch cook together. 

Likewise, if your resolution is to be active together more often as a family, you might want to join forces with some other parents you know to plan multi-family hikes, swims, and bike rides.  Or to encourage and motivate one another via text message or social media. Or all of the above…..

Final Thoughts

It can take time—and repeated efforts—for a new habit to stick. So don’t assume that all hope is lost the first time you accidentally revert to couch potato mode or find yourself reigniting your love affair with your smartphone. Simply resolve to keep trying.

And as for beating yourself up for falling short of your lofty goals? That isn’t helpful in the least.

Instead, make a point of treating yourself with at least as much compassion as you would extend to a friend who was struggling to keep his or her parenting resolutions. (You wouldn’t be much of a friend if you browbeat your friend for falling short and yet it’s so easy to adopt that ultra-critical stance with yourself.)

What we’re talking about here is practicing self-compassion – one of the most powerful ingredients in the recipe for lasting change. Resolve to treat yourself to regular and ample servings of it this year.

This blog post is based on my recent CBC Radio parenting column on the same topic. Want to find out more? Listen to my conversations with Fresh Air (Toronto) and/or DayBreak Alberta

The Science of Giving: What Actually Inspires Kids to Be Generous

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We're heading into the so-called season of giving, which means that most of us parents are doing everything we can to encourage our kids to embrace the act of giving (as opposed to, say, merely getting). Here's a quick crash course on the science of giving -- what actually encourages kids to want to be generous.

Resist the temptation to come up with some hugely complicated "family generosity project." Instead, just follow your child's lead.

Sometimes we're so enthusiastic about the idea of teaching kids to be generous that we try to orchestrate some hugely elaborate family generosity project. We forget to give our children the opportunity to take the lead. Because here’s the thing: a project that is dreamed up by a child is going to be so much more meaningful to that child than a project that is the brain child of his or her parent — and it is much less likely to encounter resistance! (“But I don’t want to volunteer at the food bank…. Do we have to?”) 

It’s also tempting to be heavy-handed in other ways—like by trying to dictate the terms of your children’s generosity. For example a well-meaning parent might say to their child, “I expect you to donate $20 of your money to charity!” or “You have to spend $20 on your brother’s gift!” Sure, we want to encourage kids to be generous, but it’s so important to give them the opportunity to come up with their own ideas—because that’s when the magic happens!

This is something I was talking with Hugh Macmillan about recently. He’s a Peterborough, Ontario, social worker, parent, and grandparent. He reminisced about donating some of the hard-earned proceeds from his paper route to a nearby charity, back when he was a kid. He said that his father would take him down to the offices of this particular charity and then look on with pride while Hugh plunked a handful of change on the front counter. Decades later, he still remembers how great if felt to be that kid making that donation — an experience that would ultimately snowball into a lifelong habit of charitable giving for Hugh. His advice to parents who want to spark this kind of generosity in their own kids? Seize the moments like this one. This is when to have a conversation with giving about your child — when your child is being flooded with the great feeling that comes from giving.

Don't feel like you have to reward kids for being generous and/or heap on lavish praise.

Children who are offered a reward for doing something kind for another person are actually less likely to want to repeat that kind of behaviour again in future. Besides, children don’t need rewards (or over-the-top praise) to want to do kind things for others. Studies have revealed that children as young as 21 months of age are naturally inclined to help others without being asked. As parents, all we really need to do is to nurture that hard-wired instinct along.

Have age-appropriate expectations when it comes to generosity.

This is another easy trap to fall into as a parent: asking kids to measure up to adult-sized standards of behaviour when, in fact, they’re still just little kids. 

This is something else I talked to Hugh Macmillan about: about the pressure many parents feel to push (and, dare I say, maybe even oversell?) the whole idea of giving. Sure, generosity is one of those values we really want to pass along to our children, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Or, as Hugh put it, “We don’t have to cram all this learning in by the age of two!” 

If you’re the parent of a toddler who is deeply embedded in the “Mine!” stage, you can take this as a message of hope. Sure, your child may not be about to relinquish his death grip on his favourite toy truck anytime soon, but eventually he’ll stop being allergic to the whole idea of sharing. Or at least that’s the plan. (Yes, there are some adults who still struggle with the concept!)

Be prepared to be a role model yourself when it comes to all things giving.

Kids are much less inclined to pay attention to what you say than what you do, so you’ll want to make a point of allowing them to catch you being generous on a regular basis (and in a matter-of-fact rather than self-congratulatory way). 

And don’t forget to give them a peek behind the curtain—to help your kids to understand why you choose to be generous -- how great each act of generosity feels. You want your kids to understand why you are inspired to be generous, in the hope that they will be similarly inspired, too.

This definitely needs to be a year-round conversation as opposed to a once-a-year seasonal occurrence, by the way. Research conducted by the Science of Generosity Initiative at Notre Dame University tells us that acts of generosity need to be practiced consistently in order to have a lasting impact on the giver. So you definitely don’t want this to be a one-shot deal — not if you’re serious about sparking generosity in your kids.

Expand your circle of generosity to include a wide range of others (including people who may be very different from you).

Research has shown that people who reap the greatest benefits from being generous are those who are willing to be generous with people they don’t know intimately and who may be quite unlike themselves. The takeaway message of this research is clear: the benefits of being generous are much more limited if you stick to being generous with members of your own “tribe” (your own narrow circle of family and friends). 

It’s a timely message for our troubled world—about the importance of reaching outward rather than retreating inward; and of expanding the circle of people we care about and care for.

Happy holidays, everyone.

Related blog post from CBC website