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.

How to Start a Parenting Book Club

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Looking for a way to strike up friendships with the other parents you bump into in the hallway at your child's school -- or that great group of parents you like to hang out with online?

Why not consider starting your own parenting book club?

It's a fun and easy way to spark discussions about all things parenting and to build relationships other parents. (If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to support that child's parent. Starting a parenting book club is a powerful way to create and nurture that village.)

Here's what you need to know to get started....

Step One: Decide whether you want to meet face-to-face or online.

Naturally, there are pros and cons to going either route. Face-to-face conversations offer more opportunities for small talk -- casual chitchat that tends to break the ice and that can help to establish trust. But scheduling face-to-face anything can be a major challenge, as you know. There will always be another activity (or ten) competing for people's time. And while online discussion groups are the clear winner when it comes to scheduling (parents can dive in and out of discussions at the time that's work best for them), you're unlikely to have their sole, undivided attention. There's always a Facebook or Twitter notification ready to lure them away from whatever your book club is talking about -- or they may overlook your book club discussions entirely if they're having a particularly busy newsfeed day. 

And then there's the issue of deciding where to meet (at your child's school? at the local library? in someone's home) or where to host your online discussions (in a private Facebook group? in some other online space?). Your goals in either situation -- whether you're meeting face-to-face or online -- are (1) to safeguard the confidentiality of member discussions and (2) to make being involved blissfully simple and hassle-free. (Don't ask parents to drive across town or to download obscure third-party software in order to participate in your book club or they simply won't bother.) 

Step Two: Invite other parents and ask them to help you spread the word.

Send out an email or text message to other parents you know, letting them know that you have a parenting book club in the works. Or share your invitation via social media, so that other parents can help you spread the word. If you're hosting your parenting book club at your child's school or the local branch of your public library, maybe the school or library would be willing to help publicize your book club via their newsletter or website, too. 

You'll find that parents are more likely to want to be involved if you're upfront about your plans and expectations, so be sure to include details about how often you'll be meeting, when and where you'll be meeting, and how many books you expect them to tackle in any given year.

Pro tip: Parents are among the most time-stressed people on the planet, so you may find you get more uptake if you're only asking parents to read a chapter or two -- as opposed to an entire book -- each month. Anything more than that may feel overwhelming and discourage parents from becoming involved.

Step Three: Promise to deliver a guilt-free book club experience to your book club members. 

Parents don't need any additional things to feel guilty about. They've got plenty already. So don't beat them up for missing a meeting or not having time to do the readings or for having to dash out the door mid-meeting to deal with a kid-related emergency. Hey, life happens....

And speaking of sidestepping stress, you'll also want to prevent any inadvertent book club drama. This means be explicit about the need for confidentiality. Discussions about parenting inevitably get personal, so book club members need to know that the stories they share with other book club members won't become fodder for the gossip mill. What happens in book club should stay in book club, in other words....

Step Four: Keep it simple.

Focus on what matters most: the actual parenting discussions. Sure, it's great to have delicious, eye-catching snacks -- even snacks that tie into the book's theme. But it can be stressful to find yourself scrambling to put together an Instagram-worthy contribution at 1:00 am the night before.

So keep it simple on the snack front. And, while you're at it, look for other ways to minimize the work associated with hosting a parenting book club. For example, choose books that already have existing book club discussion guides. That will save you the work of coming up with a list of discussion questions on your own. (Not quite sure what a book club discussion guide is or what it has to offer? Check out the book club guide for my book Parenting Through the Storm as an example.)

And, speaking of simple yet powerful ways to ramp up your book club discussions, consider inviting the author of the book you're discussing to join in the conversation (in person or via Skype, FaceTime, or Google Hangout). It's something that most authors are thrilled to do, time and geography permitting. And even if they can't join your discussions in real time, odds are they'd be happy to send along a video greeting or other book club message instead. (I, for one, am thrilled when book clubs make the ask because it gives me the chance to connect with readers of my books -- the whole reason I became an author in the first place.)

There's also an added benefit to making contact with the author: if your book club is big enough and you're purchasing large quantities of the author's book, you may qualify for a bulk purchase discount. (That discount tends to kick in at around the 20 copy mark, depending on the book's publisher.) 

So there you have it: a quick guide to launching your own parenting book club. Have some advice to pass along to other parents, based on your own book club experiences? Please share it via the comments section below. (Thanks!)


Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about pregnancy and parenting including, most recently, Parenting Through the Storm. She loves to connect with parents via parenting book clubs and other face-to-face and online events

Back-to-School Parenting: An Ages and Stage Guide

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Back-to-school season is all about shifting gears and launching into new routines. 

That makes it the perfect time of year to hit the pause button: to stop and really think about what you can do to make this the best possible school year for your kids.

That means paying close attention to the unique challenges posted by each age-and-stage of parenting—from the first days of kindergarten through the middle-school years and beyond. Here's what you need to know....

Parent of an elementary-school aged student? Avoid extra-curricular overload!

It's easy to be caught up in the wave of enthusiasm that goes along with the start of a brand new school year. That can lead you to overshoot when it comes to committing to extra-curricular activities: to sign your child up for far more activities than your child (or you!) can reasonably manage.

A practical way to avoid falling into this all-too-common trap is to ask yourself a couple of key questions before you sign your child up for any extracurricular activity:

“How important is this activity to my child?”

“How important is it for my child to sign up for this activity right now (as opposed to six months or a year from now)?”

“What else could my child and my family do with this particular block of free time?” 

Pausing long enough to ask yourself these kinds of questions will help to ensure that you end up with a schedule that feels sane and manageable as opposed to one that feels impossibly busy; that you’re realistic about what you and your child can reasonably commit to right now. (When my four kids were younger, we had a limit of one activity per week per child. My husband and I recognized our limits. We knew we couldn’t handle anything more!)

And here's something else to think about when you're weighing the pros and cons of various activities. The growing body of research about the mental health benefits of leisure-time activities is teaching us that certain types of activities are more likely to deliver a mental vacation from day-to-worries and concerns. Activities that (1) require considerable focus and concentration and (2) that are challenging (but not too challenging!) help us to de-stress in ways that more passive activities (like zoning out in front of a video) do not.

Of course, it’s possible to get too much of a good thing (that "too much" being a schedule that's jam-packed with every conceivable activity). Kids also need plenty of downtime, too. Time to allow their minds to wander. Time to create their own fun. Time to just be kids....

Parent of a preteen? Tap into support from other parents!

The preteen (or middle-school) years tend to be rough ones for parents and kids alike. Academic and peer pressures ramp up for kids at the very same time that parents are grappling with a smorgasbord of work and family pressures. (It’s a time when marital satisfaction, for example, tends to bottom out.)  So what’s the solution? Getting by with a little help from your (parent) friends. Or at least that’s the word from a group of researchers from Arizona State University. Parent support groups aren’t just for brand new parents, they insist. Parents of preteens need them, too. (Can’t find one? Start your own!)

Parent of a teenager? Help your teen to find a sense of purpose.

Teenagers can start to lose interest in school and to struggle in other ways if learning starts to feel disconnected with anything even remotely resembling “real life” (either the life they’re leading right now or the life they hope to be leading after graduation — or both). So have conversations about what your teenager wants for herself. And help her to start mapping out a path that will take her there. But don’t just focus on narrow, career-oriented goals or goals that are entirely rooted in herself. Help her to tap into her broader sense of purpose. Teens who are encouraged to think about ways that they can contribute to the world experience greater life fulfillment than other teens. 

One practical way to do this is to help your child to find a mentor—someone who can help her to connect the dots between where she is right now and where she hopes to be. It’s a strategy that’s worked well for Kim Plumley, a Lanzville, British Columbia, mother of two. When I spoke with her recently for my CBC Radio weekend parenting column, she told me how much her 13-year-old daughter Ella has benefitted from being mentored by a local artist: how the experience has both validated and encouraged Ella’s own passion for the arts. Kim encourages everyone she knows to look for opportunities to mentor and encourage young people, noting that the time commitment can be minimal while the benefits can be far-reaching: “Be a mentor in ten minutes. Be a mentor for two hours. It doesn’t matter. If you can do it, do it!”

Parent of a college or university student? Continue to offer support and encouragement. 

Some people might assume that a parent’s work is done the moment his or her child heads out the door to college or university when actually quite the opposite is true. Parents have an important role to play in offering support and encouragement from across the miles.

The transition from high school to college or university can be a tough one. Not only do first-year college and university students have to get used to living on their own: they are often shocked to discover that their college and university grades aren’t quite what they were back in their high school days. They may feel stressed and overwhelmed—and they may worry that they don’t have what it takes to succeed at college or university. This is where a caring parent has the opportunity to make a real difference—by offering support and expressing confidence in the student’s ability to weather these common first-year storms.

According to some recent research conducted at UBC, college and university-aged students need to hear that (1) everyone finds this transition tough; (2) most students get through it (and we have confidence that you will, too); (3) it’s important to treat yourself with self-compassion and to turn to others for support, if you’re struggling. The takeaway message you want to give to your college- or university-aged kid is simple, yet powerful: “Sure, you may be practically all grown up, but you don’t have to handle this on your own. Reaching out for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. We love you and we’ll always have your back. Because family is forever.”

Related reads

Managing back-to-school stress (CBC Radio)
A shockingly simple guide to back-to-school stress (blog post)
Ann and Kim's amazing back-to-school adventure (blog post with audio)
 

Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about parenting, including, most recently, Parenting Through the Storm. She is also the weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio and a parenting speaker.

The Recipe for a Perfect Childhood Summer

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There are only so many summers of childhood—and they tend to fly by in a flash. One minute, your child is hopping off the school bus on that final day of school, practically intoxicated by the heady sense of freedom and possibility. The next, she's gearing up to head back to school—and wondering where on earth the summer went….  

But here’s the good news: we’re still only a few weeks into the much-anticipated gift that is summer. We still have time to hit the pause button to consider the kinds of memories we want our kids to carry with them from the summer of 2017.

This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately and I've come up with a recipe of sorts for the perfect childhood summer.

Like all good recipes, the ingredients are simple, readily available, and generic enough to allow for substitutions—and the list of ingredients is short (just three!) 

  • The first is “food”—because you can’t talk about summer without talking about food. 
  • The second is “family and friends”—because that’s the active ingredient in our most powerful summer memories. 
  • And the third is “freedom and fun”—because summer is also a time of year for testing limits, sidestepping everyday routines, and otherwise embarking on new adventures.

Food

When I was thinking back to my own most memorable childhood summers, I was struck by just how many of those memories are somehow anchored in food.  The rich charcoal-y taste of anything cooked on my parents’ 1970s barbecue grill. The crunch of corn on the cob served at late-summer corn roasts: a sure sign that summer was winding down. And, of course, the sticky deliciousness of a marshmallow that’s been allowed to catch on fire for a couple of seconds over a campfire, thereby achieving marshmallow goo nirvana.

This is something that food writer Bee Wilson talks about in her recent book First Bite: How We Learn to Eat. She argues that our memories are deeply anchored in food—and that this is especially true when it comes to the foods that we experience in childhood. “You may not be able to remember what you had for lunch last Tuesday, but I bet you can recall the habitual meals of childhood, the breakfast you were given for a weekend treat, and the way bread tasted in your house. These are the memories that still have emotional force years or even decades later,” she writes.

These memories are both anchored to celebrations and tied to ordinary moments—think potato salad at the family reunion versus going berry picking or hitting the farmers’ market as a family. So you definitely want to look for opportunities to build some of these food memories into your kids’ summer.

Family and friends

The great thing about summer is the fact that we tend to have a bit more wriggle room when it comes to scheduling. Most of us take at least a little time off, which allows us to venture a little further afield. It’s the time of year for picnics and barbecues and family reunions: a chance to spend some relaxed and unscheduled time in the company of people we love (and who love us right back). The families we are born into as well as the families we create for ourselves…. 

These kinds of get-togethers give kids the opportunity to reconnect with aunts and uncles and cousins that they might only see once a year—members of an eclectic off-stage cast of characters in the ongoing story that is their life. They are reminded that they belong to something so much bigger than themselves by virtue of their connections to these people. They are rooted. They belong. 

My Grandma Bolton worked really hard to nurture this sense of family. We’d get together to celebrate each of her milestone birthdays and she’d organize sleepovers at her house for various grandchildren, in the hope that at least some of us would go on to become life-long friends. I’m happy to report that she got her wish. My relationship with my cousin Karen is still going strong more than four decades after the first of many grandma-initiated sleepovers. The gift of my cousin’s friendship is her lasting legacy to me.

Freedom and fun

Kids need the opportunity to learn and grow—and summer is the perfect time of year for the unscripted, unstructured play and exploration that fuel self-discovery.

This is something Eileen Kimmett, a Peterborough, Ontario, mother of three school-aged kids thinks about a lot. Her advice to other parents who are wondering how to allow time for the magic of childhood summers to unfold? “Keep it simple. Do schedule field trip days, but don’t overbook or overschedule. It’s okay to stay home and do nothing. I’m certainly learning that this year. You don’t have to go to every event. It’s really, really neat to explore places that you’ve never been to – and you can do it with the kids.”

So, it’s about leaving enough time in your kids’ schedule for them to learn how to create their fun—as opposed to feeling like it’s somehow your job to make the fun happen for them. Because, really, isn’t that what a childhood summer is supposed to be about—being given license to make your own fun? Having the freedom to build your own tree fort and having the time to simply float around on an inner tube, staring up at the clouds while your mind wanders and your cares drift away? 

Instructions

So there you have it: the three key ingredients in the recipe for a perfect childhood summer. And now a few parting thoughts that can double as recipe instructions!

First, don’t make this harder than it has to be. Take advantage of ordinary moments as opposed to feeling like you have to do something hugely complicated or expensive. Less important than what you’re doing is the fact that you’re doing it together—and forging some powerful summertime memories along the way.

Secondly, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you have endless time. There are only so many summers of childhood. Don’t let this one pass your kids by. Think about the types of memories you want your children to carry with them from their one-and-only childhood—and then do what you can to help them start making those memories, starting right now. Seize the summer, moms and dads….

Are You at Risk of Parent Burnout?

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A recent study published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology reported that as many as one in eight parents may be struggling with burnout. They feel exhausted. They feel like they’re doing a bad job as parents. And they feel increasingly disconnected from their kids. It’s a worrisome place to find yourself when you’re a parent, but it’s possible to turn the situation around. Here's what you need to know.

There's a difference between feeling frazzled and experiencing full-fledged parent burnout.

When we talk about parent burnout, we're not talking about garden-variety tiredness or feeling a little frustrated or overwhelmed from time to time. That’s kind of par for the course, when you’re a parent.  

What we’re talking about here is something much more pronounced and prolonged.

You don't just have the occasional bad day, when you're struggling with parent burnout. Every day feels like a bad day.

You always feel exhausted.

You always feel like you’re doing a bad job: that nothing you do or try is making a difference for your child.

You increasingly feel like you're parenting on auto-pilot as opposed to making conscious and deliberate decisions about your parenting

And as you become more discouraged and more cynical, you start to feel emotionally disconnected from your child. 

The more passionate you are about parenting, the greater your risk of experiencing parent burnout.

Parent burnout isn't something that happens to "bad parents." It's something that happens to really committed parents. It’s those parents who are most passionate about parenting and who hold themselves up to the very highest standards who are most vulnerable to experiencing parent burnout.

This makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. If parenting is the most important thing in the world to you and things aren’t going well (or at least as well as you had hoped they would, back when you were merely dreaming about what it would be like to be a parent!), you can start to experience some of the symptoms of parent burnout (feeling exhausted, ineffective, and emotionally distant from your child, for example).

Of course, that’s not the only factor at play here. Having a child who requires a great deal of parenting time and attention for whatever reason can increase the risk of parent burnout. It could be that you're raising a child who has an extra-challenging temperament or who is dealing with a lot of physical or mental health challenges, for example.

Your own resources (or lack thereof) also factor in. A parent who is facing a lot of financial pressure and who doesn’t have a lot of social support is more likely to experience symptoms of burnout than a parent who isn't grappling with money worries and/or feeling isolated and alone.

Interesting enough, one thing the researchers didn’t uncover was any sort of gender gap when it comes to parent burnout. Parent burnout is an equal-opportunity experience! It doesn’t care if you’re a mom or a dad….

There are things you can do to avoid or manage parent burnout.

And now the good news. The situation isn't hopeless. There are things you can do to turn the situation around. The most important thing is to ensure that your expectations of yourself are realistic. We’re living in an era of sky-high expectations for parents: both the expectations that society sets for us and the expectations that we set for ourselves. Not only are we supposed to be ever-loving and ever-patient: we’re supposed to protect our children from every conceivable danger and ensure that they benefit from every conceivable advantage as well. (Or at least that’s how the job description of parenting seems to read some days.)  So reducing your risk of burnout (or reducing it, if it's starting to kick in) is all about wrangling your definition of “good parent” into something a little more manageable: something that allows you to be less than perfect; that gives you at least some time off for good behaviour; and that recognizes that you can’t be all things to all people at all times.

This is something I talked to Claire Kerr-Zlobin about recently. She's a Toronto-area mother of two school-aged children and the founder of the parent mental health charity Life With A Baby. She told me that setting limits for herself (as opposed to continuously pushing herself to her limits and beyond) allows her to be more productive and to feel less scattered and stressed: "I’m not feeling like I’m being pulled in like a million places all at once. I’m actually getting things done versus just like spinning around and not really completing any one thing," she said.

She told me that what helps her to stay on track is her realization that her kids are paying close attention to everything she does. If she finds herself straying too far in the direction of overwork or consistently neglecting self-care, she forces herself to hit the reset button by reminding herself that she's teaching her kids important lessons about what it means to be an adult: “I don’t necessarily want my kids to feel like seeing mommy completely exhausted is the norm.” 

It may not be easy, but it’s worth it—hitting that reset button in your own life. And if you’re looking for allies to help spur you on—other parents who are trying to model healthier patterns for their kids—you’ll find them all around you. Because here’s the thing: every parent struggles with this. No one ever feels completely on top of their parenting game—or at least no parent I’ve ever met! So don’t be afraid to wave the white flag and ask for help—or to extend a helping hand to another parent who is struggling. After all, we’re all in this together, moms and dads.

Related:

Big-Picture Parenting: Graphic Recording

Have you ever watched an artist create a graphic recording while someone is speaking? It's a pretty powerful experience.

Last Thursday night, when I was speaking to a group of parents at Cosburn Middle School in Toronto, I had the opportunity to experience the magic first-hand.  

Graphic recorder Tanya Gerber turned the key concepts and ideas in my Big-Picture Parenting presentation into this memorable graphic, which I am sharing with her permission.

I think you'll agree that she did a beautiful job. Thank you, Tanya!