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.

You're Invited to the Parenting Through the Storm Book Club (it's free and it's online)

Ann Douglas is hosting a Parenting Through the Storm Book Club for four weeks starting November 12. It's free and it's online. 

Ann Douglas is hosting a Parenting Through the Storm Book Club for four weeks starting November 12. It's free and it's online. 

Ever wish you could participate in a book club from the comfort of your own couch, with a mug of your favourite steamy beverage in hand? Now you can!

I'm joining forces with VoicED Radio to host a four-week online book club focusing on Parenting Through the Storm (my guide to parenting a child who is struggling with a mental health, neurodevelopmental, or behavioural challenge).

Each Sunday night at 8 pm ET, I'll be zeroing on one of the key themes discussed in the book and inviting a special guest to chat with me. Here's a sneak preview of who I've invited and what we'll be talking about. 

I hope you'll plan to tune in to the discussion (you can listen in via this link) and to participate in the Twitter discussion as well.

And, just to be clear, this is a 100% guilt-free book club. You don't have to read the book in order to be involved. (Because what parent needs more guilt in their life, right?) 

Parenting in an Age of Anxiety

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Hurricanes. Wild fires. Mass shootings. The ticking of the doomsday clock…. There’s a lot to be anxious about these days—and it’s not just adults who are finding it difficult to cope with the constant barrage of really bad news: kids are having a hard time, too.

So what can parents do to manage their own anxiety and help kids deal with the scary news headline of the day?

Here’s are a few tips on living through anxious times as a family.

Recognize that kids are paying attention to the bad news story of the day and that they need help managing their anxiety. 

In addition to the usual kid-related worries (worries which can range from “will I get invited to so-and-so’s birthday party?” to “will something terrible happen to someone I love?”), kids today are carrying around some very grownup-sized worries, too. They’re worried about everything from the state of the world to the future of the planet.

Climate change worries are big on their lists—worries that can have a far-reaching impact on their health and well-being. A study published by the American Psychological Association earlier this year pointed out that worry about the potential impacts of climate change can lead to stress-related problems—and that children are particularly vulnerable to this kind of anxiety.

This study certainly rings true for me. I remember grappling with similar worries back when I was a kid. In the mid-1970s, when I was a pre-teen, the doom-and-gloom climate news was all about “the coming ice age.” I remember lying in bed at night worrying about what would happen to my family if the planet were to be buried under a layer of ice. How would we stay warm? What would we eat? Where would we live? And, as if that weren’t enough for my anxious brain to contend with, there were all kinds of other uber-alarming stories in the news: stories about killer bees…and serial killers…and saccharine causing cancer in rats! Let’s just say I was a seriously freaked out kid -- so freaked out, in fact, that my level of worry had a lasting impact on my sixth grade teacher. (When I reconnected with her a few years back, she told me that she still remembered, decades later, just how worried I’d been back when I was a kid.)

Calm yourself; calm your kid.

One of the most powerful ways to calm a child is to be a calming presence in that child’s life. But you can’t do that if you’re a stress ball yourself. You have to calm yourself first—and then calm your kid! 

Wondering what this means in practical terms? It means figuring out what works best to bring your anxiety levels down when the news is just plain stressing you out. For some people, that might mean going for a run or a walk. For others, it might mean talking with a friend. And, for others still, it might mean completely immersing themselves in a hobby that requires a lot of focus and attention—an activity that provides a complete mental vacation from the news!

Take a media vacation—or commit to consuming a more balanced media “diet.” 

There’s a difference between being informed and being immersed when it comes to staying on top of current events. Don’t be afraid to hit the pause button on your news feed—and to help your kids to do the same—if you find yourself feeling really anxious and perhaps a little hopeless or cynical, too. 

If you find it too difficult to unplug from the news completely (because being out of the loop makes you feel even more anxious and possibly a little guilty: isn’t it your duty as a caring citizen to stay informed?), at least make an effort to consume a more balanced media diet. Instead of just fixating on the latest bad news, deliberately seek out stories of people doing kind and heroic things—or communities responding with strength and resilience—in the wake of disaster.

Then make a point of sharing these good news stories with your kids as well. Kids need to know that disasters can bring out the best (not just the worst) in people—and that communities can and do pull together in times of struggle. That way, if they find themselves facing a scary and overwhelming situation in their own lives, they’ll remember to follow that timeless advice from Mr. Rogers—to look for the helpers! And to turn to other people for support….

Help your child to put scary news headlines in context. And then offer to carry the worry for him.

It’s also important to be willing to talk things through with kids—to answer their questions in an age-appropriate way and to help them to put the scary news headlines in context. A six-year-old who sees news footage of a neighbourhood going down in flames doesn’t have any way of knowing whether or not that fire is happening down the street or around the world. Help your child to feel safe by reassuring him that the fire isn’t happening right here, right now—and that 

  1. the odds of this kind of disaster happening to your family are still relatively small (even though the video footage can make it feel really frightening and immediate); 
  2. you promise to do everything in your power to keep him safe, both now and in the future; and 
  3. he can park this particular worry for now. (You promise to let him know if the situation changes and there’s cause for concern, but that, in the meantime, you’ll carry the worry for him.)

Teach your kids that they don’t have to wait until they’re all grown up in order to start to make a difference in the world. They may be small, but their impact can be mighty!

It’s important to give kids hope—to help them to see that the situation isn’t completely hopeless. And one of the best ways to do that is by switching into action mode: to look for opportunities to try to make things better in your own tiny corner of the world. 
When you switch into action mode, you’re engaging the logical part of your brain—the part that is about thinking and planning and doing. That helps to hit the pause button on the anxious part of your brain—the part of your brain that likes to spin in circles and that can easily get stuck in a rut of worst case scenario thinking (thinking that leaves you feeling even more anxious and afraid).

The quote that I work and live by is, ‘If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito.’ And I always teach my kids that it doesn’t matter: little can add up. It has to start somewhere. I don’t know how many quotes you can find on a Pinterest board or on Google that talk about ‘Everything starts with one step’ or ‘Little things add up’ or ‘piece by piece’ or ‘step by step’. We have to teach our kids that.
— Lisa Borden
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You also want to teach your kids that they don’t have to wait until they’re all grown up in order to start to make a difference in the world. They may be small, but their impact can be mighty! This is something I was speaking with Lisa Borden about recently. She’s a Toronto mother of three, an entrepreneur, and an environmental activist. Here’s what she had to say: “The quote that I work and live by is, ‘If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito.’ And I always teach my kids that it doesn’t matter: little can add up. It has to start somewhere. I don’t know how many quotes you can find on a Pinterest board or on Google that talk about ‘Everything starts with one step’ or ‘Little things add up’ or ‘piece by piece’ or ‘step by step’. We have to teach our kids that.”

Lisa wants her kids to see the impact of their day-to-day experiences on the wider world. They have conversations as a family about where their food and their clothing come from—and the kind of impact that they can have on the environment and on other people, based on their purchasing decisions. They’ve participated in marches together—so that her kids can see that a whole bunch of people making small changes together can add up to a really big change. And they’ve looked for other hands-on ways to have an impact as a family—like the time her son Ryan donated money from his bar mitzvah to help save the bees and the family ended up harvesting honey together.

My conversation with Lisa reminded me how much we have to learn from our kids—and why we owe it to them to truly listen to their questions and their worries, to welcome their ideas about creating a better world.

After all, our children are the custodians of the future. They’re the ones who will be inheriting the extraordinarily messy world that we’ll be bequeathing to them someday.

Maybe, instead of just talking at them, we should be listening to them—and working with them to fix things, starting right now. Then we’ll all have a whole lot less to feel anxious about. 

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….