Parenting Blog

The official blog for Ann Douglas, parenting book author and weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio. Ann is the creator of The Mother of All Books series and the author of Parenting Through the Storm. Her most recent book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, was published by HarperCollins Canada in February 2019.

How to Avoid Being Psychologically Destroyed by Your Newsfeed

emotional-storms

This past week has been brutal, in terms of what has been coming across my newsfeed. And 2016 wasn't exactly a picnic either. So lately I've been thinking a lot about the mental health impact of a steady avalanche of Really Bad News. Many of us (myself included) deal with mental health challenges on a daily basis and being fed a steady diet of devastating world events only serves to make that harder. So I've decided to share a few strategies I'm using to avoid being completely crushed by my newsfeed right now. (I'm writing this post as much for myself as for anyone else. But I'm also hoping that this post will be helpful to some other sensitive soul who is having an extra tough time right now.)

Here's my best advice....

Recognize that there's a difference between being immersed and being informed

Sure, you want to be aware of what's happening in the world, but that doesn't mean that you have to be plugged into your Twitter or Facebook feed 24/7. Give yourself permission to take breaks. And aim for a balanced media diet. Don't just focus on the really bad news. Gravitate toward the good, too.

Stick to your usual routines as much as possible

We humans are creatures of habit and we find comfort in the familiar. And make sure that you're giving your body what it needs to function at its best: healthy food, regular physical activity, time for fun, and adequate sleep. (I don't know about you, but I find that sleep is the glue that holds everything else together. I've learned to recognize it for what it is: a necessity, not a luxury.) 

Look for opportunities to take action

It doesn't have to be something huge. Frankly, it will feel a whole lot less overwhelming if it's not. But by carrying through on sort of positive action, however small (writing a letter, making a donation, attending a face-to-face get-together in your town), you'll be engaging the rational-logical part of your brain. And that will help to put the brakes on what can otherwise quickly escalate into paralyzing feelings of anxiety and sadness. Feeling powerless fuels anxiety; taking action brings it down. 

Allow yourself to feel all the feelings

Allow painful emotions to flow through you as opposed to avoiding them (which suppresses positive as well as negative emotions, leaving you feeling emotionally "flat") or dwelling on them (which ties up cognitive resources, leaving you less equipped to solve problems or connect with other people). Remind yourself that feelings come and feelings go -- and you are not your feelings. 

Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.
— Noam Chomsky

Maintain your sense of optimism

Focus on what you can control as opposed to fixating on what you can't. You'll find it easier to make this mental mindshift if you make a conscious effort to boost your level of positive emotion by doing things you enjoy and spending time with people you love. Positive emotions leave the door open to possibility while negative emotions slam the door shut. You want to keep the door open right now.

Reach out -- don't crumble inward

Connect with other caring citizens who share your concern about what's happening in our country and our world. Talk to other people you know who may be going through an especially difficult time right now -- especially members of vulnerable or marginalized communities. Let them know that you will be there to support them and that you care. Smile at strangers. (Assume their good intentions unless proven otherwise.) Look for opportunities to build bridges, not walls. Finally, reach out for other types of support if you feel like you're really struggling. Self-care isn't selfish; it's self-preservation. You need to take extra good care of yourself right now.

Talk to your children

Address their fears and spark their compassion. Do everything in your power to nurture their caring and to encourage them to dream of a better world. Then support those brave dreamers. They offer the best path forward for our deeply troubled world.

Helping Children to Thrive Despite Early Struggles

Relationships serve as the active ingredient in our development, writes Sara Langworthy, author of  Bridging the Relationship Gap.

Relationships serve as the active ingredient in our development, writes Sara Langworthy, author of Bridging the Relationship Gap.

“The beauty of being human is that we constantly evolve and change. We have experiences every day that can alter the course of our lives to help us rebuild what was broken and rediscover what was lost. We, as humans, are never irreparably broken because our brains and bodies are built to change and adapt. And young children are often able to change more easily than the rest of us, when makes the earliest years of life the most full of hope. The key to that hope is in relationships.”
- Sara E. Langworthy, Bridging the Relationship Gap: Connecting with Children Facing Adversity

Not every child has an easy start in life. Bad things can and do happen—and often despite the best intentions of those who care about that child.

The good news is that a warm relationship with a caring adult can make a world of difference for a child who has faced early struggles.

That’s a message that comes through loud and clear in Sara E. Langworthy’s practical and hope-filled book Bridging the Relationship Gap: Connecting with Children Facing Adversity (St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press, 2015): a guide to fostering recovery and resilience in children who have experienced trauma or other adverse childhood experiences

Langworthy has a gift for choosing the perfect analogy to bring complicated and abstract concept to life. Consider, for example, the way she explains the transformative power of relationships on the life of a child. Just as baking powder is “the active ingredient in cake batter that is necessary for your cake to rise properly…relationships serve as that active ingredient in our development,” she writes. 

While this book is intended for early childhood educators and others who work with young children, many of the messages will resonate powerfully with parents as well, thanks to the tone of acceptance and compassion for parents and for children that permeates every page of this book. “Begin with the assumption that every family is doing the best they can given the context in which they live,” Langworthy tells her readers. Likewise, treat children who are struggling as “resilient, active creators of their own lives” rather than “passive, needy receivers of assistance.”

Langworthy has written a practical and compassionate guide that is deeply rooted in messages of hope and possibility: “Despite living in a world fraught with the pain and suffering of trauma and loss, we must cling to the hope of the possibility of change,” she tells us. The book then spells out the recipe for change -- one that is powered by the ultimate "active ingredient": relationships.

Q & A with Sara Langworthy

I recently had the opportunity to connect with Sara Langworthy by video conference. I found her to be every bit as warm, caring, and genuine in conversation as she is in her book. Our conversation inspired me to want to explore a couple of the issues raised in her book in greater depth, so I followed up with her by e-mail, asking her if she’d mind answering a couple of additional questions for me. What follows are my questions and her answers.

Your book really emphasizes the potential for early childhood educators and others working with young children to transform children’s lives through the power of relationship. What do you want these professionals to know about their impact and importance? 

I think this question raises such an important point about the hard work of early care providers: They are often forgotten. Because children are so young when they are in early childhood settings, they often don't remember their teachers in the same way that they'll go on to remember their teachers later in life. It's also tough because early care providers don't often get to see how their kiddos turn out when they grow older. Providers don't get to know if the children they cared for went off to college, got an awesome job, or had families of their own. They don't get to see the effect they had on those children blossom over time. 

But we know from the research on early relationships that those connections are some of the most formative and important for later health, achievement and wellness. The multitude of hours care providers spend working hard to connect with and teach young children - even and especially those children who are hard to work with - are hugely important for setting kids up for success later on. Even though children may not remember you, your care, attention, and teaching have long-lasting effects on who they grow to be. 

You also talk about the importance of self-care. What advice would you offer to professionals who are tempted to put self-care on the back burner?

Self-care can be so hard! I'm no expert in effective self-care myself, but one thing I hear over and over again is that it's impossible to care well for others if you are not caring for yourself first. But even if you agree with that sentiment, it can be really hard to operationalize self-care in your own life. It can feel selfish or indulgent to take that time to care for your own needs, be they physical, emotional, intellectual, or social when there are so many others in need your care and attention. But truly, you are only able to be your professional best when you give yourself the time and attention you need to be your personal best.

One important point about self-care: it looks different for everyone. The self-care activities might be different (time with friends, getting a massage, taking a night off, watching a movie, going for a run, seeing a therapist, etc.). But also the amount of time you spend on self-care to feel at your best might be different from other people. That's okay! I tend to think that I actually need more self-care time than a lot of people to remain balanced. I have a hard time not feeling guilty about that, but I'm learning that taking that time for myself makes me more effective in my work AND in my play. 

You're also never going to get it right all the time. That's okay too! Give yourself permission to fall down and mess up sometimes. Despite feeling like I was pretty good at maintaining balance and taking care of myself, I learned in a really big way recently that I needed some recalibration of my own. I wrote about it over on my blog on Medium, but essentially it took falling into a pit to realize that everything was not okay. I'm still working my way out of that pit, but I'm learning so much about myself and what I need in terms of self-care because of that experience. Know that just because you mess up (and you will mess up), it doesn't mean you're a permanent failure, or that you're not worthy of the care you need to feel better in your own life. Take that time in the ways you need. That is MORE than just okay. It's essential. 

 

Reviewed by Ann Douglas, author, Parenting Through the Storm.

Because How You Tell a Story Matters

How you tell a story matters -- a lot.

When I made the decision to tell my family's story in my book Parenting Through the Storm, I knew I needed to do so in a way that was rooted in love and respect.

I also felt the same way about sharing the stories that other families entrusted me with during the researching of my book: that I had a responsibility to honour their experiences by treating their stories with every bit as much care and respect. This is something I wrote about in a recent post for the Images + Voices of Hope (IVOH) blog: a post that talks about how restorative narrative made it possible for me to tell my family's story.

About restorative narrative

Not familiar with the concept of restorative narrative? It is all about finding strength in the midst of struggle; on seeing resilience rather than brokenness. And it doesn't do so in some superficial, Pollyanna way. "[Restorative narratives] don’t ignore the difficult situation that a person or a community has endured. They explore the rough emotional terrain of the situation, but instead of focusing on what’s broken, they focus on what’s being rebuilt. They reveal hope and possibilities," IVOH explains. 

I am sharing this information with you for a couple of reasons.

  1. I'm hoping you'll be inspired to look for the strength in your own struggles (because we all have struggles) and that you'll adopt a similarly generous perspective when considering the experiences of other families and communities. 
  2. I want to spread the word about the very important work that IVOH is doing with regard to restorative narrative and to encourage you to find out more about what they're doing to reframe the stories our media are telling us about ourselves. And if you happen to be a journalist who is intrigued by the entire idea of restorative narrative (it stole my heart the moment I learned about it!), then you'll also want to know about IVOH's call for applications for its restorative narrative fellowship (which provides you with funding to pursue a story that matters to you and support in telling that story in the context of restorative narrative); and IVOH's annual media summit (which brings together people who are passionate about storytelling approaches aimed at strengthening people, communities, and the media as a whole). I plan to attend that summit and I'll be encouraging other writers, artists, filmmakers, and change-makers to do likewise. So you can expect to hear a lot more about this from me during the months ahead.

Ann and Kim's Amazing Back-to-School Adventure

back-to-school-parenting-special-needs

Wondering what you can do to make this the best possible school year for yourself and your child (to say nothing of your child’s teacher, too)? We’ve got a roundup of practical, parent-proven suggestions to pass along—a straightforward and simple five-step back-to-school plan. 

And just in case you're wondering who the "we" is (because I usually write the content on this blog on my own), I teamed up with Kim Peterson to create the content for this special back-to-school parenting guide. Kim is one of the co-creators of the Ontario Special Needs Roadmap. If you're following her on Twitter, you already know what an amazing source of support and information she is for parents who have a child with special needs.

But enough about us! You’re here to pick up some tips on minimizing the stress of back-to-school. Here is our quick-and-easy 5-step plan for making the most of this fun-but-busy time of year. (And, if you'd prefer to listen in on the audio version of this conversation, you'll find it right here via SoundCloud.)

Step One: Get Connected

Connect with your child. Start out by having a back-to-school conversation with your child. Find out what's on his mind as he thinks ahead to the coming school year. What is he looking forward to? Does he have any worries/concerns? Is there anything you could be talking about or working through together?

Connect with his teacher. Make contact with your child’s teacher as soon as possible during the school year—sooner, if you can swing it. Let her know that you’re eager to work with her to make this a great school year for all concerned. Provide her with a one-page document highlighting strategies that work well with your child and providing her with other need-to-know information upfront. It’s great to be able to make a connection with the teacher and to identify some common ground as early in the school year as possible.

Connect with your community. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to support that child’s parent. Tap into some of that support for yourself so that you can continue to be a powerful advocate on behalf of your child. "Build your support circle," says Kim. "Become familiar with your school board’s SEAC (Special Education Advisory Committee), parent council, SERT (Special Education Resource Teacher), principal, teachers, educational assistant, education advocates, doctors, therapists, school parents’ association, and so on." And don't try to carry all this information around in your head. Write it down so that you can access it quickly and easily when you need it. 

Step Two: Get Organized

Start out by organizing yourself. Don't leave all your back-to-school preparation to the last minute. That will only add to your stress level. Instead, chip away at the various items on your back-to-school to do list (picking up back-to-school supplies; visiting the school) at a more manageable pace. And be sure to set aside some time to create or update a binder that will allow you to advocate effectively for your child. Be sure to include copies of your child's IEP, treatment plans, communication logs (documenting your various conversations with treatment providers and/or your child's school) as well as a copy of the Ontario Special Needs Roadmap. 

Then help your child to get organized, too. Help your child to adjust to the before-school and after-school routines before he is faced with the first day of school. Walk through the routine on a regular basis during the final weeks of summer holidays so that he'll know what to expect when the school year actually begins. Doing this can help to ease the anxiety your child may be experiences as he transitions to something new. "Consider making a visual schedule to hang up on the refrigerator so that everyone in the house is aware," suggests Kim. "You can also create a social story if your child responds to that better." You might also want to set aside time to visit the schoolyard, to allow your child to start to feel familiar with that environment, and/or to reconnect with schoolmates and arrange a few playdates in the lead-up to school.

Step Three: Get Calm

Get calm yourself and then help your child to get and stay calm, too. Kim suggests practicing mindfulness ("Having a clear, positive mind is what you need to start the new school year") and making self-care a priority for yourself and your child. Her best advice? Make a self-care wall to outline strategies that work for you when you're feeling anxious, exhausted, or depressed. Better yet, map out some of these strategies on a document you can carry with you in your smartphone or in your agenda so that you can tap into these strategies when (not if!) the going gets tough. And do the same for your child, too. Help him to identify the strategies that work best for him and then figure out how he can access these strategies in a flash when he needs them.

Step Four: Get Pumped

The start of a new school year is an exciting time—and you’ll find it easier to cope with any curveballs if you embark on the year in a positive state of mind. That means feeling confident about your ability to support and advocate on your child's behalf. And it means committing to do the hard work of relationship maintenance.

First of all, it's important to own the expertise that you possess as your child's parent: to recognize that you are the true expert when it comes to your child. Don’t be afraid to share your best insights into and observations about what will work best for him at school out of some misguided fear that you have less expertise to offer than your child's teachers. Don’t sell yourself short. Recognize that you have a deep knowledge and understanding of your child that can benefit your child’s teachers (and him) in all kinds of ways.

Secondly, model good problem-solving and relationship maintenance skills for your child. Curveballs are inevitable. It’s all about knowing how to handle them. That means teaching your child how to respond to frustrations in ways that encourage other people to want to help him: assuming the best of the other person, taking a solutions-orienting approach, asking for help/support from others, and so on. Remind yourself (and him) that relationships take work: and that preventing problems is preferable to having to manage the fallout after the fact. Keep the lines of communication open, express appreciation, and try to anticipate and head off problems. When problems do arise, deal with them early (as opposed to allowing them to snowball) and, if a relationship hits a rough spot, commit to doing the hard work involved in relationship repair. 

Step Five: Get Informed

Commit to learning more. Expose yourself to as much information as you can about dealing with your child’s challenges and capitalizing upon his strengths. Knowledge is power! Download a copy of the Ontario Special Needs Roadmap. Pick up a copy of Ann's book Parenting Through the Storm (a guide to parenting a child who is struggling). And tap into the countless other resources available to you as the parent of a child who has special needs. You don't have to do this on your own. 
 

Is there a tip you’d like to share with us—so that we can then share it with other parents? Is there a resource you think other parents would want to know about? Is there a topic you'd like us to tackle in a future blog post or audio tip sheet? Let us know. We'd love to hear from you.
 

Ann Douglas is a mom of four and the author of numerous books about parenting including, most recently, Parenting Through the Storm. She is also CBC Radio’s weekend parenting columnist. She shares parenting and mental health resources on Twitter @anndouglas.

Kim Peterson is a mom of two including a child with autism. She is also one of the co-creators of the Ontario Special Needs Roadmap which has been downloaded over 70,000 times since it was released two years ago. She's also the brains behind the very popular @ONTSpecialNeeds Twitter account. 

Mental Health Advocacy Award: Family Association for Mental Health Everywhere

mental-health-award.jpg

It's been a pretty exciting week for me.

On Tuesday night, the Family Association for Mental Health Everywhere (FAME) inducted me into their mental health advocacy Hall of Fame in recognition of my "contributions to the community's understanding of mental illness" and "untiring advocacy around mental health issues." Past inductees into the FAME Hall of Fame include former Ontario Lieutenant Governor James Bartleman, journalist and author Scott Simmie, mental health advocate Karen Lieberman, mental health advocate Lembi Buchanan, mental health advocate Al Birney, and filmmaker Stuart Clarefield

The Family Association for Mental Health Everywhere offers support to families who have a loved one who is struggling with a mental health challenge. They serve families across the Greater Toronto Area and Peel Region through their offices in Etobicoke, Scarborough, Brampton, and Mississauga. "We believe families make up the basic social structure of our society," the organization's website notes. "Family members provide ongoing support and connection for many of our life experiences. This is particularly true for persons who are vulnerable or ill....As an organization brought together by families, we have a thorough understanding of the challenges and emotions experienced in supporting a family member with a mental illness....[We] works hard to ensure that families have a strong voice within the communities. We are based on a self-help model which respects and supports the expertise that families have regarding their mentally ill relative and their experience in the system."

Thank you, FAME -- both for taking the time to recognize my mental health advocacy work and for the truly life-changing work you have been doing in support of families for over 25 years.

Photos from the event.