Archive of ‘Academic and Emotional Success’ category

Building A Better Mental Health Future for Our Children

We are living in an unprecedented time – not only are we facing a global pandemic that is having a profound effect on millions of people around the world, but we are also simultaneously navigating difficult issues like climate change, natural disaster, racial injustice, gender equality, political polarization, economic turbulence, war, etc.  All these factors have taken a toll on our mental health.  Mental health disorders can affect anyone; they do not discriminate based on gender, race, age, ethnicity, occupation, religion, economic class, or ethnic background.  It is very likely that each of us knows someone with a mental health challenge or has one ourselves. 

Our children have been hit particularly hard during this challenging time, with us seeing a mental health crisis in children like never before.  Mental health is just as important as physical health, which is an essential part of children’s overall health and well-being. As a therapist, I am seeing an increasing number of parents reaching out for help with their children’s mental health.  Anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, self-harming, internet addictions and truancy are just some of the conditions that are prevailing in young people during this mental health crisis.  Putting the well-being of our children as top priority is paramount now.  Whether you are a parent, caregiver, educator, coach, counselor or anyone who interacts with children and is genuinely interested in their overall wellness, you have the ability to influence them in a positive way. You can make a difference in their lives.

I would like to share with you five things with the acronym, “CARES”, that I believe our children really need.  With those, we can help nurture their mental health:

1. Connection with compassion

We are all social beings that have the innate need to connect.  The social distancing/isolation during the pandemic has made it very hard for us to connect with each other.  Most of our kids today connect with their phones and computers more than they connect with human beings. Research shows that this disconnection has detrimental effects on the mental health of our children.  Dr. Bruce Perry believes that connectedness has the power to counterbalance adversity:

“Human beings are social creatures, and because of that, we are neurologically designed to be in relationships with other people. When you see another person and they send a signal that you belong, or they smile and give you a gentle touch, that literally changes the physiology of your brain and body in ways that lead to a more regulated stress response system, healthier heart, healthier lungs, and literally it will influence your physical and mental health.” 

Let’s focus on building true connections with our children.  When was the last time you sat down with them to have a deep conversation that made them feel seen and heard?  When was the last time you played or created something together?  Giving our children undivided attention and being attuned is connecting with them.  Being curious and asking questions to genuinely get inside your child’s world is connecting with them.  When we connect through compassion, we begin to see things from their perspective without judgement.  Dr. Brené Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” 

2. Acceptance and authenticity

Dr. Alfred Adler teaches us that a human being has an instinctive need to belong and feel significant.  Dr. Abraham Maslow places belongingness as the next most important need just above the physiological and safety needs in his hierarchy of needs model.  Many kids nowadays are not getting this basic need met.  As a result, they become people pleasers and do things to please others to seek approval.  They rely on external factors to define themselves.  They also act out and become defiant to get adult attention. 

So why do kids do these things?  Because they are not being accepted for who they are.  Their most important need is not being met – the need to belong.  Children need to know that they are accepted for who they are.  When children are accepted, they will have a sense of belonging which will allow them to be their authentic self.  They will see their self-worth, which then leads them to a more meaningful and fulfilled life.  Truly accepting a child means to let go of our own expectations of who we want the child to be and embrace who the child really is. 

3. Resilience and responsibility

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from setbacks or failures.  It is a skill that can be learned and practiced.  Many parents like to teach their kids how to win, but I think it is more important to teach them how to fail and get back up.  Allowing our kids to accept failure as part of learning and growing is one way to teach them resilience.  Do not rush to rescue them from moments of struggle or you will deprive them of opportunity to build their resilience muscles.  Another way to help kids develop resilience is by teaching them responsibility and allowing them to contribute to the family and society.  This not only allows them to have a sense of significance, but also allows them to see how capable they are.  

4. Encouragement and empathy

Oftentimes, we tend to criticize our children and focus on the negatives rather than the positives.  When all our children hear from us is how incapable they are and how much they are doing things incorrectly, they will feel discouraged.  It is important for children to know that we all make mistakes.  Let’s model self-acceptance and self-love even when we make mistakes.  Being encouraged and supported builds self-worth and self-confidence.  Alongside encouragement is empathy. Children need to hear encouraging words that come from a place of empathy. 

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.”

– Dr. Alfred Adler.

5. Safety and support

Providing a secure environment for children to grow and develop is very important for both their physical and mental health.   According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety is one of the most basic human needs for motivation.  Safety does not only refer to physical safety but emotional safety as well.  We want to provide a safe environment for our children to freely express their emotions.  It is important for parents to talk to their children about feelings.  Dr. Daniel Seigel said:

“Parents who speak with their children about their feelings have children who develop emotional intelligence and can understand their own and other people’s feelings more fully.”  

Our goal is to be their anchor so that they feel safe to come to us when the outside world appears to be scary and unsafe to them.  When children have a secure base, they will be more likely to have the courage to explore the world. 

Life is full of unpredictable challenges.  Let’s prepare our kids for whatever lies ahead by fostering their mental health and well-being.  Now more than ever, our children need our support.  Let’s focus on building a better mental health future for our children. 

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

– C.S. Lewis

Supporting Your Teen Through Applying to College

The college application process is an exciting time for any family. Your child has decided to further their education, consider different career paths, and begin the first stage of their adult life. You are proud of them and simultaneously anxious about the choices they will make. This is one of the most uniquely stressful times in a teenager’s life, and it can be easy for any parent to feed off of their child’s stress and worry about whether they are making the best decisions for their future. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you help your child navigate this transitory time.

Encourage them to seek joy

I recently had a parent session with the father of one of my clients who is a junior in high school. He shared with me that his son’s school counselor looked at his choice sheet for his senior year classes and asked him, “Where is the joy in your schedule?” This is such a beautiful reminder that teenagers need balance. Even though AP and IB classes look great on college applications, you have an amazing opportunity to demonstrate to your child that it is necessary to prioritize their mental health and focus on things that make them happy. Start a conversation with them about their schedule. Be curious about the subjects they are interested in, and take note of the electives, sports, fine arts, etc. that make them come alive. Ultimately, colleges pursue students who jump off the page. GPAs and test scores can make an application stand out, but admissions officers are not looking for robots. They want to see students who have passions and varied interests. Reinforce that your child is human, and this is the time in their life to try new things and decipher what makes them feel joyful.  

Help them prioritize their overall wellness

There are so many things that demand high schoolers’ time and energy. Your child is likely coming home feeling exhausted from balancing assignments, tests, extra-curricular activities, friendships, studying for the ACT or SAT, and completing college applications. This often involves overextending themselves and putting their wellness beneath the things on their to-do list. It can be hard to balance helping your teen stay on top of their responsibilities with inspiring them to care for themselves. Here are some behaviors to look out for that indicate your teen needs help to put themselves first:

  • Irritability 
  • Trouble sleeping or oversleeping 
  • Appetite changes 
  • Withdrawal
  • Sluggishness 
  • Decreased interest in previously enjoyable activities

Remind your child that they will not be able to perform the way they would like to in their classes or on their standardized tests if they are not regulated, well-rested, well-fed, and well-connected. Most importantly, children learn by example. If they see you prioritizing your wellness, they will follow suit.

Be patient 

There are many moving parts to college applications like login information, resumes, deadlines that vary according to school, recommendation letters, essays, transcripts, and more. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that houses executive functioning, organizational skills, impulse control, and decision making, and it does not fully develop until around age 25. With this in mind, it can be difficult for teenagers to keep track of all the things they need to acquire and submit for their college applications. They will have plenty of questions for you, and they will need your assistance to stay on track. Listen to their concerns, reflect and validate how they feel, and collaborate with them to find solutions to their problems.

Seek professional help

Teens have many things to consider when they apply to college. This process brings up various existential questions like “Who am I?” “What is my passion?” and “What do I want to do with my life?” It is beneficial for teens to have a safe, confidential, and non-judgmental space to address these questions. Meeting with a therapist can empower your child to care for themselves and face this uncertain time confidently. If your child needs support with the logistical aspects of the college application process, here are some referrals for wonderful college counselors in Austin:

Rebecca Putter of Putter Academic and College Experts

Jen Hendricks of Hendricks Education

Kendall Guess of Path to Admissions

Your teen is looking to you for encouragement, support, and guidance through this incredibly turbulent time. Above all else, remember to focus on connecting with them and maintaining a curious disposition as they communicate their interests to you. Trust that they have the skills within them to see this process through and make decisions that align with their values and desires. Additionally, trust that you are capable of pacing them through this time while helping them embrace their autonomy. 


The Two-house Two-step

Whether recently separated or long since divorced, the transition between parents’ homes is a challenge for parents, teens and children alike. Giving your child as much heads up about when the transitions will happen, how they will happen, and updating them on any schedule disruptions is a great way to start, or reset, the Two-house Two-step. Here are a few other tips on co-parenting through home transitions: 

Clear and Consistent Expectations

Expectations and guidelines might differ between co-parents, but the expectations and guidelines at each home should be clear and consistent. Despite the constraints of two parenting styles, your child gets the benefit of TWO, loving, safe homes.

Create Routines and Lists

Parents and children should establish a drop off routine together and allow for adjustments and flexibility along the way. Create a shared list of commonly forgotten/important items of the child’s. Allow your child to edit and update this list freely and clearly reference the list during pack-up/drop-off times. A routine and list provides structure and helps build your child’s trust in the transition process. 

Give Grace

We all know how stressful a move is for an adult. For some children, the two home shuffle can feel like a lot of mildly stressful mini-moves on a set schedule. Even with a great transition plan and the most responsible children, expect there will be the occasional forgotten item when transitioning from home to home. Give your child some grace when things are forgotten; their brains are also transitioning! 

Validate Their Feelings and Model Problem Solving Skills

Identify comfort items and important, unduplicated items such as schoolwork. Validate your child’s discomfort and any other emotions they are feeling as a result of forgetting to transition an item. Of course it’s frustrating your teen forgot to bring a project due tomorrow but they remembered to bring their phone and 3 backup chargers. Of course it’s frustrating when your 9 year old forgets their soccer jersey the night before a game but remembers to bring all their Halloween candy. Instead of another lecture about remembering important items, consider modeling adaptability and problem solving skills. Calmly talk through your options with the child on whether retrieving the item is appropriate and feasible. 

Recap Your Time Apart

Establish a pick-up ritual with your child. Children may feel they are “missing out” on fun activities or bonding that happens while they are at their other home. Spend a few minutes recapping your time apart and talk through any upcoming events or reminders. 

Communicate With Your Co-Parent

Avoid using your child’s possessions as a co-parenting weapon. If a consistent pattern of forgotten items presents itself, please consider contacting your co-parent when neither of you are with the child, such as during the school day, to come up with a solution. 


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