Archive of ‘Wellness’ 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

New Year’s Resolution Alternatives

Congratulations – you made it through another year! Another trip around the sun full of triumph, tragedy, and all of the beautiful nuances in between. Inevitably, with the closeout of a year comes the onset of a new one, and alongside that new year comes a bit of baggage in the form of New Year’s Resolutions. I am going to let you all in on a little secret…. I am not a big fan of New Year’s Resolutions. I know, it’s a strong statement! Keep reading, let me explain.

New Year, New Me?

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate our opportunity to focus on self-improvement, wellness, and making changes. I love the idea of utilizing the symbolic nature of a new year to create a new chapter, bookend the past year, and paint a new vision for the future. What irks me about New Year’s Resolutions is the implication that we didn’t do something “good enough” over the past year. It’s the idea that in order to have lived what is considered a “good” day, week, or year, we have to continually strive to meet some arbitrary expectation set for ourselves to be better – as if being ourselves isn’t enough. To resolve ourselves to some big change just because the date on the calendar changes feels harsh and full of undue pressure on ourselves. It is also unforgiving of the complexities and nuances that we have faced within the last 365 days, and the ones we will face in the next 365 days. We go through so much just existing and being human in the state of the world, and you’ve made it so far. That’s a big accomplishment! We are all doing the best we can to survive and thrive within our given circumstances. You are amazing, worthy, and beautiful just the way you are, and a new date on the calendar does not mean you need to “resolve” anything about yourself! 

Resolution Alternatives

With that being said, I can certainly appreciate the tendency to look towards the new year and feel the need to create meaning, excitement, goals, and joy around it. I’ve come up with a few of my favorite alternatives to the traditional New Year’s Resolutions. 

New Year’s Intentions

Intentions are a little less intense than a resolution! I love setting intentions because it allows for a more fluid way to look forward and create momentum for your year without setting hard goals. If you are unsure of the specific ways you want to create change in your year, that is okay! Intentions allow for some flexibility in the way we create our goals (or not!) and allow for us to mold our behaviors to our intention, rather than force our intention to fit our behaviors. Consider what you would like to potentially incorporate into your new year that is different from prior years and use this as a way to guide your goal setting going forward. 

New Year’s Theme Word

Pick a theme, not a resolution! Find one or two words that describe what you are hoping to bring in your new year. Again, themes are about fluidity and flexibility. Keep track of your theme by dedicating a journal to your theme word. Consider journaling at the end of each week or month about how you embodied your theme word throughout that time period, so you maintain accountability towards your theme word, yet maintain grace for yourself as you progress in the new year.

New Year’s Reflections

Rather than looking forward on this New Year’s Eve, take a minute to reflect back on the last year. Ask yourself some open-ended questions about the lessons you learned, accomplishments you made, areas of growth and challenges you faced. Journal, draw, or share them with a trusted friend (or therapist!). In your reflections, hold space for the wide breadth and depth of the experiences within your year. This practice may not get you closer to a defined goal, but you’ll develop a deeper understanding of what you want to leave behind in the past year and what you would like to bring with you into the new one. 

New Year’s Gratitude

To quote the great Brene Brown – “Practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that there’s enough and that we are enough.” I believe gratitude is a crucial accompaniment to any New Year’s ritual practice. In order for us to continue to look forward without creating shame or harsh judgments towards ourselves, we need to honor ourselves first. Consider starting a bullet journal of gratitude with all of the amazing things this year contained! You survived another year of a pandemic. Maybe you landed a new job, started a new hobby, cultivated deeper relationships, or took the leap of starting therapy. Maybe you just were able to make it through every day, and that is certainly worth celebrating too! You are wonderful just as you are. You are a breathing, walking miracle capable of creating sunshine in a dark place. That is deserving of recognition and gratitude. Cultivating a gratitude practice will help maintain strong levels of encouragement and appreciation throughout your new year. 

As we enter this new year full of excitement, suspense, and wonder I want to encourage you to hold true to your own authentic place in this journey. Whatever your feelings are towards New Year’s Resolutions are valid! If you are a goal setting go-getter ready to take on 2022, great! If you’re a little more hesitant and unsure of what you want this new year to look like, that’s okay too. Holding true to your own feelings and authenticity surrounding this transition is the best resolution you can make to yourself. If you want some support around your journey with yourself, consider reaching out to a therapist. We are here and ready to help you create the life you are looking for! 


4 Mindfulness Practices for Your Family

Mindfulness may be a term you have never heard or hear all the time. Regardless of how familiar it may be, it is often hard to define. When I introduce mindfulness into therapeutic work, I use Jon Kabat-Zinn’s simple definition: Paying attention, on purpose, without judgement. This perspective allows for full appreciation and engagement with the present. 

Imagine the benefits of being just a bit more present-focused and mindful in our lives, work, school, and especially in relationships with ourselves and others. I have included a few mindfulness practices and resources at the conclusion for families with people of any age to foster awareness, acceptance, and connection.  Breathwork

1 – Breathwork

Imagine paying attention, on purpose, without judgement to your breath. By being mindful of our breath, we can begin to realize the power that it has. The breath is the most effective way for us to affect our nervous system. Each inhale engages the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) and each exhale engages the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). Bringing awareness to our breath can have a direct effect on our entire nervous system in an effort to bring it into balance when feeling dysregulated. We often encourage children or adults to “take a deep breath” in overwhelming situations without being mindful of what that looks and feels like. It takes practice and practicing as a family can further solidify its effectiveness. 

Belly breathing – Place your hands or a stuffed animal on the belly while lying down. Practice breathing into your hands or making the stuffed animal move up and down. In this way you are taking a true deep breath by expanding the lungs completely so that the diaphragm pushes the belly to move. 

Ratio breath – Ratio breath acknowledges the different parts of our nervous system that an inhale and exhale engage. By working to extend the exhale to be longer than the inhale, we engage our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). Begin by breathing in for 4 seconds and breathing out for 6 seconds. Adjust this ratio as needed to practice extending the exhale.

2 – Yoga/Mindful Movement 

Imagine paying attention, on purpose, and without judgement to your body and what it may be trying to tell you. Research shows the tremendous benefits yoga has on the mind, body, and connection between the two (The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk). Whether yoga is familiar or new to your family, it is accessible to everyone. I have included free resources to reference at the conclusion, but also feel free to define what yoga or mindful movement looks like for your family. My favorite option is to let the child(ren) lead the class and choose what postures feel most comfortable, challenging, and relaxing.

3 – Guided Imagery/Meditation

Imagine paying attention, on purpose, and without judgement to our thoughts and feelings. Guided imagery and meditation are grounding practices that encourage mindfulness, stillness, and relaxation. This can become a part of your morning or night routine by listening to or creating moments of stillness as a family. 

Guided imagery can be used in combination with a total body scan or progressive muscle relaxation by imagining a warm light traveling throughout the body, recognizing, and releasing any physical tension along the way. Another accessible option for all ages is a counting meditation. Start by simply counting your breath and each time a thought or feeling comes up, pause to notice and then start over counting from 1. See if you can count 10 or 20 breaths uninterrupted. Finally, the following is a short grounding meditation focusing on the 5 senses to bring our awareness to the present moment. 

Identify 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste or say aloud 1 positive self-statement. 

4 – Nature Walks 

Nature is therapeutic as it is. Taking a walk outside and paying attention, on purpose, without judgement to what nature has to offer can benefit all the parts of ourselves and our ability to connect with others. While enjoying a nature walk with your family, I encourage mindful curiosity which could look something like the following: 

  • Having a conversation about what parts of nature stand out on the walk for each person and why. 
  • Creating a family sculpture with natural objects found in your yard, a walk through the neighborhood, or a local park. 

Online Resources

written by Emily Koenig, LMFT-Associate, Supervised by Kirby Schroeder, LPC-S, LMFT-S

Meet Emily!


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