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.

Sure, Let's Talk -- But Let's Invest, Too!

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Today is Bell Let's Talk Day in Canada -- a day devoted to having frank and open conversations about mental health. It's a day when people share stories of their own experiences with mental illness: the triumphs and the struggles. 

I've been a passionate supporter of Bell Let's Talk Day over the years because I think the campaign has done an amazing job of getting people talking about mental health.

#BellLetsTalk conversations on Twitter were what inspired me to first speak openly about my own struggles with bipolar disorder. 

And, this year, I'm hoping we can ramp up the impact of these all-important conversations by using #BellLetsTalk Day as an excuse to broaden the conversation. Specifically, I am hoping that we can use it as an opportunity to reach out to our elected officials -- the very people responsible for ensuring that there are adequate services in place in our communities to support people in need of mental health diagnosis and treatment.

Because here's the thing: it's not okay to encourage people to talk about mental health -- and then leave them in the lurch when it comes to actually accessing treatment. And yet that's happening far too often across this country -- because government investment has failed to keep pace with the skyrocketing demand for services.

This past year, I have watched a member of my own family struggle to obtain access to mental health care. What I've learned is that

  1. You have to be incredibly persistent to obtain access to care. You have to be willing to be the squeaky wheel which, if you think about it, is a pretty major burden to put on a person who is already struggling. 
  2. You have to be incredibly lucky -- lucky enough to live in a community where timely access to mental health treatment is available. I don't think it should come down to luck. (There have been times when I thought my family's luck was going to run out: that it wouldn't be possible to help a family member in trouble to access care soon enough. And that's a terrible feeling.) 

So here's my plea to you on Bell Let's Talk Day, 2018.

Please take a moment to write to your MPP to urge them to make mental health funding a priority this year. Or, if you prefer, call his/her office and ask for a face-to-face meeting to discuss the issue. And, while you're making a plea for more mental health investment in general, please take a moment to spotlight the chronic underfunding of child/youth mental health services and the terrible cost of such shortsightedness. 

As I have learned through my volunteer work with Children's Mental Health Ontario's #kidscantwait campaign, we're actually losing ground when it comes to investing in the mental health of children and youth -- this despite the fact that requests for services are skyrocketing and the impact on families is immeasurable. 

Bottom line? We can do better and we must do better. 

So, sure. Let's keep talking.

But let's start investing, too -- in mental health care for every Canadian who needs it.
 

Ann Douglas is the author of Parenting Through the Storm and the weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio.

How to Get Your Parenting Resolutions Back on Track

Change is possible! Here's how to get your parenting resolutions back on track.

Change is possible! Here's how to get your parenting resolutions back on track.

We’re roughly two weeks into the New Year—which means it’s just about time for even the best-intentioned New Years’ resolutions to start to fall apart. Hey, it happens: enthusiasm fades, reality kicks in, and resolutions end up being forgotten or abandoned.

But what if your resolutions have something to do with parenting? Do you really want to put those resolutions on hold for an entire year? 

The good news is that you don’t have to! I've been reading up on the science of habit change and I've identified four key strategies that can help you get back on track. Here's what you need to know....

Strategy One: Engage in Some Mental Time Travel

The most effective trick that I came across while pouring through the research on the science of habit change literature also happens to be a strategy I stumbled upon on my own, simply by chance. I found that if I was having a really tough day as a parent  (let’s say, I woke up with a headache; and my husband was working midnights; and all four kids were acting up), I could keep my emotions in check and parent in a way that I could feel good about at the end of the day by focusing on the kind of relationship I hoped to have with my kids in years to come.

It was all about engaging in mental time travel—connecting with my future self.

I’d mentally picture my kids when they were all grown up, talking about me with one of their friends, saying things like, “My mom was the kind of mom who….dot, dot, dot” Or  “I grew up in the kind of family where….dot, dot, dot” – and I decided that if I wanted them to have good things to say after the “dot, dot, dot,” I needed to make our relationship the priority in the here and now.

Well, as it turns out, there’s some pretty solid science to support this particular strategy. The science of habit change tells us that you’ll find it easier to stick with a new habit if you make a point of mentally projecting the outcome for your future self (as opposed to giving into temptation in the moment). In other words, parenting with your big-picture parenting goals in mind.

Strategy Two: Make an Identity Shift

As it turns out, this piece of the puzzle is huge. Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do to shift your behaviour is by shifting your identity—or, in some cases, your entire family’s identity.

Let’s say that your parenting resolution is to make the shift from being a family of couch potatoes to a family that is active together on a regular basis. If you start telling yourself “We’re the kind of family of family that does something physically active together every weekend,” you’ll find it easier to make this your family’s new normal. That’s because you won’t have to make the decision about whether or not to be active together each and every weekend: your family’s new identity will simply remind you that being active is what you do because, hey, you’re that kind of family!

Of course, this will feel really awkward at first. You’ll feel like an imposter (“Who us?!! We're the poster family for couch potatoes!”) But, over time, your behaviour and your identity will shift. In the meantime, all you’ve got to do is to heed that old advice to “Fake it until you make it.”

Strategy Three: Anchor Your New Habit to an Existing Habit

One of the most effective strategies for getting a new habit to stick is to anchor that a brand new habit on an existing habit

For example, let’s say that your resolution is to spend a bit of time at the start or end of each day, reflecting on what is (and isn’t) going well in your life as a parent, so that you can learn from that. 

The easiest way to remember to do this thinking is to anchor this thinking habit to something you already do on a regular basis, like brushing your teeth—to say to yourself, “I always reflect on how my day is going while I’m brushing my teeth.” Over time, this moment of self-reflection will become as automatic as reaching for your toothbrush and your toothpaste!

Strategy Three: Seek Support from Your Parenting Village

Don't overlook that fact that other people who care about you and your kids may be able to offer practical assistance or moral support or both.

If, for example, you’ve resolved to make more home-cooked meals this year, you might decide to get together with another family (or even a group of families) to swap recipes and/or to batch cook together. 

Likewise, if your resolution is to be active together more often as a family, you might want to join forces with some other parents you know to plan multi-family hikes, swims, and bike rides.  Or to encourage and motivate one another via text message or social media. Or all of the above…..

Final Thoughts

It can take time—and repeated efforts—for a new habit to stick. So don’t assume that all hope is lost the first time you accidentally revert to couch potato mode or find yourself reigniting your love affair with your smartphone. Simply resolve to keep trying.

And as for beating yourself up for falling short of your lofty goals? That isn’t helpful in the least.

Instead, make a point of treating yourself with at least as much compassion as you would extend to a friend who was struggling to keep his or her parenting resolutions. (You wouldn’t be much of a friend if you browbeat your friend for falling short and yet it’s so easy to adopt that ultra-critical stance with yourself.)

What we’re talking about here is practicing self-compassion – one of the most powerful ingredients in the recipe for lasting change. Resolve to treat yourself to regular and ample servings of it this year.

This blog post is based on my recent CBC Radio parenting column on the same topic. Want to find out more? Listen to my conversations with Fresh Air (Toronto) and/or DayBreak Alberta

The Science of Giving: What Actually Inspires Kids to Be Generous

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We're heading into the so-called season of giving, which means that most of us parents are doing everything we can to encourage our kids to embrace the act of giving (as opposed to, say, merely getting). Here's a quick crash course on the science of giving -- what actually encourages kids to want to be generous.

Resist the temptation to come up with some hugely complicated "family generosity project." Instead, just follow your child's lead.

Sometimes we're so enthusiastic about the idea of teaching kids to be generous that we try to orchestrate some hugely elaborate family generosity project. We forget to give our children the opportunity to take the lead. Because here’s the thing: a project that is dreamed up by a child is going to be so much more meaningful to that child than a project that is the brain child of his or her parent — and it is much less likely to encounter resistance! (“But I don’t want to volunteer at the food bank…. Do we have to?”) 

It’s also tempting to be heavy-handed in other ways—like by trying to dictate the terms of your children’s generosity. For example a well-meaning parent might say to their child, “I expect you to donate $20 of your money to charity!” or “You have to spend $20 on your brother’s gift!” Sure, we want to encourage kids to be generous, but it’s so important to give them the opportunity to come up with their own ideas—because that’s when the magic happens!

This is something I was talking with Hugh Macmillan about recently. He’s a Peterborough, Ontario, social worker, parent, and grandparent. He reminisced about donating some of the hard-earned proceeds from his paper route to a nearby charity, back when he was a kid. He said that his father would take him down to the offices of this particular charity and then look on with pride while Hugh plunked a handful of change on the front counter. Decades later, he still remembers how great if felt to be that kid making that donation — an experience that would ultimately snowball into a lifelong habit of charitable giving for Hugh. His advice to parents who want to spark this kind of generosity in their own kids? Seize the moments like this one. This is when to have a conversation with giving about your child — when your child is being flooded with the great feeling that comes from giving.

Don't feel like you have to reward kids for being generous and/or heap on lavish praise.

Children who are offered a reward for doing something kind for another person are actually less likely to want to repeat that kind of behaviour again in future. Besides, children don’t need rewards (or over-the-top praise) to want to do kind things for others. Studies have revealed that children as young as 21 months of age are naturally inclined to help others without being asked. As parents, all we really need to do is to nurture that hard-wired instinct along.

Have age-appropriate expectations when it comes to generosity.

This is another easy trap to fall into as a parent: asking kids to measure up to adult-sized standards of behaviour when, in fact, they’re still just little kids. 

This is something else I talked to Hugh Macmillan about: about the pressure many parents feel to push (and, dare I say, maybe even oversell?) the whole idea of giving. Sure, generosity is one of those values we really want to pass along to our children, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Or, as Hugh put it, “We don’t have to cram all this learning in by the age of two!” 

If you’re the parent of a toddler who is deeply embedded in the “Mine!” stage, you can take this as a message of hope. Sure, your child may not be about to relinquish his death grip on his favourite toy truck anytime soon, but eventually he’ll stop being allergic to the whole idea of sharing. Or at least that’s the plan. (Yes, there are some adults who still struggle with the concept!)

Be prepared to be a role model yourself when it comes to all things giving.

Kids are much less inclined to pay attention to what you say than what you do, so you’ll want to make a point of allowing them to catch you being generous on a regular basis (and in a matter-of-fact rather than self-congratulatory way). 

And don’t forget to give them a peek behind the curtain—to help your kids to understand why you choose to be generous -- how great each act of generosity feels. You want your kids to understand why you are inspired to be generous, in the hope that they will be similarly inspired, too.

This definitely needs to be a year-round conversation as opposed to a once-a-year seasonal occurrence, by the way. Research conducted by the Science of Generosity Initiative at Notre Dame University tells us that acts of generosity need to be practiced consistently in order to have a lasting impact on the giver. So you definitely don’t want this to be a one-shot deal — not if you’re serious about sparking generosity in your kids.

Expand your circle of generosity to include a wide range of others (including people who may be very different from you).

Research has shown that people who reap the greatest benefits from being generous are those who are willing to be generous with people they don’t know intimately and who may be quite unlike themselves. The takeaway message of this research is clear: the benefits of being generous are much more limited if you stick to being generous with members of your own “tribe” (your own narrow circle of family and friends). 

It’s a timely message for our troubled world—about the importance of reaching outward rather than retreating inward; and of expanding the circle of people we care about and care for.

Happy holidays, everyone.

Related blog post from CBC website

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?) 

UPDATE: Missed an episode of the book club? You can replay all four episodes here.

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.