For kids near me, the school days are dwindling down. My own children only have two and a half days left. A neighboring district has been out for a few days already. No matter when your kids' school finishes for the year, you probably have been thinking what break will look like. We fear mindless activities (TV, video games, YouTube) taking over or the kids driving us nuts because they are "bored."
A few years ago my friend shared a chart similar to the one pictured here and I immediately loved it. I tweaked it a bit for my family and added pictures since my youngest at that time was not reading. My husband and I love having the kids complete the chart daily. We have found that it takes much longer most days then we anticipated because they kids really get into and enjoy the tasks. They also often help one another which was a pleasant bonus. Of course, some days they rush through the tasks in order to watch TV or play a video game but we are okay with that because we know they have used their brains in numerous ways.
This chart doesn't replace us asking for other things to be completed when needed (such as chores) but it does help us know that our kids are engaging in lots of different activities. It also allows my husband to have some relaxation time while they are completing the activities as he is home with them during break.
A family member with a mental illness can be hard on a family. It can cause a range of emotions for other family members. I feel this can be especially hard on children/adolscents who have a sibling with a mental illness. The child with the mental illness typically has a lot of appointments the parents have to take them to- doctors appointments, therapy appointments, school meetings, etc. This takes up a lot of time for the parents. Also, the parents tend to be under a lot of stress as they want their kids to be healthy and happy and seeing their kids struggle with mental illness goes against this.
I was talking to a client the other day about this. With so much attention on the child with mental illness, what are we doing for the other child? I have been guilty of this myself. A parent of a child that has any sort of illness needs to devote time and attention to that kid but we need to make sure that we're still giving other children their are much-needed attention. Sometimes this means we have to pull in friends and family to help us. And that's okay-we all need help sometimes. It's also could mean letting the other child go to a therapist to be able to explore their feelings about everything. It can be scary and confusing. They may not understand why their sibling acts the way they do at times.
Sometimes I've seen siblings that seem like they have it all together and never step out of line. This can be because the child has good support and is well adjusted but we need to make sure it's not because they feel unspoken pressure to not cause any problems. They still need to be having fun and be a kid.
Three days of out of school suspension (OSS). 😞
Recently our son received three days of OSS for aggressive behavior towards his teacher. I have mentioned before about my son's struggle with a mental illness. He feels things so much stronger than most people. From happiness to sadness to anger and everything in between. It is very difficult for him to regulate his emotions. This causes him to be incredibly caring and very emphatic, but also act out when angry.
The consequences of his behaviors effect our whole family. It is heart wrenching to see his struggle. He wants to be included, to be "normal." He is very sad and apologetic after he calms down and it hurts him to know how he acted.
Understandably, this effects his ability to have friends, be successful on a team, and make it through the school day without problems. This most recent behavior that lead to suspension was severe.
We do so much to help him. He has numerous community supports he works with (mental health and medical) and a team at school. We've participated in parent/child interaction therapy. We've tried behavioral charts, earning privileges, loss of privileges, and grounding. I believe some of it helps but we're not where we want to be. Not yet.
I cried today while in a conference meeting with my son's school team. I hate he acted the way he did and I hate that mental illness has such a strong grip on him right now. But. . .
We won't give up. We'll keep fighting. He will be successful!
I share this not to evoke sympathy but to give you a small slice to how mental illness can effect a person, a family.
I want to end with mentioning that aggression towards others is not common in those that have a mental illness. In fact, aggression towards oneself is much more likely in those suffering then aggression outward. But no matter how the symptoms manifest, we must keep fighting.
Stressed, overwhelmed, needing an objective opinion.
Awhile ago, I was feeling all of those things. I have numerous coping skills I use when feeling stressed. I have good support in my life. And yet, sometimes that is not enough. Sometimes, I need more. So I did what I recommend to others to do, I went to therapy. It is not the first time and I'm sure it won't be the last. I met with someone a few times in order to have a safe place to vent my feelings to an objective person. And it helped. It was a non-judgmental environment where I could freely discuss my life and the therapist could just listen and help me make connections in my thinking. It was also nice to have someone validate my feelings. Someone who didn't know the people I was talking about and therefore was truly coming from an objective place.
I hope by putting this out there this lessens the stigma of mental illness that I have written about before. There should be no shame in needing to go to therapy.
Fight or flight. I heard a lot about this growing up. I was told that if in a dangerous situation, my natural instincts would kick in and I would either run (flight) or fight. I didn’t hear much though about a third option which is freeze. The reason for this is because freezing typically leaves one the most vulnerable.
Our body usually kicks in when we are presented with a dangerous situation and activates different systems in order to protect us. That’s why we usually have the fight or flight response. Sometimes, though, the brain goes into overload mode and freezes. This may be due to past trauma, a too intense fear, or hopelessness.
If freezing is our response, it could also mean that we felt that was our best option for the least damage. Some animals play dead in hopes that the predator will either not see them or lose interest. A person may freeze also in some hope that an attacker will move on. In addition, a freeze response may occur because the person felt running or fighting were not viable options.
So why am I writing about this? Earlier this year I wrote about the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. *Spoiler alert*
In one of the episodes Hannah freezes in a dangerous situation and is then raped. There has been debate on whether or not she was raped because she didn’t try harder to get away or because she didn’t fight. I have worked with clients in similar situations. Hannah’s response was the freeze response. My guess is she felt it was a hopeless situation. That didn’t mean she consented (see my previous post on consent). It was clear by watching the scene that it was rape. Not everyone is able to fight or flight. Our body’s natural response is sometimes to freeze.
During our Team Talk one day, I was talking with some of the clinicians in my office and somebody brought up how often they have clients cry and then say they're sorry. I mentioned this frequently happens to me as well. Everyone then said this is a common occurrence.
We then discussed how much we want people to know that it's okay to cry in the office. We always reassure people that it's a safe space for them but they still seem embarrassed. I'm sure this has to do with the fact that our society tends to look down on crying. But we need it. In this article https://www.webmd.com/balance/features/is-crying-good-for-you Serusha Govender discussses some of the benefits.
From my perspective as a clinician, crying shows that you're most likely getting in touch with your deeper feelings. You are allowing yourself to be vulnerable. To heal, sometimes pain has to happen. We have to release it.
Know that every age, every gender, and every type of person has cried in my office. And this was a good thing.
We keep a large supply of tissues in our offices so feel free to release all the tears you need.
Alert very sad-you may cry
Recently my family had to say goodbye to our beloved Min Pin Chewie. He was a very patient and loving dog. I don't know any dog that had a sweeter disposition than him. At age 13 and a half years old, he was older than any of my children. He's been a constant in all of their lives. Preparing them for his death was sad but a necessity. Helping them to say goodbye to him was a challenge.
As he wasn't quite himself in December, I let the kids know that this is probably going to be his last Christmas. As he slowed down his eating, it became apparent that time was not on his side. When we made the appointment to get him checked out at the vet, we talked to the kids about how they might not be able to do anything for him. We let them know that if that's the case we might need to send him to heaven. As my children are eleven, eight, and five they accepted this without question initially (I am sure my oldest knew more then she let on). After the vet appointment, we recieved the news we dreaded but knew was coming. Chewie was in stage 4 kidney failure. We gently told the kids that we would in fact have to send Chewie to heaven in a few days. We all cried and then shared favorite memories of Chewie.
As the kids had more time to think and process it, my son asked more questions. He wanted to know how we would send Chewie to heaven. I tried to explain this as gently as possible, letting him know that with Chewie being so sick, we would give him medicine that would help him. My son immediately said "you're going to kill him." He began crying as did his little sister. I gave them hugs and talked to them about how sick Chewie was. We talked about how much pain he is in and how he can't get better. We were honest with them and allowed ourselves to cry too.
We scheduled to take Chewie to the vet after school on Monday so that we can all say our goodbyes. My son struggled the most and ended up coming home early. He asked that we buy a stuffed animal for him and his sisters that Chewie could have with him and then they could keep to remember him by. It was a wonderful idea, so we did that. This appeared to bring comfort to all three kids. We all went together to take Chewie to the vet. There was lots of crying in the car and some yelling too as the two younger kids wanted to wait. It's hard for them to understand how sick Chewie was. Once at the vet, we were able to give lots of hugs and kisses. My husband then waited out in the waiting room with the kids while I cradled Chewie in my arms and he left this world. I brought the stuffed animals out to give the kids. On the way home we again shared memories of Chewie. We will continue to do so as it is a comfort to everyone and keeps his memory alive.
“Where are you going to college?”
“Which school did you pick?”
“What is your major?”
I’ve noticed that a lot of people tend to assume that everyone is going to college. When we talk to someone age 16-22, we automatically start asking the above questions (me included). Wouldn’t it be nicer to ask “What are your plans after high school?” or for the older youth “Are you working or in school?"
We have great technical schools in our area. This is a great option for a lot of youth and should be encouraged. I often have the impression that it is looked down upon, as if the kids that choose to go there are not considered as bright as the kids that go to college. There are so many options at tech schools for a lot of great careers. Plus, a kid finishes their programs ready to work and with a lot less debt than college. In addition, a lot of the high schools offer the A+ program. If a student completes this program, they receive two years of community college or technical school free.
Some youth want to go right into the workforce. Maybe they need a break from school or maybe they want to learn a trade/obtain an apprenticeship. Forcing (or strongly encouraging) someone to go to college just because it seems like that it is what they “should” be doing, usually results in poor outcomes. There are numerous places that you can start out at with a high school diploma and work your way up. Sometimes they even pay for classes (if needed) along the way.
Of course, college is a great choice for a lot of people. It just doesn’t have to be the only choice.
I was thinking the other day about how different kids' exposure to violence is now compared to when I was little. I graduated from high school in 2000. There were a few school shootings when I was in high school but the only one I heard of during that time was Columbine. Thinking back, there are only a few other big instances of violence I really remember hearing about (Oklahoma bombing being a big one because we happened to have a half day of school that day so we heard about it on the radio). The internet has changed our access to news so we hear about things more quickly but mass shootings and acts of terrorism have also increased dramatically. I was going to include a link to show this to be true but I couldn't decide on which article as many include varying politics but if you google incident of mass shootings from 1990s compared to 2010s you will find a numerous articles. I'm not writing to talk about why this is or what should be done to stop it. My concern is what the effect is having on the children, adolescents, and teens growing up with this violence as the norm. Just me writing "as the norm" is the problem. My children are growing up with horrible violence as the norm. Going to the movies, a concert, even church are not safe. I realize that there are people in the world that have never lived in a safe, comfortable country. That saddens me. But America is a democratic, free country where this should not occur. But it is. So how is it effecting our kids?
This is just my opinion, but I feel it is creating a generation that will have less empathy. As each horrible tragedy occurs, youth (and probably many adults) start to be less shocked, less outraged, less saddened. They are becoming desensitized to these events. They hear about the events or read bits and pieces of them but do not really connect to them. It is just another story.
We have to fight this. I don't want our youth to walk around scared in our world but I do want them to be concerned about what is going on in the world. When tragedy strikes, talk with your kids about ways your family can help. You can donate money, goods, food, etc to a cause. Write a letter to a survivor. Organize a bake sale or a lemonade stand. Empower our children to help those they do not know. This not only helps them connect with those effected by the tragedies but it teaches them to be kind which I teach my children is the most important thing to be.
Time To Be Silly
Recently I was walking around Six Flags with my husband, older sister, and eight children ranging from age 3 to thirteen. We could hear music playing and I started to dance. I then shouted out "bonus for anyone else who dances." My kids immediately started dancing. (And by dancing I meaning wiggling our shoulders, kicking our legs, moving our hips-no "real" dance moves). One of my nephews asked what the bonus was while some of his siblings started dancing too. My sister and husband joined in. While still dancing, I explained there is no real bonus but fun. He laughed and did not join in. I guarantee we looked silly but we were having fun. That was the point. Sometimes, we need to be silly and have fun.
I have a lot of clients that struggle with anxiety. One of my intake questions is what do they do for fun. I am shocked by how many people, especially teenagers, struggle to answer this or initially state they do not have a lot of time for fun. No wonder they are anxious! We are doing ourselves and our kids a disservice by not allowing a time for fun. I don't care if we have to schedule it in, but we need to make time for it. Even if that means blocking out an hour for unstructured, unplugged (meaning no electronics) activities. I'm all for sports, music, clubs, etc but are they fun? I know many kids who participate in activities they have not thought was fun for years. I would much rather see a kid playing in a very low key, non competitive league where they have fun then in a select sport. Now if your kid loves the select sport and has fun most of the time, great. But between seasons, check in and make sure they the last season was enjoyable.
Fun should happen at school sometimes too. If your kid thinks school is horrible all the time, connect with the supports there to see if this can be improved. Not all students will love school, but everyone should find something they can enjoy there. Even if it is a club, lunchtime, or a special (Art, PE, FACS, etc).
As adults, we need to have fun too. Are we taking time to do things we enjoy? Do we have hobbies separate from our families and work? Balance is key.
And don't be afraid to just stop and dance sometimes:)
Stefanie F. Pisarkiewicz, LPC
Experience and information from a counselor and mother- sharing her two cents on children and teens.