Back to School

 

Who hasn’t seen this?  Years later, it still makes me giggle.  I just had my son watch it and I said “isn’t it funny?” to which he grunted and then I realized “oh yeh, you’re the kid“.

Many of you will be packing lunches and putting your kids on the bus on Tuesday, and some of you have already begun the early mornings and homework routine.  Whatever the case, going back to school is a transition, a transition that brings excitement, fear and for some debilitating anxiety.  Little kids can find the first days of school to be exciting; new shoes, new backpacks and  warm nurturing teachers.  Older kids who have already been face to face with hours of homework and years of exams are far less excited, I have heard the word “dread” more than once from teens referring to going back to school.

How do loving parents temper their anxious students during the first days of school?  I have worked with several teenagers who have literally refused to go to school due to anxiety.  They experience test anxiety, social phobias and miss so many days that they have truancy charges.   It can be a complicated dynamic between the parent who wants to comfort and protect her child and the child who feeds into this compassion.   The parent finds it harder and harder to enforce the rules and insist that the child go to school, subsequently  the child’s anxiety about school increases because she has missed so many days.  One parent I worked with  walked her high schooler into the guidance office daily, the very understanding guidance counselor then walked the student to class and helped ease her into the classroom.  It was difficult for all involved, but eventually, the student became more comfortable with attending school.

I worked with another girl who literally  missed two years of school due to medical ailments rooting from school anxiety.  She did homebound schooling and online classes and after a great deal of therapy is planning to begin an alternative school program next week.  The verdict is still out,  I shall keep you posted.

I remember last year on the first day of school at the bus stop an adorable rising kindergartner was hysterical as the rest of the kids boarded the big yellow bus.  There was nothing his mom could do to get him on the bus.  She calmly, yet firmly, drove him to school and was assisted by experienced staff to get him into his classroom.  This was a success story and he ended up having an excellent  year.  I heard a story from my friend last week who said that her anxious elementary school child got on the bus without a hitch “I think what has helped our first day of school “success” is that I’ve just given up on making it “special”. It just increases the anxiety too much. No coddling or talking about it too much. It’s just matter of fact…eat your breakfast, change your clothes, brush your teeth, off you go! No pictures, no fanfare. Do you know how hard it is for someone like me who would love to decorate our  sidewalk, make a really special breakfast, and take pictures with the First Day of School sign on our front porch?”

I applaud this mom (and so many insightful moms) for doing what is best for her child despite her vision of a different kind of send off.

Whether you are sending your kids to school next week or are already a week or two in to the groove, I wish you a fun and safe Labor Day Weekend and a smooth transition next week.

Laurie

 


Launch Group

I am excited to share about a really  nice group experience that took place in my office this summer.  I offered a group for parents who were launching their kids to college.  The premise was to discuss and process the infinite emotions of letting go of the child that you have raised in your home for the past eighteen years and sending him or her  towards independence, advanced education and out of your daily sight.

Two women and I met on Tuesday  nights for five weeks. We had a visitor for one session, but for the rest of the time it was Mom A, Mom B and myself.  Each of the moms have one child (one has a boy and one has a girl).  The boy is studying at a large state school and the girl went off to a small private school; nevertheless, each mom had similar fears, reactions and hopes for their children.

At the first meeting, I asked what their biggest concerns were regarding sending their only children off to college.  Mom A had been imagining this moment since her baby was born; she was anticipating his leaving before he reached  high school  and had been a puddle of tears during his entire senior year.  Mom B stated that she was worried about whether her daughter was “prepared” for college; would she be okay, could she handle the  situations thrown at her, would she be able to cope independent of her parents.

After confirming that Mom B’s daughter was in fact quite competent and capable, I questioned Mom B about this fear she had.  As we dissected it further, I wondered out loud if maybe Mom B was hyper focusing on her daughter’s level of preparedness because it was easier than being in her own grief, loss and sadness. She listened thoughtfully and shook her head in agreement.  As the women gathered their belongings after the first session, they both expressed that they were feeling a “lightness” as they left the room;  they seemed to have dumped great deal of their heaviness and angst right there on my  red Ikea  throw rug.

Over the next four weeks, it was a joy to watch these woman bond over this extremely emotional experience.  There were tears, anxiety and a great deal of laughter.   Mom B shared that she and Dad B were planning to take an extra night as a “getaway” after the college drop-off as a buffer to entering their, now childless, home.  We thought that was such a great idea that Mom A jumped on board and booked a “getaway” for  her husband and herself.  Mom A clued in Mom B about the Bed Bath and Beyond ordering and shipping process which was a great factoid for the procrastinating shopper B daughter.

Week 4 was especially noteworthy as Mom A had just dropped of her son.  She shared pictures, stories and her  pride  about holding her tears off at the good-bye, only to be hit with the heaviness the following morning. As Mom B walked in to Week 5, she announced  that she was now “part of the club”.   She was able to tell us about the “roller coaster” of emotions during their drop off and how she was planning for her day off the next day to let herself “just be sad”.

At the conclusion of our last group I thanked the women for participating with such rawness and honesty.  I asked for feedback from them and they reiterated that they both felt lighter every time they had come to group. They appreciated having the support of the group, being allowed to emote openly and learning that they were not alone in their grief.

I am  honored to have been able to help these  women through this very emotional time.  I reminded them both that they had done their work; it was normal to be sad, but they had processed their feelings and could allow themselves to be in the moment.  I praised them for investing their time and energy into the group and having the courage to get some help and be honest with one another.  I honestly think that they are each going to be stronger women and better mothers for taking this time for themselves and working through this difficult life transition.


The ABC’s of taking your child to therapy

I recently received  a comment from someone who gave me  lovely feedback about  this blog, and made a request about a future post.  I’ve been thinking about her request and trying to see how to best answer her question:

“I’d love to read a blog post about how parents of kids in therapy attend to their own emotional needs as individuals and as a couple.  I’ve noticed how stressed we both get when our child is having a tough time and I’m sure we’re not the only ones.”

The first thing to address is how stressful it is leading up to getting your child into therapy no matter how old he is.  You realize that your child is struggling and  wonder “is this every-day kid stuff or is it something more concerning?” Once you make the decision that you think your child would benefit from therapy you have to find that “right” therapist which can also feel overwhelming;  do you go through insurance, who do you ask about referrals (pediatricians are a good resource) and how do you find the right fit for your child?

The appointment is finally made and you are feeling positive about your choice in therapist.   You then have to convince  explain to your child  that he is going  to talk to someone who is going to help him feel better.  It gets more difficult once  your child who is not only  in denial that there is a problem, is also quite convinced that she will not be having any involvement in the solution to this so-called “problem”.   My advice is that you are understanding, supportive and firm.  You let your child know that you understand that this can be scary, uncomfortable and/or weird (teenagers are all about the “weird”), but this is what you have decided as an adult is best for your child.  I would also normalize the situation by informing your child that all kids struggle with issues and many kids go to therapy and find it to be very helpful.

All therapists operate under the bounds of confidentiality.  It will depend on the individual therapist and the age of the child as to how confidentiality will be handled for you and your family.  My motto is that “what is said in the therapy room stays in the therapy room”.  In our first session I tell all  parents and children that I will not share what is discussed in the therapy session.  If I learn that the client (child or adult) is in danger, then I will break confidentiality, this includes harm to self or harm to others.   I let the child know that if I am concerned about their safety that I will discuss it with them first, let them know that I am worried and together we discuss how to tell their parents about the situation.

Now that your child is safely ensconced in the care of a competent therapist, it is your turn to fall apart. As my reader asked, how do parents attend to their own emotional needs, both “individual and as a couple” and deal with the stress when the child has a hard time.  As parents,  a normal response is to self-blame: “what could I have done differently?”,  “it’s all my fault?”  or blame your partner: “he should have…”, “she didn’t…”  Neither is helpful; it is natural to go there, but for your sanity and your child’s well-being, try to avoid the blame game.

It can be excruciating to see your child struggling.  You want to protect your baby (no matter how old they are) and stop the pain. Often times the best medicine for your child is tough love and that can be the hardest thing to dole out.  He is afraid to sleep alone, but you have to enforce it for his own well-being.  She has been refusing to go to school due to anxiety and what she needs most is your loving push to get on that bus.  You are a wreck, your partner disagrees and it feels like  the entire family is about to be washed up in chaos.

I want you to remember that you have to take care of yourself. As hard as it may be, if you are not sleeping or doing the things you need to do for yourself, you are no good for your child.  For your child to heal, she needs you to be at your best.  She needs to look to you for strength when she feels overwhelmed with life.  Sometimes you have to fake it and that is really hard.  Talk to a friend, get support from your community, your  extended family and your partner.  It isn’t easy, but it is essential.

The other really hard, yet extremely important piece is for you and your partner to be on the same page with the issue at hand.  You need to present a united front.  Your child knows how to manipulate and split mommy and daddy;  that will undermine all of the adults involved.  If you and your partner aren’t in agreement, it is okay to tell your child that mommy and daddy are going to talk about (your punishment, your bed time etc.) and get back to you.  You don’t have to decide on the spot; it is better to take a time-out than to argue in front of your child.

Sometimes you, your partner,  or both of you may need your own therapy to help get through this difficult time.  Your child’s therapist may be willing to meet with you on occasion to discuss parenting issues, but if you are really struggling personally or as a couple, you may want to seek out a therapist of your own.   There is no shame in getting some help for yourself (see above where we convinced informed your child that it was a healthy and acceptable decision to seek treatment); it may be  one of the kindest gestures you have offered yourself in a long while.

I know this post was long, I could go on for days, I do hope it was helpful.  I thank my reader for the prompt.  As always, if you have more questions please contact me.

Laurie


Divorce and the kids who live it

Earlier this year the husband of a dear friend of mine asked her for a divorce.  When she told me, I was devastated for her and her girls.  We are family friends, our daughters are very close and it was very painful to watch their family embark upon this difficult journey.   I remember the day that my friend was telling her kids about the divorce. I was sick to my stomach.  I was keenly aware of the moment that these beautiful young girls’ lives were going to change forever.  Nearly six months later, I can honestly say that they are doing well. It hasn’t been easy, but the girls are thriving, seem to be happy and are adjusting to their new normal.

I have worked with many many families treading the various paths of  divorce. There are many phases to this process and they are often played out in the therapy sessions:   the couple is thinking about divorce or one party of a couple wants the divorce, they separate but remain in the same home, one moves out, they tell the kids, sometimes there are re-marriages, step-parents, new babies etc.  There is no one way to do divorce; each family is unique in their process and yet, so very similar all in the same breath.

I worked with an 8th grader several years ago whose parents got divorced when she was three.  She had recently had her Bat Mitzvah and shortly afterwards became depressed, withdrawn and began therapy with me.  One of the things that she was most sad about was taking the family photographs during her Bat Mitzvah. She was torn and saddened by the fact that she didn’t have a “family” picture of her nuclear family. By this time there was a step-mother and step-siblings and my client was grieving the loss of her notion of the ideal family.

I met with a  sixteen year old girl just this week who has lived with her dad for years and had visitation with her mom.  She is currently reassessing her living situation, thinking about spending more time at her mom’s, but isn’t sure what will be best.  In between her tears she said “I wish they would just decide and tell me where to go, so I don’t have to make the decision”.  She feels pressure to please both parents and is struggling to figure how to find her voice and do what is best for her.  I listened, watched her wipe her tears and tried to empower her to be true to herself and her needs and not feel that she has to continue to take care of the adults, but learn to take care of herself.

I am glad that I can be there for these kids, my clients.  It is always beneficial for children and adolescents to have an adult separate from their parents with whom they can talk and share on an intimate level. Often a teacher, another relative , a sports coach or a therapist  are the adults that kids go to to unload their feelings and concerns.  For kids in divorced families, it is even more essential that they have unbiased adults who can listen.  They need an adult to be able to confide in,  someone they feel is not on mom’s or dad’s side, an adult who they don’t have to  protect or censor their feelings from and  someone that can hear them without any hidden agendas like custody issues or  personal wounds.

Kids are resilient.  Divorce can be complicated and difficult, and yet with good support and parents putting the kids’ needs before their own hurt and resentment, their children can thrive socially, emotionally and academically.

This fall I will be co-facilitating a group for families of divorce with my colleague Rona Hitlin-Mason.   The group will have two components;  I will be meet with the kids while Ms. Hitlin-Mason meets with the adults.  After the first hour, we will reconvene as one large group and spend the last half-hour processing together.  For more details, please see the flyer below:

Coming Together:

A Group for Parents and their Children About Divorce

 

Join us to discuss how to ride the waves of divorce and come out on the other side standing strong and feeling hopeful

   Parents

  • What is the emotional impact of divorce for my family?
  • How do I co-parent with my former spouse?
  • Developmentally, what should I be expecting from my children?
  • Meet other parents in similar situations and learn about resources

     Children:

  • How do I stay steady when my life is changing?
  • Figuring out my “new normal”
  • Where am I sleeping this weekend and will I get to see my friends?
  • Why are they STILL fighting?

      Format:

  • 6 group sessions: Tuesday nights October 2-November 6, 7-8:30
  • A parents’ group led by Rona Hitlin-Mason, LPC
  • A children’s group (11-14 yrs.– call if  questions) led by Laurie Levine, LCSW
  • The groups will meet separately for 1 hour then gather together for the last 30 minutes
  • $65  per session  for a parent and a child; $375 if paid in full at first session ($10/session for each additional child in a family)
  • 461 Carlisle Drive, Herndon, VA 20170

Contact :  Rona Hitlin-Mason 703-437-7600  Laurie Levine 703-795-9089


“That Kid”

Aly Raisman, Gaby Douglas, Missy Franklin….

I watched them and so many  more young, strong athletes from countries all over the world in the Olympics during these past two weeks.    These teenage athletes have been perfecting their sport for years: practice, sacrifices, stress and pressure all leading  up to their moment of glory at the Olympic Games.

Whether these teen athletes are going home with a medal or simply  the thrill of participating in the Olympics,  they were part of a handful of athletes that make it that far. The hundreds of thousands of athletes in high schools today may not all be Olympic caliber, but many of them certainly contribute their own share of sweat, commitment and sacrifice to their particular sport.  They also experience incredible pressures from a myriad of sources be it coaches, parents, teachers and/or peers.

This past year I have worked with many teenage athletes seeking therapy. A teenage lacrosse player with panic attacks, an anxious softball player experimenting with drugs and alcohol and an anxious field hockey player whose grades are slipping.

Recently, a parent of a new client was describing his daughter to  me.  She played varsity soccer as a freshman, finished her freshman year with a 3.9 GPA and has many friends and an intact family.   He said “she’s ‘That Kid’.”  I had the privilege of meeting “That Kid” at our first  therapy session shortly after that initial phone call inquiry. She is beautiful, polite, kind and sad, very sad.  She said she doesn’t know who her friends are, feels a tremendous amount of pressure to perform on the field and feels very lonely.

All of  “Those Kids” experience a lot of pressure.  They are usually adorable, kind, smart and talented.  Teachers and coaches all love them.  All of my athlete clients have shared similar stories;  pressure to make the team happy, fear of letting down the coach, needing to keep their grades up and make their parents happy.

One of the most common things I have heard from “That Kid” is that they feel that they can’t be good enough;  they feel so much pressure that even when they are the star player on the team, they struggle to see their strengths. I have heard these athletes tell me after a great game that they are afraid that they won’t be able to do it again and will disappoint the coach and the team.  They rarely ride on their successes and instead stress over what they perceive to be their inevitable failure.
In therapy we work on building self-confidence, relaxation techniques and reality testing.  “How will you know when you are successful?”  “What has to happen for you to know that you are good enough?”
A great book that I have been using with these clients is “The Anxiety Workbook for Teens” .  It educates the teens about anxiety, what it is and how they can learn to function without this constant underlying angst.
If nothing else, the message that I want these teenagers to hear is that life doesn’t have to be this hard, painful or anxiety ridden and that it will get better.  I want them to be able to reach for some hope, to understand that although the world can feel overwhelming right now, there is a light on the other side.
If you know a teen that is struggling either with athletic pressures or anxiety, please share that message with them:  things can get better and life just shouldn’t have to be this difficult.
As always, I am open to help.    You think any of those Gold Medalists need one of my cards?  🙂