Temper the stress of exam time



Ah the stress of April and May – SOL’s, AP’s, SAT’s …..the alphabet continues. Exams, projects and more.

Today I was greeted by  a good-morning text from that college kid who was up all night studying for exams. Last week,  a client  shared that at the end of her Spring Break, she was so anxious about the numerous AP exams ahead of her that she was unable to enjoy her last weekend of vacation.  My sophomore in high school is spending the end of April reviewing for all of the upcoming assessments that occur in May. (My confusion lies in the fact that  Fairfax County schools  have been extended until June 25, and yet, this high schooler claims that they are done learning new material in the third week in April.  Once the exams are done the  Finding Nemo  continuous feed begins in many of the classrooms while the kids sleep at their desks…don’t get me started)

So, how do we help the kids with the stress and the reviews and the push for high grades and high scores?

If I have learned anything, I have learned about the diminishing returns of sitting on one’s butt and staring at a page in a book.  Sadly, I didn’t really learn it  until graduate school, thus have wasted many an hour in the library getting nothing done.

I encourage students to spend a finite amount of time (1 1/2 -2 hours depending on the student) focusing  hard and then take a break.  Get up, take a walk, have a snack for a brief period of time (20-30 minutes) and then return to the studying a bit fresh and renewed.    So many of us have spent six hours at a desk but only gotten half as much work done.

Sleep.  It’s a good thing.  How can we operate at our best either studying or performing at an exam if our body is in overdrive from not sleeping?

Food.  That helps too. Especially  a breakfast before an exam.  I remember being told for best results to eat eggs for breakfast the morning of the SAT’s;  the green smoothie phase had yet to be enacted in the early eighties. Blend away my friends, our current SAT takers need their kale.

Other things that have been helpful are group studying. Not the kind where your basement is filled with teens and closed backpacks while the XBOX is on.  But,  two or three kids seriously quizzing one another and talking about the material can really help kids learn the content, retain the information and stay focused.  I might encourage some popcorn or pizza to add to the focus.

And, please, remind your kids that it is all okay.  All that matters is that they do their best.  The students that are super high stressed need reassurance that it is just a test.  It is an assessment of what they know at the time that they sit for the exam.  The tests are not self-esteem measures, although too often some kids see them as so.   A child who may struggle academically may view a hard test or a low grade as another failure on their part; this should be avoided at all cost.

Academics and grades are one part of who we are.  I hope that we all remember to remind our kids that they are special and unique people despite their GPA’s;  this can be easily forgotten amidst the stress of the moment.


This soccer mom has retired her cleats

Although this post is a little less ‘therapist’ and more ‘mom’ than normal, I write with both hats as I know many of my clients who have been on a baseball field, pool bleacher or dance theater and can definitely relate to the sentiments presented.

Grab your cleats, water bottle, shin guards and GET IN THE CAR…the words of every soccer mom.

Week after week, practice and dinner, dinner and practice and then weekend games.  Home or Away? House or Travel League? Win or Lose?

The soccer moms were my lifeline “can you drive him, I have a client ?” .  “We are out of town, can he stay with you for that game?”   “I got this practice, can you get tomorrow?”.

We spent hours on bleachers together; the soccer moms (and dads).  Freezing our tails off and burning into lobsters – soccer has no regard for the weather, if the fields are  open they are playing.

So many different teams; the three-year-old clinics, the house league made up of kids from the elementary school, the All Star team and the merging of house teams to make a travel team.  Each season new faces; new players bringing with them new parents.

The parents became my friends.  I spent more time with them than with my dearest  girlfriends.  It was so very seasonal; we’d be in each other’s faces all  Fall until the break before a short indoor Winter season and then Spring season started up again.   We rarely spoke to one another off season, but there were always warm greetings and hugs  at the beginning of a new game rotation.

Tournaments, oh the tournaments. Up at o’dark thirty to drive hours to a field in nowheresville.  Myself, another mom and four boys in my van.  It was always sweeter heading out than the return trip with the sweaty socks and smelly boys on their phones in the back.    We’ve had team meals all over Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, gathered in many a hotel lobby for pizza and once, even washed the uniforms in the hotel laundry room.  And, never was a weekend so much fun and connecting than the exhausting cold (and/or hot) tournament weekends.

Constant  laughter filled the parent cheering section.  We rooted for each other’s kids and cringed together when one of our players missed a crucial shot.  At every (and their were many) injury, all the moms pooled their Advil and ice in the spirit of healing.  On the sidelines we talked about books and vacation spots, we compared notes about our growing kids and tried to get the scoop on our own kid from a more-knowing mom.

We always had a season end party;  often at my house which was a lot of fun.   Fourteen sweaty boys in my basement playing X-box and a bunch of parents celebrating another good season of soccer and teamwork.

With the start of each season  we would lose a player or two. They moved, switched schools or went to another team.  For me, it was  sad.  I missed the kid and I missed the mom, my friend.  I would bump into her at the grocery store, we hugged, caught up and moved on to our shopping list.  Where was the bond? Was it a real friendship? All those texts between games, the laughter in our soccer chairs with the sun beating on our faces, it was so genuine at the moment and then our kids took us to different fields and new parent groups.

I could always count on the next season bringing another new kid with new parents.  New friends.  More car pool combinations.   More tournaments and laughter.

Last year there was a shift.  High school made for more options: Cross Country team, track, swimming and basketball.  The kids had new and differing interests. They also had more school work and less time.

My kid began Cross Country/Track all three seasons;  he liked it and was progressing really well. Daily practices, weekly meets as well as a heavy academic load plus soccer practices and games became overwhelming.  It was too much to make it all work and something had to give – my kid quit soccer.

Suddenly, I am a track mom.

But, what about our soccer friends? The connections, the games, the great coach and the wonderful memories.

Was it all just that: soccer? He misses it, he loves soccer, but he is running and has joined a new group of athletes.  Does he feel the loss like I do? I miss the team, the friends, the game.  Sure, he  misses it, but he is a sixteen year old boy, not a hormonal therapist mom who oozes in emotions.

Don’t get me wrong, track is great. The parents are wonderful and supportive, the coach is tough and committed.  A Cross Country meet can be half as long as a soccer game and the school provides buses!, but I miss MY soccer people.

What does it all mean? This role of being the kids’ mom to whatever activity is the activity du jour? Are connections fleeting? Were they real? Was it just in the moment on that one field?

I don’t have the answers, but I do have great memories and wonderful people in my heart that I know will cross my path again be it in the produce section or on some bleacher in my future.


Retired cleats and shin guard (oh so stinky)

Retired cleats and shin guard (oh so stinky)

Pride bubbles


As a parent, what fills your pride bubble?  Is it bringing the newborn home,  that first poopie on the potty or marching into kindergarten with your proud five year old?  There are so many moments; I wonder if we take the time to appreciate them enough?

Critics and naysayers say we celebrate our kids too much.  They don’t know how to lose, get a C or miss a soccer goal.  I tend to see it from the other angle, perhaps because  I see kids at their most raw.  I see the sadness and the pain, uncertainty and anxiety.

Many kids feel inadequate, both in their homes and amongst their peers.  Often they compare themselves to their  siblings or to what they perceive their parents expect.  One twenty year old middle son of three  told me “I guess I’m considered the failure child since both of my brothers got the yadda yadda scholarship to yadda yadda college”.   As I gently reminded him that his college acceptance was quite an excellent feat, he shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly without recognizing any personal achievement.

I feel a need to celebrate the successes.  I’ve had the privilege of witnessing many great times of my kids, my clients and my friends’ kids and these moments make my heart happy.  I have one friend who, although she is four years younger than me, her kids are all a year older than mine. At each of their celebrations I have the opportunity to witness her family’s joy as I stand behind the plate on deck.  Bar Mitzvahs, graduations and college acceptances have been a source of pride for her, me and our collective families; personally there is just never too much joy.

Weddings, pregnancies, birthdays; they are plastered all over social media and I love it.  Where some people have commented that social media, or specifically Facebook for us over forty crowd, makes them feel inadequate or  jealous when people brag about their kids’ achievements, I feel otherwise.  I love seeing the positive, the joy and the accomplishments – all I have to do is click over to the Washington Post to get a dose of tragedy and despair.

I encourage us all to celebrate the joys; be in the moment and take it all in.  We all experience health issues, disappointment and life challenges, why not let loose on the good stuff when we can?

This post was prompted by an upcoming celebration in my family.  I am swelling with pride as I think about my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah next week; she has worked very hard and is beyond excited for her special day.  We will worship and celebrate her rite of passage as a family and a community.  I think I am writing this for me  as a reminder to celebrate and be filled with pride, to let go of the little details like guests flights and menus and focus on the moments that highlight the joy and celebration of my daughter.

My pride bubble is/will be bursting.  I choose to celebrate the joy and be proud of my kid.  Tell me more about your joys;  it’s contagious and so much fun to fill our air with little bubbles filled with pride and joy.

The physical therapy way


Until last year, I had never been acquainted with physical therapy.  My only brush with it was when I would tell a passerby I was a therapist and they would ask “physical therapist?”, or when people I knew would be going off to PT several times a week.  Last spring, my daughter began having some hip/foot issues from her dancing and the pediatrician sent us marching to this “PT” thing.   Once we got settled in at  Bodies in Motion, she and I were both hooked.  She for the individual attention and kindness of the therapists and me because it was so very fasciniating.

What was I fascinated by?  First there is a big room of tables with multiple therapists and multiple patients doing all sorts of body work together.  Bending, stretching, pushing, pulling, there are even people getting needles in their bodies right there in the middle of everything. Therapists and patients all chit chat amongst one another; be it type of injury, latest snow storm or lunch cravings – chatter and laughter abounds.

My mental health therapist head is thinking HIPAA?  We operate under strict  ethical codes highlighting all manners of confidentiality, conduct and boundaries;  I get antsy when one of my clients happen to bump into another in the waiting room and here we have the PT patients being assessed,  worked on and massaged in front of the entire patient population.

The other intriguing thing for me is the toys.  Not only are there stationary bikes and treadmills, there are bands and balls and gadgets for every last muscle.  My daughter was picking up marbles with her toes and placing them in a bucket.   I was struck by the creativity of it all.  I discussed it with her therapist and was amazed by all of the engineering technology involved in their “toys”.

Now it’s my turn.  I’ve been having a shoulder/arm issue that just won’t quit.  It started with pain and over the duration of the winter has turned into a nerve thing with tingling up and down my arm.  When I walked back into the ‘toy’ room for my first appointment, I was warmly greeted by the two PT’s that had worked with my daughter. How is she,  how is her dancing, let me see pictures etc.

One of these  kind gentleman was assigned to my tingling.   He took my history,  asked about the initial injury and then began touching my arm, shoulder and hand.  (Another bizarre thing for this mental health therapist, touching a client? If a client asks for a hug every clinical nerve in my brain is on “alert” due to our very rigid boundaries).

Push, pull, resist, stretch, turn, shrug – my PT is beginning to assess the tingle.  He checked mobility, range of motion and who knows what? The good thing is HE knows what he is doing, I am just the body on which he does his work.   And this is where my “aha” moment struck.  He is looking for the cause of the tingle;  by pushing and prodding at my muscles, assessing  where I am tight and when I loosen up, subtleties of  which I  am barely aware, but he understands the body and can figure out what is going on with my nerve.  He constantly asks me if I notice any difference, is the tingling more or less, rate it on a scale of 1-10.  The tingle can’t speak to him, thus he must rely on my evaluation.

The ‘tingle’ doesn’t talk; I feel it, it is uncomfortable and irritating, but I’m not sure of its source. It is inconsistent;  fingers, hand and arm depending on the moment or my movement.  How is this similar or not to the mental health therapy that I do? Sometimes I see a client that knows exactly what is going on.   “My mother died, I am heavily grieving and am having trouble getting my work done.”  PT patients can know the root cause; many of them are there for rehabilitation following surgery,  have specific injuries or various medical needs.

Often I get the ‘tingle’ clients.  “I’ve been feeling depressed”, “my daughter is cutting herself “, “our teenager is self-medicating with drugs”.  These symptoms have less of a clear source.  Sometimes they can be an offshoot of a trauma, root from a deeper depression or can be the beginnings of a chronic mental illness.  These symptoms, as the ‘tingle’, can be a mystery.  Like my PT, I begin to push and prod at the emotional muscles; I assess and ask and maneuver.  Unlike my PT, who can push a muscle really hard (AND hurt my inner arm like nobody’s business), I need to approach more gently.  If I push too hard, I may cause my client to shut down or even worse, scare him away. (Of course the PT could push the limit, but based on my first two appointments, he has more wiggle room with the idea of gentle).

Over time, building rapport and trust, my clients and I dig together towards the source of their symptoms.  Often, they too, find that their ‘tingle’ doesn’t speak.  Many of my clients struggle with identifying their emotions; they aren’t familiar with them,  can’t discern between sadness or anger, or just can’t find them.  I slow things down and help them to build an emotional vocabulary and learn to identify emotional triggers via body sensations.  Where do you feel it in your body? What does it feel like? Pressure/pain/shaky? All of these prompts help people to get in touch with their emotional temperature.

The word therapy, meaning curing or healing, comes in many forms.  While I am doing talk therapy, there are so many ways to heal us humans.  I am glad to know that both our bodies and our souls lend  to pushing, prodding and healing so that we can all achieve the mental, physical and spiritual peace that enable our days to be filled with  joy.

Good neighbors

Less than a mile from my synagogue is an elementary school with a very diverse student population.  There are kids that live in million dollar homes that attend the school as well as kids that don’t have enough food to eat.  Many first generation immigrants from Africa and Asia have settled in the apartments near the school and send their kids to learn not only basic academics, but also the English language.

Our synagogue has created a program to help feed these students during the time when they aren’t at school.  Many of the kids receive breakfast and lunch at school under the free and reduced lunch program, but sometimes don’t have enough food to eat at home on the weekends and on school break.

The synagogue regularly hosts a food gathering and packing of snacks to send to the school.  The kids in need of food receive the bags on Fridays to make sure that they have enough food to eat at home during the weekend.  Their teachers discreetly put the food in their backpacks so as to not make them feel self-conscious in front of their peers.

The leaders of the program, synagogue members who are volunteers, send a monthly email to the entire  synagogue. The email includes a detailed list of requested foods and volunteers sign up for certain items which they will purchase and bring in to the synagogue (popcorn, oatmeal, raisins, milk boxes, granola bars, etc.).  Once per month the elementary aged kids and many of their parents gather after Hebrew School on Sundays to pack food bags.  The  older kids (7th-12th grades) also meet for weekly education classes and designate a time each month to packing the food bags.

Two Fridays per month we provide bags for 225 kids at the school. On the alternate weeks that our synagogue does not give to the school another organization, Food For Others,  makes food available to the students.

I have participated several times and this past week as I was sitting on the floor collapsing boxes that the food had come in, I was really touched by what was before me.  There must have been more than twenty kids and almost as many adults sorting food, piling up the recyclables and assembling bags.  The leaders have it down to a science and the kids are all hugely invested in the process.  They sometimes race to see who can pack a bag the fastest, are concerned when we run out of an item wanting to insure that each bag has enough food and are excited by the bulk of product that we are creating for our neighbors.

I am proud of the program and of these kids whose families are teaching them about helping their less fortunate peers. The  Hebrew word, tzedakah, which literally means justice, but is commonly used to signify charity, is a large part of Jewish tradition. In Judaism, tzedakah refers to the religious obligation to do what is right and just, which Judaism emphasises are important parts of living a spiritual life.  A little tzedekah can go a long way and I am honored to be a little tiny part of this nice process.

Gathering the goods

Gathering the goods

Tons of mac n' cheese

Tons of mac n’ cheese

Assembly line of volunteers

Assembly line of volunteers

Almost complete bag

Almost complete bag

Many of these bins are filled to take to the school

Many of these bins are filled to take to the school

For old time’s sake: STAY SAFE and WARM

With another storm on the way, I was thinking about the derecho almost two years ago.  I thought I’d re-share with the hope that every one is safe and warm, able to charge and re-charge both their electronics and their relationships:

Click here

The Boomerang Teen Part 2


I said I would return with suggestions to avoid having your teen flop back into the house for an extended stay in the middle of a semester.  I make no guarantees, sometimes a one-way ticket home is inevitable and necessary, but here are some thoughts on how to prepare for a successful flight out of the nest.

I love the idea of sleep away camp. Any reader that has spotted one of my summer posts is aware of my proclivity towards all things camp.  I have promoted camp for infinite reasons (friendship, bonding, summer structure etc.) and one of the biggest reasons is for kids to get a taste of  being away from home.  There are many kinds of  camps that can meet this objective;   sports camps, Scout camps, academic camps and arts camps and they vary in length from a few days to an entire summer.

Camps provide a sense of independence for kids with the safety net of responsible adults who are not their parents to guide them.  At camp kids learn to manage their own clothes, toiletries and meals without mom and dad micromanaging all the details. If they miss a night of teeth brushing or lose a sock (or hundreds), it is all part of the process of learning to have some independence.  I have found that the kids that have spent time away from home for a period of time during their middle and high school years have had the easiest transition to college and have had  less risk for the boomerang swing.

When a teen has increased responsibility throughout high school, he will have an easier transition to college.  Freshmen start slowly, perhaps getting  more opportunities to socialize with peers in groups before they are juniors and driving independently. Many juniors and seniors obtain part-time jobs which teach them responsibility, time management and a bit about finances.   Extra-curricula activities also help a teen with independence; there are clubs with responsibilities, teams with obligations and bands and theater with commitments that the teen must learn to balance with academic and other expectations.

One of my biggest selling points with my clients and their parents is for the kids to become responsible for their own academics.  A freshman in high school should manage her own schedule by knowing when she has an exam, when papers are due and the status of her grades.  I encourage parents to be supportive and helpful WHEN ASKED, but to allow the student to manage his own work load.  The more autonomy a high school student has, the more success will occur in college.

Parents often tell me that their teen will fail if the parent lets go of the academic reins.  The best advice I ever got was at a back-to-school night when my oldest child’s teacher said “Parents, you have already completed second grade, it is their turn.”  Yes, it is their turn; their turn to learn,  their turn to succeed and their turn to fail.  I constantly stress to these parents that the fall is easier when they fail junior year before they are legal adults and still in high school than when they are half a state or country away, paying thousands of dollars for tuition and suddenly realizing that they don’t know how to manage their work load without mom leading the way. (Students with learning disabilities or attention challenges do require more parental supervision.  It is important to strike a balance between over-doing and supporting the student; not an easy task for many families).

My last thought is to address mental health issues if and when they present themselves.  If a child is predisposed to anxiety or depression and has struggled throughout her adolescence with symptoms of sadness, feeling overwhelmed or anger management issues, please GET HER HELP.   Sending a child off to college who is struggling emotionally can be a set-up for failure.  College is inherently stressful with its huge life transitions and rigorous academics.  If your teen seems to be struggling, getting him the help he needs before he leaves home can arm him with the extra tools he may need to have a successful college experience.

Again, sometimes things happen.  Unplanned trauma, anxiety or homesickness can occur; kids come home and it is okay.  There is always another path and other options, so don’t fret.

One last thought, have your kids learn to do their own laundry……if nothing else it will make for a more pleasant aromatic experience for the roommate.