By Anastasia Sullwold Ristau, PhD, Licensed Psychologist
Clinical Supervisor of all youth Intensive Outpatient Programs within PrairieCare Medical Group
This time of year is one transition after another. Changing from summer to school schedules requires big transitions with sleep, meals, and even how we organize our days or brains. Transitions are change, and more often than not, change is HARD.
And change is inevitable and unavoidable.
I’m challenging myself and all of you, dear readers, to face these times of change like a boss. That means a mental framework that allows us to keep our eyes on the bigger picture; to embrace all that comes with both the knowns and unknowns rampant in times of transition. Let’s trust that internally we have more mastery and ownership over this parenting thing than we might believe in the moment.
We’ve got this!
To help us move more smoothly from summer to school, we can use the 5 Square Prepare framework.
Self-regulation skills are the core of 5 Square Prepare, so important in that they anchor and provide foundation for most aspects of our mental (and likely physical) health.
What are self-regulation skills? They’re basically fancy words for healthy coping strategies, techniques or tools that a person uses to manage and influence their own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in a healthy and productive way. These skills are things that help us experience really tough or challenging situations without reacting in extreme ways.
Learn more about these skills, practice them as often as possible alone and together as a family, and ask about these from mental health professionals who can help you and your kids feel motivated and interested in building these into your daily lives as a short term and long term benefit. Healthy coping skills might include:
- Exercise or high intensity physical activity (can be brief bursts of time or longer duration).
- Deep breathing practices.
- Meditation or other mindfulness based techniques.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR).
- Biofeedback practices. This usually requires a device to give information back to a person as to what is happening physically in their body in connection with emotions or thoughts.
- Visualization or relaxing mental imagery.
- Aromatherapy used with intention.
SHIFT refers to changing habits and that effective change of habits goes best if it is done gradually and with intention (especially when it comes to kids and teens).
Change can’t happen overnight. Sleep is a great example of this. It’s not realistic to expect bodies to change from staying up until 10pm most nights for 3 months to being ready for sleep at 8pm within 1 week’s time just because the first day of school is coming up. Extreme parent expectations for change to happen quickly with our kids/teens leads most often to resistance and avoidance.
There is an entire line of research in neuroscience on brain change and our ongoing ability to change how our brain operates and functions. It’s called neuroplasticity and it’s some fascinating stuff. Essentially, in the current context, we know that the more we practice something we want to change, the easy it becomes for our brains to do naturally and instinctually, with less thought and effort. So, parents, if there is something we want changed within our family rituals, routines, or habits, then we need to start easy when things are calm and begin with making one small change at a time in a consistent way on repeat. On average, research shows that habits take 66 days to change! Chew on THAT nugget for a bit… wowsas. Practice enough… and… eventually… it’ll stick.
As a psychologist working with families in a variety of settings over the last 15-ish years, I’ve come to understand the harsh likelihood that we parents lead the way with stress management and become the barometer of stress for our entire family unit. This is not an issue of blame or fault, it’s just the nature of the game: how parents are handling and coping with their stress impacts in spoken and unspoken ways how the kids and teens are experiencing, handling, and coping with their own stress.
Self-care aware parents often:
- Are aware of their own signals of stress, recognize them, and take action proactively and reactively.
- Do what they say and say what they do. That means we should model what we want to see more of with our kids or teens (e.g., nutrition, exercise, sleep, friendships, relationships…).
- Make external what is going on internally. Kids/teens are terrible at reading minds! These parents will speak out loud what their internal thinking process is for the benefit of their own kids/teens learning curve.
- Engage in a growth-mindset for their kids AND for themselves. A growth-mindset understands that mistakes are expected and a valuable piece of success. The focus is then on the process and journey of getting there rather than on the final end product.
- Use self-regulation skills regularly for ‘mini-resets’ to their minds, brains, and bodies. Try practicing short bursts of self-regulation or healthy coping skills from 1 minute to 20 minutes at a time. All help to reset one’s system and serve a great purpose.
- They also empower their family members to ‘reset’ as often as possible.
Recognize that we actually NEED stress to survive and be successful. It’s important to know and own this.
Stress is not the enemy and can actually help us do better if at the right level and harnessed. We can actually expect stress during certain times and situations— AND — stress is actually very relative! What is stressful to me may not be stressful to you. Our job as parents is not to protect our kids from being stressed- that would be a long-term disaster! The world is inherently full of stressful things and we need to equip our children now, early and often, with ways to recognize it, call it what it is, and deal with it in a healthy and productive way. Dealing with stress then becomes second nature by the time our kids are launched into the world to navigate on their own, as independent young adults.
Besides, we need some stress to motivate and energize us through hard things — like studying for a big exam, practicing for an audition, or even learning how to drive! The volume level of that stress, inside our minds, adjusts depending upon a variety of factors including our thoughts and previous experiences, expectations and lens.
There are many ways to shift from a stressed out and overwhelmed lens to one of curiosity and empowerment. Just the right amount of stress helps motivate, encourage, prompt, remind, and do, especially when the going gets rough. Moving through and rising above stress in a healthy way produces grit. That said, it is important as parents that we are mindful to the daily dose of stress present for our families and that we work hard to moderate that daily stress level as much as possible. A little goes a long way!
- Declutter your schedule, decrease schedule demands, prioritize and then stick to it.
- Consider limiting number of sports or extracurricular activities per season per kid.
- Say no, sometimes. Try it, you might even like it! Want a high dose of practice saying “no” 50+ times in 10 minutes or less? Take your kids to your local convenience gas station, large shopping chain, or souvenir shop. This is great practice and great exposure to desensitize you and your kids to all that comes with “no!”
- Build in screen/device free zones in your home for a major parenting triumph!
Sleep really is critical. It is the connector between the many dots of our lives. Every person’s biological need may be different, but we do know most kids, teens, and parents are not getting adequate quality nor quantity of sleep in the current culture of the United States. For some, even a little less sleep than one’s body is wired to need results in substantial changes with behaviors, emotional regulation, focus, concentration, and ability to be effective or productive in day to day life.
I encourage all of us to remember that “going to sleep” is really just another transition. It requires our busy or sluggish bodies and over or under-stimulated brains to shift from being awake to asleep. For many, this is much less automatic than many assume it should be and can be very challenging.
Tend to your sleep, tend to your children’s sleep.
We all benefit from consistent routines, especially at bedtime when these involve supporting our brains and bodies in making the gradual shift from awake to asleep. Even better, building in some time to reconnect during a bedtime routine can become a beautiful endcap to the day. Your parent-child relationships, even those with teens, will find positive impact from shifting your mindset of bedtime routines as a time to reconnect rather than a time of frustration and power struggles.
5-SQUARE PREPARE. There you have it. This is the short version of what I could talk to you about All. Day. Long. Let’s be a village and raise each other up whenever we can. We’re all imperfect in our parenting, and we’re all in it together. Life these days is challenging on many levels. When we face and overcome stressful, difficult situations, we develop resiliency, strength, and grit. If it were all easy, we’d likely not appreciate it as much and probably life would be a bit boring. Struggles give us an important contrast to things going well. This is certainly the case with parenting; the toughest, most amazing struggle you’ll ever love. Facing an upcoming transition? Engage the 5-square prepare framework…
Parent on, Peeps!!
Breathing with you,
Anastasia Sullwold Ristau, PhD, LP
Clinical Supervisor of all youth Intensive Outpatient Programs of Prairie-Care Medical Group
This post was originally published at www.naturalmentalhealth.com