World Mental Health Day

Today, October 10, is World Mental Health Day. A day recognized by the World Health Organization as a day to raise awareness for mental health issues and give a spotlight to mental health care organizations and workers to discuss what needs to be done to provide accessible mental health care worldwide.

On this day, I wanted to write a quick blog about my thoughts on mental health after working in the field for several years, as well as cross-culturally.

First of all, I’m happy to see that mental health is something that is becoming less and less taboo in many places. When I worked at a public high school in the U.S., my students were open and willing to talk about mental health with me, their classmates, their friends, etc. The stigma around mental health still existed, but I could see that it was growing smaller with that generation of young people. Still, the stigma around mental health existed perhaps for their parents, grandparents, caregivers, and many teens had trouble speaking about their struggles to their older family members.

I also noticed during my time working with at-risk youth and families (in multiple cities, at multiple jobs) that mental health care is far less accessible and affordable in lower socio-economic areas and amongst those families. The care that’s available to families receiving Medicaid (in the U.S.) is limited, and typically the workers are spread thin. I speak from experience, as a case worker who had about 50 children and families on my caseload, all of whom received Medicaid and had mental health diagnoses. Rarely were my colleagues and I able to accomplish everything asked of us in that role, let alone able to provide quality care to our clients.

Another thing I took note of as I got more into the world of therapy is the expense. I think we can address the elephant in the room and just say, therapy is expensive. If you go to a private practice or group practice therapists, you’re looking at paying upwards of 70 USD. And don’t get me wrong, therapists deserve to make a fair wage, and they have expenses related to maintaining their license, continuing their education, keeping up with a business, etc. But the reality is that many people cannot afford therapy consistently when we consider how low the minimum wage is in countries like the U.S.

Now that I’m living and working internationally, I’ve also noticed that there’s a great need for mental health care for people living outside of their home culture. It is a huge undertaking to try to make life work in a different country, culture, and language. Personally, I find myself thinking I’ve adjusted to life in Spain, only to realize there’s a glaring new reality for me to face that I’d never considered before (see: public health care, or self-employment taxes). Many people who live or have lived cross-culturally have expressed to me a feeling of being misunderstood, like the people around them who are ‘monocultural’ just don’t seem to understand. I’ve realized there’s a need for international therapy, with therapists who have also got some cross-cultural experience and can relate.

One last thing that has caught my attention over the course of my work with children has been the need for parents to get comfortable with talking about mental health with their children. When I meet with parents whose children are struggling with transition, feeling homesick, anxiety, and other mental health problems, I find it very helpful for parents not to shy away from these topics with their children. In fact, I often encourage parents to appropriately share their feelings, their struggles, their experiences with their children as an invitation to their children for conversation around these topics. If kids see their parents are able to say, “You know what, I’m feeling really homesick. I’m missing family and the comforts of our old home,” it gives kids permission to feel their feelings AND to talk about those feelings, too.

So, after reflecting on my past years working in the field of mental, as someone who has also received mental health care, what are my takeaways?
Well, for one, we have got to continue the dialogue around mental health. The more we talk about it, the more we normalize it and it becomes less scary. (This goes for suicide too. And no, talking about suicide, does not make people suicidal. It saves lives.) We need to find people who are willing to enter in to these kinds of conversations with us. Comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because yes, many times– if not most times, talking about our struggles is uncomfortable and humbling. But it’s necessary. (I’ll write another blog post about this topic soon.)

Two, we need more access to affordable mental health care and affordable therapy. Many therapists do offer sliding scales or pro bono therapy, which can be very helpful. It’s also crucial that governments do more in the way of insurance, funding, and providing resources to mental health organizations. The mental health organizations that already exist are enormously under-funded and over-worked. This is a systematic change that has to happen at the government level.
As individuals, we can advocate for ourselves to our insurance companies (asking for reimbursement or an allowance for mental health services), inquire about sliding scales or assistance (often times even private agencies will have funds from donations to help people in need of assistance), and look for online free resources to aid in mental health.

Three, we need to practice really good self-care. Self-care is a great form of prevention as it relates to anxiety, depression, burn-out, and some other common mental health problems. You can get dozens of ideas for self-care by simply searching for it online. It’s important to note that self-care can’t be a replacement for therapy, medication, or treatment, but if you’re experiencing mild symptoms of anxiety or depression, it can serve as a great tool in conjunction with those.

Lastly, I encourage you to try to remove your own feelings of shame or stigma around mental health and get the care you need. There is NO shame in going to therapy, taking medication, or needing help. It’s a brave and courageous thing to step out into the world and ask for help. You don’t have to do it alone.

If you or someone you know if looking for affordable counseling, especially from a cross-cultural perspective, please contact me to inquire about international, English-speaking counseling. I offer online and in-person (in the Malaga, Spain area) counseling and a free 15-minute video or phone consult to get started.

Take care of yourself, and be well.

Back to School Blues?

We’ve made it to the end of September, and at this point, most children have returned to school. The start of the academic year can be an exciting time for kids– back to school shopping, meeting the teachers, finding out which friends are in their classes. But it can also be a challenging time for kids and parents.
Younger children may suffer from separation anxiety, which is characterized by anxiety brought on by being separated from parents/caregivers. Children who have separation anxiety have a difficult time saying goodbye when it’s time to go separate ways, but also have a really hard time preparing for the separation.

School-aged children typically outgrow separation anxiety, but may have a hard time managing the transition back to school. After being home with family during the summer, it might be challenging to spend all day outside of the home. Although many parents do a great job of maintaining some type of summer routine, it’s not typically as regimented as the school-year routine, so many kids find it difficult to get back into the routine of waking up and going to bed early, sitting in a classroom for several hours, doing homework and projects, and other typical school requirements.
It’s not necessarily that kids don’t enjoy school — some do and others don’t, for many reasons– but the transition back into the routine requires some mental, emotional, and physical “work.”

Don’t be surprised if the first few weeks, or even the first couple of months, back to school don’t go as smoothly as you planned. It’s normal for everyone involved to feel a bit of anxiety, frustration, or loss of control during a time of transition.

You can help your kids adjust to the “back to school” season a few ways. First, be patient and remember that we all handle transition differently. If you’ve got more than one child, this is certainly true. What may be effortless for one child, could be quite challenging for the other when it comes to transitioning back to school. Second, help your child name what they’re feeling. Are they anxious because they’re afraid the work is too hard? Lonely because they don’t have any close friends in class? Sad to be away from family or the pet all day? Naming the emotion and where it comes from helps us feel that we have some ownership and authority over what we’re feeling. Third, help your kids identify their resources at school, which can ease with the transition (friends, teachers, teacher aides, support staff, study and time management tools, etc.). Where and how can they receive support when they need it?

It’s also important that we teach children skills to be able to manage these types of transition and to gain/develop important life skills. Figuring out what they have control over is a big one. It may be something as simple as having control over what they take for lunch, or something more complex such as who they choose to be friends with. In any given situation, no matter how out-of-control we may feel, there’s always some element that’s within our control. We also must teach kids to learn how to modify the situation where and when possible. For example, if your teenager finds it really difficult to get along with their math teacher, can the schedule be changed? If not, is there an assistant in the class they can go to for help? If not, can they get math help outside of class?

And of course, sometimes difficult situations can’t be modified. What do we do then? Try to reframe the situation and look at it from a different perspective. We certainly have control over our outlook on life and whether or not we choose to let difficult situations own us. For older kids or teens, this could be a great opportunity for them to learn soft skills like working with others and managing expectations versus reality.

Parents can think back on what these transitions were like for them, listen empathically to their children’s concerns, and remind them “We’re in your corner. We’re on your team.” Then, parents and children can strategize and think creatively together to manage the transition back to school.

Remember, transitions don’t last forever. Eventually, we learn to integrate the changes into our lives, and it becomes a normal part of life. Your children will find their rhythm and their routine, it may just take some time. The important thing is that they know their parents hear them, support them, and love them through it.

(If your child is struggling to manage the transition back to school, feel free to reach out to me for more information about counseling or parent consultations.)

Social Media and Mental Health

One of the best decisions I’ve made recently was to deactivate my personal Instagram account. I kept my professional counseling account, but even there, I chose to follow very few people and haven’t been very active lately. Why did I decide to go off Instagram, and why has it been so good for me? The answer, I think, has a few different layers that are helpful to peel back and explore. So let’s get into it.

First, I want to say that I don’t believe social media is all bad. In fact, it can be a great way to connect people; most of the friendships I’ve made since living overseas have been through various Facebook groups. It can be a resource for a wide range of knowledge; much of my Spanish language learning has been through accounts on Instagram that teach Spanish. Social media has given us the chance to reconnect with people we haven’t seen in years and stay in touch with people we live far away from. It can be a great thing if we use it wisely!

But, it’s my opinion that most of us don’t use it wisely or set good boundaries when it comes to our social media use and what we take in. Let’s break down why social media can be counterproductive for our mental health if we’re not careful.

The Comparison Game:

I can’t recall where I heard the term “the comparison game,” (or if it’s something I made up and think came from somewhere else) but we can all agree that this is one of the worst pitfalls of social media. Comparing ourselves to the seemingly perfect lives of our friends or the people we follow. (We could also break down the language of the use of the word ‘follower’ rather than ‘friend’ and argue that it makes us feel separated or set apart from the people we interact with, and that it reinforces a need to feel special and praised. But let’s save that for the linguistics experts.) Most of what we see on social media are the highlights: birthdays, anniversaries, accomplishments, trips and vacations, growing families, etc. We also tend to see edited versions of people’s lives, whether it’s an edited photo or an edited version of the circumstances (read: a smiling family at the beach that had just been in a big argument moments before). Either way, it’s not the whole picture. And why would it be? We’ve determined that for the most part, social media is a place where we talk about the good parts of life, and maybe we touch on the difficult parts, but often times we know we’ll receive affirmation and praise for being so vulnerable on social media. The problem is that, even if we can compartmentalize and rationalize that what we’re seeing isn’t the whole picture, it’s hard for the thinking part of us and the feeling part of us to align on this. Our newsfeeds reinforce the belief that other people are having more fun, more success, more money, and better lives than us. And what does that give us? Insecurity, inferiority, discontentment, envy. We stop being able to be happy for our friends (abundance mentality) and start feeling badly about ourselves (scarcity mentality).

We aren’t meant to have this many friends:

Not only are we bombarded with the amazing vacations our friends are taking and the beautiful homes they’re buying (or maybe in your teenagers’ cases: the amazing clothes, skin, and friends they have), but we are being bombarded by it from way too many people— most of them we don’t even know very well. If you’re an adult, think about how many friends you had before social media. You probably had a circle of acquaintances, a smaller circle of good but not close friends, and an even smaller circle of close intimate friends. Compared to having a relatively small social circle, having upwards of 500 friends on social media seems nearly impossible to manage. We find ourselves friends with or following people that we knew years ago, people we met once or twice, or people who we don’t even know apart from social media. This might not seem like a big deal at first glance, but we have to consider what happens when we’re constantly observing people’s lives via social media, but not interacting with them on a regular basis. All we see are the highlights, but we don’t see the full picture (this goes back to the “Comparison Game”). We aren’t in relationship with most of these ‘friends,’ so we really don’t know them; and with the high volume of these kinds of interactions, it only reinforces the belief that everyone else’s lives are better than our own.

The other issue with having so many ‘friends’ or following so many people is that it skews our perspective of what relationships and friendships really are. We start to consider actions like ‘liking,’ ‘commenting,’ and ‘following’ as friendship interactions. In some ways they can be, but in reality, these social media interactions are not the same as real face-to-face, heart-to-heart conversations with friends. We may start to feel like we have a large circle of friends, or get validation from the amount of likes and comments our posts receive, and think to ourselves that we have a fulfilling social life. More than likely though, if we are solely depending on these types of interactions to meet our relational needs, we’ll end up feeling lonely and disconnected. Even though it feels like we know people (and that they know us) based on social media ‘friendships,’ it’s just not the same as having real-life friends that we do life with, share our struggles with, celebrate our wins with. The same thing tends to happen to people who follow celebrities on social media. People start to feel that they know these celebrities intimately, but really it’s a one-sided one-way ‘friendship.’ We don’t really know celebrities, but we interact with their content so frequently that it starts to feel that way. But these types of interactions often times lead to emptiness rather than fulfillment, because the ‘friendship’ and interactions will almost never be reciprocated by that celebrity or figure.

So are we supposed to just abandon social media completely?

Not unless you decide that’s the healthiest approach for you! Like I said before, social media isn’t all bad. But just like anything else that we take in for entertainment, we need to set boundaries. I believe that setting healthy boundaries with social media is crucial for our mental health, as well as for our relationships and friendships. Some concrete steps you could take are: limiting the time you spend on social media; limiting the number of accounts you follow or are ‘friends’ with; choosing to follow accounts of people you personally know and have relationships with, rather than strangers or celebrities; choosing to follow accounts that don’t affect the way you view yourself or feel about yourself. If you find yourself playing the “Comparison Game” or feeling less-than, it’s time to assess your social media use and set some boundaries. If you find yourself spending a lot of time interacting with ‘friends’ on social media, but feel lonely and isolated because you lack real-life friendships, it’s time to set some boundaries with social media.

An additional note for parents with teenagers or children with social media:

Social media can be a dangerous place for developing brains for a number of reasons. Teenagers are more likely to experience cyber-bullying when using social media, as well as be exposed to content that is not age appropriate. Your teenagers are still developing their decision-making skills, so having free rein of access to social media is not what I recommend. I encourage parents to have an open and honest conversation about the pros and cons of social media use and what motivates their teens’ desire to use social media (i.e. peer pressure, loneliness, interest). I also recommend helping your teens set healthy boundaries with social media, as well as monitoring these boundaries with your child (maintaining open, honest dialogue) to ensure that they are using social media safely. Some examples of boundaries for teenagers using social media could be: leaving their phone in the living room overnight to charge so that they don’t stay up late at night; agreeing on which accounts are appropriate for teens to follow (protecting them from adult content or highly influential content); parents openly following their teens’ accounts to check in on appropriate interactions. This can be a tight-rope to walk with teenagers, as they are coming into the season of life where they start to separate from parents and explore their independence. Parents may find that being too controlling or overpowering about social media use leads to small acts of rebellion from teenagers and may actually be damaging relationally. Remember that this is the era that teens are living in, and rather than try to totally control and prohibit their social media use, it’s more effective to stay in that conversation and leave the door open for honest conversation around this topic. I have noticed some changes in myself since leaving Instagram. I don’t feel the subconscious need to take photos and videos of everything I do now; many times my phone stays in my purse and I realize I didn’t take any pictures at all! I don’t feel the need to plan out my posts or stories or think of witty captions. I have noticed myself enjoying social interactions more, living more in the moment, and comparing myself to others less. So, perhaps quitting social media altogether isn’t for you, but you can certainly take some time to consider your boundaries and take care of yourself when it comes to your social media platforms.

Emotions: the Check Engine Light of the Heart

According to Chip Dodd’s book The Voice of the Heart, people experience eight core emotions: hurt, sadness, loneliness, fear, anger, shame, guilt, and gladness. Each of these emotions represent an essential part of being human. We experience all of these feelings as we move throughout our daily lives. Our emotions are like the check engine light of a car, in the sense that we experience a feeling, which communicates to us that there is something going within us that we need to examine. When the check engine light comes on, you may not necessarily know what’s going on under the car’s hood. You need to respond to that light by checking the car for issues that may not be obvious just by looking at it. Our emotions function in a similar way. When we feel sad, for example, it typically signals to us that there is something we are lacking or longing for. Feeling guilt is a signal that we may have done harm to someone and we feel badly about our actions. Each time an emotion comes up, it’s telling us that something has happened or has triggered something within us that needs our attention. 

All of these core emotions serve a specific purpose for us and have their own benefit, according to Dodd. Sadness brings to light what we value, honor, and miss. Our anger tells us when an injustice has occurred, helps motivate us to action, and stirs up desire in our hearts. When we feel shame, we have the opportunity to experience humility and recognize our humanness. Guilt gives us the chance to apologize and make things right in our relationships. If you feel hurt, the benefit is that you can name your wounds and start to find healing. Feelings of loneliness remind us of the importance of reaching out and connecting with others. Experiencing fear can actually help us feel prepared and ready for action. And being glad benefits us when we experience joy and fulfillment in life. 

However, all of these emotions also have what Dodd calls an “impairment,” which means that if we don’t acknowledge and address the feeling, it can become damaging to our emotional health. In other words, if we ignore the check engine light, our car may just break down on the side of the road and leave us stranded. Hurt can turn into resentment, sadness into self-pity. If gone unchecked, our anger becomes depression, and loneliness turns to apathy. Fear can move into rage or anxiety, and shame has potential to become toxic shame or self-rejection. Our guilt may soon become pride, and our gladness turns to happiness or excitement when moving towards impairment. 

Let me give you an example of how an emotion could play out either way– benefiting or impairing the person. Let’s take loneliness, for example. Joe has just moved to a new city for a job. While he’s excited about the new job and very passionate about his work, the new city is on the opposite side of the country and he has no family or friends there. In the beginning, he throws himself into his work and keeps himself busy, which distracts from the fact that he doesn’t have a community in his new town. But soon, he realizes that he’s lonely. Really lonely. He misses having friends and family nearby, people who really know him. His co-workers are great people, and they chat at the office, but they haven’t connected outside of work. 

If Joe acknowledges his loneliness and accepts that he’s feeling this way, rather than ignoring the feeling and trying to distract himself more, his loneliness can benefit him. Joe decides that he wants to try to make friends and takes the courageous leap to ask some co-workers to hang out after work. He also joins a gym and does some fitness classes where he meets people and invites them for coffee after class. Meanwhile, he reaches out to family and friends back home to maintain connections and relationships. Joe’s ability to recognize and respond to his loneliness has put him in a position where it’s more likely that he’ll start to build a community in his new city. It’s not perfect and it’s not always easy, but it’s better than the alternative. 

The alternative is that Joe ignores his feelings of loneliness and pushes his feelings away. He works when he gets home, watches a lot of TV, and doesn’t go out. He knows he could reach out to friends and family at home, but what’s the point? None of his co-workers seem that interested in spending time with him and everyone already has friends. He gets used to being alone and becomes entrenched in the idea that he’ll never really make friends. This turns into feelings of apathy too. He doesn’t care about making friends anymore. He doesn’t care about exploring the new city he lives in. He stops feeling excited about his work too. He’s just going through the motions. Joe’s refusal to acknowledge and accept his loneliness has pushed him to the point of feeling apathetic about most aspects of his life. 

The difference here is quite obvious. In one scenario, Joe is able to benefit from his loneliness, but only if he chooses to open the hood of the car and see what’s going on. In the other scenario, he ignores the check engine light and his car breaks down on the side of the road. 

The work we are called to do is to allow ourselves the experience of feeling emotions and to listen to what they are telling us. We must learn to identify and name what we’re feeling, but it doesn’t stop there. It’s not enough just to name it, if we don’t try to understand what our feelings are telling us about our hearts, hopes, dreams, wishes, and values. Are you feeling lonely? I bet your heart is longing to be known and to feel real intimacy. Are you feeling angry? What is your anger telling you? Has someone wronged you, or is something unfair and injustice happening? Maybe you can find the fire within yourself to make things happen and enact change. 

Our emotions are a gift as long as we are allowing ourselves to examine what they’re communicating to us. We can choose to benefit from the gift of our emotions or to push them down, stuff them out, and experience the impairment of our emotions. Next time your “check engine light” comes on, don’t keep driving and pretend nothing’s wrong. Open the hood of the car, figure out where the problem is (maybe with help from a professional- i.e., a counselor), and take the next steps towards fixing it.

Busy isn’t Better

I’m sure most of us know someone who always talks about how busy they are. Some people even wear their busyness like a badge of honor. What is it about modern life that makes us feel the need to stay busy, flaunt how busy we are, and feel ashamed if we stop to take a break? There is an underlying subliminal (or not-so-subliminal) message that if we aren’t working non-stop, we’re lazy and less-than. At some point, we began prioritizing “hustling” over everything else, and we began telling ourselves that if we aren’t moving, we aren’t hard-working or determined enough.

When we see friends and family, the first thing we talk about is how busy we’ve been, apologizing for the time that has passed since our last get-together. We cancel plans because our schedules are just too full and we’ve double-booked ourselves. We run on a few hours of sleep, dragging our feet, and talking about how exhausted we are. Is this really a way to live? (I want to clarify that in many countries, people are busy and working non-stop because it’s the only way to pay their bills, provide for their families, and put food on the table. This is a completely different issue, related to the systemic issues of minimum wage, equal pay, and cost of living. When I refer to the culture of being workaholics and valuing work over everything else, I’m not referring to those people who have no choice but to work multiple jobs.)

But this idea of our value being determined by our busyness is not a healthy way to live. First of all, if our worth is tied to how busy we are, then we’re stuck in a cycle of never being able to stop in order to avoid not having worth. Secondly, our bodies are not meant to go non-stop without rest or sleep. Most of know the importance of a good night’s sleep, but what about rest that isn’t sleep? Resting is critical for our physical, mental, and emotional health in a similar way to sleep. Throughout our day-to-day, we need to find time to take a break and pause so that we can connect with ourselves on every level.

Taking time to rest and relax is important for our mental and emotional wellbeing for several reasons. If you are in a constant state of busyness, you’ll likely notice high stress levels, increased anxiety, and physical symptoms. We need time to rest and relax in order for our bodies to recuperate from the physical exertion of our days, and for our brains and minds to recuperate from the mental exertion. Our bodies and minds can’t really function their best if they aren’t given a chance to rest and recover.

Children especially need rest, relaxation, and SLEEP. Their bodies are growing and changing, while their brains are developing, so it’s vital that they are given adequate time to rest. It seems so common these days to have our kids enrolled in every extra-curricular activity possible, keeping them busy and active. But at some point it’s just too much. If you’re noticing your child’s mood shifting from energetic and happy to short-tempered and irritated, it’s probably time for them to rest. Remember when they were infants and cried because they were tired? They may not be crying from exhaustion now, but you’ll see it come out in other ways. If your child tells you they are tired, or throws a fit about going to football practice, pause to wonder if they’re in need of some relaxation.

If you’re reading this and thinking, I have a to-do list of twenty items and don’t have time to relax or rest!, take a deep breath. You don’t have to spend hours relaxing every day, although if you’re able to do that that’s wonderful! Even giving yourself ten to fifteen minutes a day to sit down and be quiet, read a book, watch a funny TV show, go for a quick walk, or take a bath is helpful for your body and mind. It really can be that simple! Even better if you can take some time as a family to rest and relax together, as this will teach your children the value of taking time off of work.

Being busy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, frustrated, and stressed-out is not a way to live your life, especially if you’re in a position where you can carve some time out of you day to take a break from the busyness. Your value is not correlated to how busy you are, how much overtime you’re working, or how many activities your kids are involved in. Your value goes far far beyond your busy schedule. So, take start giving yourself permission to rest each day, even if it means the dishes don’t get done or your child doesn’t go to swim lessons that day. Their mental and physical health- and yours- are more important.

And the next time your coworker or friend boasts about how busy they are, proudly tell them about the relaxing evening you had the night before and encourage them to do the same. Now, I’m off to relax! Thanks for being here.

The Child in Transition

Moving, changing schools, divorce, loss of a loved one or a pet, break-ups. Throughout our lives we experience a wide array of major life changes, which are often referred to as “transitions.” (Although the term “transition” may apply to a few different scenarios, I’ll be using it to describe a big change in a person’s life—intentional or not.)

Transitions are a natural part of life as we move from one season to the next, reaching milestones, and becoming who we are meant to be. Many transitions are beautiful, life-giving experiences like getting married, having a child, or starting a new career. Other unwelcomed and/or unforeseen transitions, such as death, divorce, and loss, make life difficult to cope with. For children experiencing such transitions, it can be difficult to navigate life and figure out how to manage the confusing feelings and circumstances they’re experiencing.

Why are transitions so tough on kids?

If you’re a parent, you probably already know how important consistency and stability is for your children. Young children especially feel safe and secure when they know what to expect from Mom and Dad, their daily routines, and their surroundings. Part of this is because stability allows children to have autonomy and a sense of control over their environments. Knowing what to expect helps kids feel a sense of calm and helps keep anxiety at bay. Households that are stable and consistent provide kids the opportunity to increase their sense of self through having responsibility and independence—both vital in developing into a healthy adult.

Even though it can’t always be prevented, a big change can feel like an upheaval to the consistency they so crave and need. Transitions are difficult for kids, because the unknown causes them anxiety, and a prolonged state of change or transition usually lacks stability. Ever wonder why your child asks you so many questions when you’re going somewhere new? It’s difficult to enter into a situation that you know nothing about, and anxiety increases if there are too many unknowns. This is the effect so frequently produced by transitions.

Instability and uncertainty lead to anxiety. Anxiety and stress produce more of the hormone cortisol, which can result in negative physical and mental health side effects such as mood changes and lack of sleep. It might be no surprise that if your child is going through big life changes, you notice behavioral problems at school or at home, frequent mood swings, and social problems.

How can I help my child manage transitions well?

You’ve probably already guessed that if stability is so important, it plays a major role in helping children through transitions too. Establishing a known and consistent routine is an essential step in easing your child’s transition. For example, a family going through a divorce should lay out a very predictable routine for time with Mom and time with Dad, including when and where they’ll spend time with each parent. A child whose family has just moved to a new place should have a well-established routine upon arrival to the new home, while also maintaining some of the familiarity of the routine from their “old” home. Providing as much consistency and predictability as possible can help ease your child’s anxiety about the changes.

Of course, life is full of unpredictable situations and we can’t always tell our kids what to expect, and we can’t protect them from everything. Children need to learn that throughout life they won’t have the option of having total control over their situation, while developing skills to manage stress from feeling out of control. In these moments, coaching your child on how to deal with the unpredictable can help them add some “tools” to their “toolbox” of coping strategies.

Remind your child that the transition is hard for you too and that you will get through this together as a family. Give them your emotional support. Help your child identify what they can control and what they can’t; come up with strategies to cope with the uncontrollable, such as mindfulness, open communication with family or friends, and practicing gratitude. Try to give your child options when possible, which will allow them to feel they have some sense of choice in the midst of things they can’t control.

And most importantly, be patient with your child. It takes time for anyone to adjust to big life changes. Give your child a safe space to talk about their feelings about the transition, and be patient with the process. And be patient with yourself, too, as you manage parenting through a transition.

If your family is experiencing a major life change such as divorce or separation, death and loss, moving, or changing schools, consistent counseling can be a great resource for your child. Feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute consultation to discuss getting support for your family during a transition and to see if we’d be a good counseling fit. And be sure to read my other posts for more tips on raising emotionally healthy children!

The Cross-Cultural Child (AKA The Third Culture Kid)

We live in quite an international and cross-cultural world—more and more families are leaving their home countries and moving internationally. Whether you’ve moved for work, a change of pace in your lifestyle, or to expose your children to different cultures, living internationally has some amazing benefits and some incredible challenges. Many parents find it difficult to anticipate what cross-cultural life will be like for their children and most likely the decision to move outside of your home country was not an easy one. Uprooting their children from their schools and communities, sending them to school in a new language and new culture, watching them try to fit in and belong. It’s all quite frightening for parents.

At the age of 15, my parents felt called to global work and we moved to the Black Forest of Germany. I was quite lucky, because I attended an international school with all my classes taught in English along with English-speaking classmates. However, some of my peers had different experiences. Some of them had moved to different countries as children or teenagers and had promptly been enrolled in a public school in their new country. Many of my peers experienced bullying, criticism from teachers, and general difficulty in their transitions.

In my experience, living overseas was an amazing opportunity to travel to many different countries, meet people from all over the world, and broaden my horizons. I wouldn’t change it for a minute. But was it all rainbows and butterflies? Of course not.

You may have heard of the term “TCK,” which means Third Culture Kid. A TCK is generally a child who is living and growing up in a culture that is not their own. They can’t fully identify with their home culture, but can’t fully identify with their “host” culture, leading to a “third” culture of their own.

What’s it like growing up in another culture and being a TCK?

Well, think about the challenges you’re facing as an adult living internationally, then remember what challenges you faced as a kid, and try to combine those two things. Quite a lot, huh? We know the normal struggles of children and teenagers include, but aren’t limited to: peer pressure, fitting in, bullying or cyberbullying, school performance, relationships, self-esteem and self-image, and identity crises. We also know some of the struggles of living overseas include, but aren’t limited to: language learning, finding a routine, learning new norms and expectations, and finding local resources like doctors, shops, and office buildings. All of the challenges of growing up are met with even more challenges when you’re doing it in a culture outside of your own.

What can I do to support my TCK?

First thing’s first: empathy. It’s crucially important to be empathetic and put yourself in your TCK’s shoes. Listen, listen, listen—maybe without offering advice. Children need to be heard and be known by their parents. The first step of this is listening with the intention to understand, rather than listening with the intention to react or advise. Sometimes kids just need to vent. I know that I need to, especially after I’ve spent all morning unsuccessfully trying to accomplish a seemingly simple task, or after I’ve been shouted at in a different language for doing something I didn’t know was wrong. We all need a safe space to vent and let out our frustrations!

Help your TCK identify their resources. This is important because it empowers your TCK to help themselves when they’re able to. Helping connect your TCK to safe adults at school, other TCKs in the community, and places they can safely venture out in the area are all ways to give your TCK a sense of belonging and power. Additionally, identify your own resources so that you can be better prepared to help out your TCK in tough situations and feel supported yourself.

Counseling for TCKs can be a great option, as well, as it provides a safe space for TCKs to discuss their feelings, frustrations, and confusions about living cross-culturally. A counselor can also help your TCK identify ways to cope with stressors and empower your TCK to understand their emotions and how to appropriately respond to them. It is also important to find counseling in English (if English is your child’s first language, or a bilingually spoken language for him/her), as it will give them the opportunity to express themselves in their native tongue, rather than navigating yet another situation in a foreign language.

As a former Third Culture Kid, I can offer a unique counseling perspective for your family. I know what life as a Third Culture Kid is like—uniquely fruitful and upsetting all at the same time. If you would like English-speaking counseling for your child, feel free to contact me and schedule a free 15-minute consultation to see if we’d be a good counseling fit. And follow my blog for more tips on raising an emotionally healthy child!

The Anxious Child

Can you picture it? It’s time to leave for school, you’re trying to get your child dressed and out the door, but you can’t get them up and moving. Maybe they’re crying or having a “meltdown,” refusing to move from the kitchen table or speak, or getting angry and yelling at you and their siblings. Or maybe all of the above? If this sounds familiar, it’s quite likely that your child may be feeling anxious. Rest assured, your child is not the only reacting this way and they are not alone—nor are you!

What does anxiety look like in children?

An anxious child may take on several different “looks.” First, it’s important to understand that when feeling out of control, overwhelmed, or anxious, children may respond in a few different ways. Chances are you’ve heard of “flight or fight,” the response we have in high-risk or dangerous situations like car accidents. In the face of danger, our brains tell us to “fight” against the threat, or to run away—“flight.” Children may also “freeze” in response to these types of events, which may look like shutting down or literally being frozen in place.

Children may lash out, cry, or throw tantrums (fight), hide in their rooms or avoid triggering situations (flight), or completely shut down physically and emotionally (freeze).

“Okay, but my child is not in danger… she just needs to put her shoes on. So what’s the deal?” Well, it doesn’t always take a crisis to send kids (or adults, for that matter) into a state of flight, fight, or freeze. It’s not uncommon for children to be sent into one of these states simply by feeling out of control, feeling fear or anxiety about a future situation, or feeling tired and overwhelmed emotionally. The math test after lunch, the classmate who doesn’t let your child join in at recess, or the first day of basketball practice are all situations that may contribute to your child’s anxiety.

What can I do when my child is anxious?

First, remember that your child is also a human being. I’m not being facetious! Put yourself in your child’s shoes and try to remember how it felt when you were a child. Then remember that your child is living in a different time, where technology, social media, and a global pandemic make being a kid pretty tough. Children have feelings, fears, worries, and stress just like adults do. Be empathetic with your children first and foremost.

Second, help your child self-regulate. It’s important to note that you won’t be able to do this if you yourself are not able to self-regulate in that moment. If your child comes to you angry and screaming, do not meet that anger with anger or screaming of your own, no matter how tough that is. Take a moment to breathe, unclench your jaw, and remind yourself that your child’s emotional health is more important than getting to school right on time. Help your child engage in some deep breathing; taking deep breaths physiologically alters our emotional state and can help calm your child. Help your child feel safe and loved by offering a hug, a hand on the back, or rubbing their arm.

Third, approach your child with curiosity. As a child counselor, I often advise parents to get curious with their kids and their kid’s feelings. What does it mean to “be curious?” Ask questions to find out more about what your child is feeling, and then encourage them to ask what that feeling is telling them. “I can see that you’re really afraid of how that math test will go. What do you think your fear is telling you? What does it say about you if you don’t do very well on the test?” Get curious!

Last, if your child is experiencing frequent anxiety, seek out counseling and get help from a professional counselor or therapist. As a child counselor, I have worked with children who really benefit from what we call “coping skills.” Counselors can work with your child to teach them positive coping skills to help manage their anxiety.

As I mentioned in a previous post, anxiety can be our friend; it can help us discern and assess danger and clues us in on potential harm. Some anxiety in your child is not a bad thing! It’s normal for them to experience anxiety as they maneuver in this world, learn, and grow. However, sometimes our anxiety hangs around even when we are safe at home with Mom and Dad. If your child seems to be anxious more often than not, it’s time to seek some help.

For English-speaking counseling for your children or teenagers, feel free to reach out to me and schedule a free 15-minute consultation to see if we’d be a good counseling fit. And follow my blog for more information on how to help your kids become emotionally healthy adults!

Mental Health in a Global Pandemic

It seems like just yesterday that we were in the beginning stages of the pandemic: lockdowns, Zoom happy hours, binge-watching, and baking bread. What we thought would be two weeks of lockdown have turned into two years of having our lives turned upside down, constant uncertainty, and for most of us, anxiety.

Whether or not you or your children experienced anxiety prior to the pandemic, you have certainly felt the impact of these last two years on your mental health. The pandemic has affected all of us in different ways, but what seems to be the constant factor is the impact on our mental health.

Why has living through a two-year-long pandemic impacted us so much?

Well, simply put: most of us have lived in a constant state of uncertainty around almost every area of our lives. Think about it. In the last two years have you felt uncertain about any of the following: yours and your family’s health? Finances? Job loss or unemployment? Your children’s education? I’m guessing the answer is a resounding “Yes!” When we live in a constant state of uncertainty, unsure of what to expect, we may experience an increase in anxiety. When we are separated from our families or dealing with the loss of loved ones, we may experience grief and loneliness. When we lose our jobs or have a financial crisis, we may feel hopelessness. All of these feelings are normal responses to difficult life circumstances, and add to that the immense pressure of a global pandemic? Life may start to feel overwhelming.

So, what can we do to combat the negatives effects of living in a pandemic?

If you or your children are experiencing anxiety, depression, grief and loss, or other problems as a result of the pandemic, I have good news. You are not powerless to this. The first step to healing is naming our feelings and being kind to ourselves. Remember, you have probably never lived in a pandemic before, so you’re new to this. Have some grace and practice kindness with yourself. How can you do this? Think about what advice you’d give a friend. You’d probably tell them something like, “Don’t worry, you’re doing the best you can. You’ve had a hard time and it’s not your fault.” Speak to yourself like you would speak to a friend.

After naming your emotions and practicing kindness, try some grounding, mindfulness, or gratitude techniques. A simple tool is to sit quietly, perhaps with your eyes closed, and listen to the sounds around you. If your mind wanders to all the little things causing you stress, gently draw yourself back to the sounds. Notice what you feel in your body. Gratitude may look like writing down three things you’re grateful for each day, or telling a friend or family member how much they mean to you. Try small practices like this each day to help keep anxiety and depression at bay.

Remember that anxiety is your friend, not your enemy. (More on this to come in another blog post.) Your anxiety exists to keep you out of danger and to warn you of potential harm. Times when your anxiety does NOT serve you is when it is present even when danger is not. Talk to your anxiety – even if it feels silly—and tell your anxiety that it isn’t needed right now.

Finally, if you are able to access it, go to therapy or counseling. Counselors can provide you and your family with tools to cope with mental health problems. Therapy and counseling are an important part of your overall health. You go to the doctor when there’s a problem with your physical health, so why not see a therapist when you’re struggling to be mentally healthy?

Finding an affordable counselor that meets the needs of your family can be a challenge, so be sure to ask good questions about the counselor’s experience, values, and methods of practice.

If you or your child is struggling with life changes during the pandemic, contact me for a free 15-minute consultation to see if we’d be a good counseling fit, and follow my blog for more mental health tips!