Have you ever felt like you can’t catch your breath, are wound-up or on edge?
Have you ever felt like your mind is racing and you can’t keep up?
Do your thoughts about what you have to do consume you?
Have you ever laid in bed awake and unable to fall asleep because you have so much on your mind? Have you ever realized that your shoulders and neck are so tense that they become painful?
Have you ever felt like there is an elephant sitting on your chest making it difficult to breathe?
Have you ever wanted to lock yourself in a room and hide from all the things that you have to do?
Welcome to anxiety.
There is some good news, though. You are not alone. Over 40 million adults in the US report some level of anxiety. That’s 18% of the population. For over 4% of those individuals, their anxiety is severe (National Institute of Mental Health, 2016).
Think about those numbers and then think about your life. Chances are that nearly 20% of the adults in your life have dealt or are currently dealing with anxiety issues. That’s 1 out of every 5 people you know. Yet, for so many people, anxiety is a shameful secret they struggle to hide.
When your anxiety rears its ugly head, you might find yourself thinking things like “What’s wrong with me?” “Why can’t I just stop worrying?” “Why can’t I just be grateful for all the good things in my life?” You might find that you are starting to turn to some unhealthy coping tools such as cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and food. You might find that your anxiety is causing you to miss work, cancel social activities or even starting to impact your physical health.
It’s time to tell anxiety who is the boss in your life. It’s time to tell anxiety to hit the road. It’s time to take control of your thoughts and your mind. You deserve it. And I have a magical solution.
Wouldn’t that be nice?
Unfortunately, there is no magical solution. It’s entirely possible that your good friend anxiety will stay will you forever. (Wow. This article is turning out to be super motivational and inspiring so far.) The good news is that you CAN learn some ways to manage your anxiety. Anxiety is not something you can beat forever. It is a part of you and is probably part of what makes you, YOU. At some point in your life, your anxiety may have even helped you! However, it does not need to control you or define you. So, let’s look at some ways to manage this beast called anxiety and prevent it from taking over our lives:
1. Let Go of Perfection
Many people with anxiety have a belief that they need to be perfect. The perfect mother. The perfect friend. The perfect neighbor. The perfect employee. To you, a messy house is an indication of failure; a child with hair that is a bit overdue for a haircut means that you are a neglectful parent; leaving your trash barrels out until 6pm means that you are the worst neighbor ever; being 10 pounds overweight means that you are disgusting; asking your friend for help means that you are too needy.
None of that is true.
Your thoughts can become your own worst enemy. Stop trying to prove your worth. Stop trying to live up to people in your life that you think are perfect. Stop trying to be the best. Honestly, stop.
What would happen if you tried to just do the best you can do right now? Maybe your best today is to feed your kids mac and cheese for dinner. Does that mean you are the worst mother? No. Maybe your best today is to throw your dirty clothes in the hamper rather than on the floor. Does that mean you are a lazy slob? No. Maybe tomorrow you can do more. Maybe not. Don’t beat yourself up. Cut “I should” out of your vocabulary. Accept yourself for who you are right now and focus on the good, not the bad
2. Rethink Social Media
A quick word on all those perfect people on social media: most of them are fake. Their pictures were posed and reposed, edited and re-edited. Their posts have been rewritten and reworded. Their videos have been cut and redone. What you are seeing is the best version of them, not the real version. Resist the temptation to compare yourself. If there are people on your social media accounts who always seem to have it together and you find that their posts somehow leave you feeling worse about yourself, try hiding their posts for a bit. It’s ok to take a break. They don’t even need to know.
3. Make Room for Self Care
In my experience, many of the people who struggle with anxiety are really wonderful caregivers – except when it comes to caring for themselves. They place everyone else’s needs above their own and by the end of the day, there is nothing left for them. That kind of behavior needs to stop if you are ever going to manage your anxiety.
What are some things that make you feel good? Is it 15 minutes drinking coffee by yourself in the morning - no phone, no tv, no other people? Is it a long bath at the end of the day? Is it one night out a week with a friend? Is it some time with a good book at night for 20 minutes? Is it scrapbooking or photography or writing? What is it that fills you up a little bit? Once you figure out what it is, schedule some time, preferably daily, for that self care activity. Even 5 minutes each day would be wonderful! Hold that time sacred. Block it out and schedule things around it. Don’t allow yourself to feel badly about it. Self care is not selfish.
A large part of learning to manage your anxiety is learning how to calm and quiet your thoughts. Many people have found activities such as yoga, meditation and mindfulness training to be effective at increasing their ability to quiet their mind. It’s not easy. You will likely find your first 5 sessions of yoga, meditation or mindfulness work will leave you feeling even more anxious because you will suddenly be extremely aware of just how fast your thoughts are moving. Stick with it. It will become easier and, with practice, you will be able to sit in silence without your mind racing. These are wonderful tools to have in your toolkit.
5. Get Moving
Physical exercise can be extremely beneficial for those with anxiety. Exercise can be something as simple as a 10 minute walk each morning. Go at it with the goal of increasing physical activity and decreasing your anxiety. Resist the urge to set sizeable goals for yourself with regards to weight loss. You want to avoid opportunities for causing more anxiety in your life. Set yourself up for success.
So, what do you do when anxiety hits you full force and you can’t catch your breath? Being able to get control of your breathing again is key. There are two main techniques that I like to recommend to patients:
7. Watch Your Diet
Take a few days and track everything you eat and drink. Also track any times of day where you may be feeling more anxious. Look for patterns. Caffeine can sometimes heighten your symptoms of anxiety. Perhaps it would be worthwhile for you to slowly decrease your caffeine consumption and/or limit your intake of sugar. Small and steady changes can make a big change over time.
8. Find a Counselor
Perhaps I am biased because I am a counselor, but I tend to believe that everyone can benefit from a counselor or psychotherapist. I recently talked to someone who was hesitant to contact a counselor because they didn’t exactly know how to explain their concerns to the therapist. Don’t worry. A good therapist will help you articulate and identify your concerns and needs. They also can help you learn new coping and calming strategies and skills, can assist you with areas of stress in your life and can help you increase your overall quality of life.
Not sure where to find a good therapist? Talk to your friends. They may be able to recommend a great one. You can also check out your health insurance company’s list of approved behavioral health providers. Psychology Today has a great searchable database of clinicians as well.
What if you see a therapist and don’t feel like you connect with them? Find another one! This is about you – not the therapist’s feelings.
9. Be Open to Medication
I am not one to advocate skipping all of the previous steps and going straight to medication. However, panic attacks and chronic severe anxiety can feel terrifying. There are many medication options available today to help manage anxiety. These medications can be taken daily or taken as needed. Some of you may be thinking, “I don’t want to be snowed.” Or “I don’t want a tranquilizer.” Fear not. Medications are much more refined today than they were decades ago. If you feel you may want to explore medications for your anxiety, speak to your primary care physician or schedule a consult with a psychiatrist. (In general, I find that a psychiatrist tends to be a better option over a primary care physician for medications for depression and anxiety – it’s their specialty.)
10. Be Kind to Yourself
This mantra seems to find its way into many of my articles. I cannot stress this concept enough to you. Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself. Accept that you are not perfect. Accept that you are flawed. Accept that you are human. Surround yourself with people who allow you to be kind to yourself. Better yet, surround yourself with people who encourage you to be kind to yourself.
With anxiety, some days are harder than others. In fact, some days just feel damn near impossible. Know that those days will pass and know that there are resources, supports and tools available to help you manage your anxiety. You don't have to fight this battle alone!
National Institute of Mental Health. Any anxiety disorder among adults. (n.d.) Retrieved December 29, 2016 from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-anxiety-disorder-among-adults.shtml
For more blog articles on managing anxiety and depression, click the links below:
I have an investment question for you. Of the following two banks, which would you choose?
So, which option would you choose?
What if the options were not banks but people in your life and what if the funds were not money but emotional energy? Would your choice change? Why?
No. Really. Ask yourself why?
Often in psychotherapy, I start to see patterns among clients. Perhaps it’s the time of year or phases of the moon or something I don’t understand like Mercury in Retrograde or El Nino. Or, maybe it’s just me. Whatever the reason, lately I have seen a pattern emerge in many of my sessions – the expense of emotional energy.
What is emotional energy?
I like to think of emotional energy as money. It’s the emotional cost of doing something. Think about Bank A and Bank B. Now think about the people in your life. Which people would you categorize under Bank A? Which would you categorize under Bank B? Think about your last encounter with someone from Bank A. Maybe it was a phone call, a party, a work meeting, a vacation. How much did it cost you emotionally to participate in that encounter? Did you find yourself emotionally drained afterwards? Did you text someone from Bank B after the encounter and say, “I need a glass of wine. Stat!” Did you go home and overreact by snapping at your spouse or your children? Did you skip a workout because you were too drained? Did you push yourself super hard at the gym because you needed to process the encounter? Did you turn your radio up really loud in your car? Did you cry? If you had any of these responses, then it’s safe to say that the encounter was probably emotionally costly for you. You invested a whole lot of energy into being with that person and you didn’t get anything back of value in return. In fact, it cost you to be with them.
Now, think about your last encounter with someone from Bank B. What was that experience like for you? How much did it cost you emotionally? Did you actually feel that it recharged you emotionally? These are the people we need to be focusing on in our lives. These are the people we need in our lives. They fill us up. They make us rich, emotionally.
But, how do you manage these people in your life that are emotionally costly? How do you handle Bank A? Well, you have three choices:
1. End your relationship with them.
While this is not always a possibility, sometimes it is something that can happen. You can end friendships. You can leave toxic work environments. You can avoid certain family members. Sometimes you can choose Bank B over Bank A. Usually, however, I recommend trying the other options first…
2. Limit your encounters with them.
Perhaps you aren’t ready, don’t want to or simply can’t leave Bank A completely. Are there ways that you can limit your time with Bank A? Can you establish some new boundaries with them? Can you weigh out how much emotional energy will be invested in a certain encounter and perhaps skip it or role play some ways to better balance it beforehand? Can you be honest with them about how you are feeling?
3. Change how you approach them.
The first step in this option is to evaluate WHY your encounters with them are so costly. Take some time and truly explore your previous encounters with these individuals. What is it about the encounters that requires you to invest so much emotional energy? Are you being criticized by them? Are you constantly trying to seek their approval? Do they use up all of your time asking for your advice or complaining to you about their own problems and never give you anything in return? Is there something in the past for which you aren’t able to forgive them?
The second step in this option is to understand HOW your encounters are costly. What is your internal process while you are with them – are you anxious, angry, hurt or feeling some other emotion? What are you thinking in the days leading up to the encounter? What are you thinking during your time with them? What are your immediate thoughts after the encounter?
The third step in this process is to truly accept that the individual will likely NEVER CHANGE. I know what you are thinking – “How does she know? Maybe if I could just be a litt more _____ or a little less ______, I can make them ______ or help them to see ________________.” No. Change is hard and people only change when they want to change. Nothing you say or do is going to make someone love you, respect you, appreciate you, value you or acknowledge you more. Nothing you say or do is going to make someone hurt you, ignore you or let you down less. Stop trying. Stop hoping things will be different. They are who they are and you cannot change that. The only thing you can change is how you choose to interact with them, how you respond to them and how much emotional energy you choose to invest in them.
Let's take a moment to think about and consider the feelings of people from Bank A. They probably are not bad people. (In fact, I often correct my children and tell them that there aren't bad people, only people making bad choices.) They probably aren't aware of how emotionally costly they are to you. They likely think you are overly sensitive or rude or require too much from the people in your life. It's worth considering those thoughts for a while. Are there some changes that you should be making in yourself? Are they right? Do you want to change those things?
If you have people in your life from Bank A and you feel that you are investing a lot of emotional energy in those relationships then you have some soul searching to do. So, pour yourself a cup of coffee or go take a long shower or take a long drive or get out your journal. Do whatever you need to do in order to create some space for you to think and reflect.
Life is too short; far too short. Isn’t it about time you find a way to invest more in yourself?
If you are like me, you probably can feel the growing holiday tension out there and with each passing day, the tension gets thicker and thicker. You know what I mean. You can feel it when you are shopping in the stores. People scurry by each other, avoiding eye contact as they shop for the "perfect" gift. They fight over the last pink stocking in the Target dollar bin (I saw a woman grab one out of a fellow shopper's hand two days ago as she declared "I saw that first!” ). They roll their eyes, sigh loudly and make rude comments about cashiers who are "too slow." They yell at each other over parking spots. They flash each other the middle finger as they cut each other off on the roadways. Yes, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. For sure.
So, with only a few days left until Christmas day, I have a few tips that may help to reduce some of the holiday stress and allow us to enjoy the true spirit of the holidays.
1. Re-evaluate your expectations
Chances are you have a "To Do" list a mile long. I'm going to guess that the bulk of that list contains items that are designed to make other people happy. Are you searching for the perfect gift for your children or partner? Are you planning a perfect family gathering that will allow the family to get along and not argue? Are you hoping to finally get approval and a public acknowledgement of your worth from that family member that never gives it to you? STOP! Sit down with your list and really look at what's important. Maybe you don't need to make a perfect roast for the family on Christmas day. Maybe a crockpot ham would be just fine. Maybe you don't need to bake sugar cookies from scratch. Maybe pre-made dough would be fine. Where can you cut corners and make things a little bit easier? Scaling things back a bit won’t turn you into a Grinch but it may preserve some of your energy…and sanity.
2. Get off social media
Ok. Maybe that's not realistic. But, at least change the way you experience social media. Chances are that at least 75% of the pictures and posts you see on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat are perfected (read: fake) versions of pictures and posts that have been taken, retaken, edited, deleted and re-written at least 5 times. It's not real. For every "perfect" post you see from a contact on social media, there are probably an equal number of imperfect moments from them. So, when you see that super happy family on Facebook and you think "Why can't we be like them?" remember that the same family could have yelled at each other in the car just five minutes before the post. Don't compare yourself to people on social media. And, let's face it, social media can be plain hurtful. Are there posts from people that always tend to hurt your feelings? Posts that will undoubtedly trigger some unpleasant memories? Go ahead and hide those people. Don’t be dramatic and unfriend them or post passive aggressive memes about them, simply hide their posts. You have the ability to control who you see on your feed. Take a few minutes and clean it up.
3. Spend time with your people
You know the people I'm talking about - the people with whom you can be yourself. They accept you - even when your hair and makeup aren't done and you elect to wear sweatpants and a sweatshirt. Schedule time with them where you can just be you. Or, if time is tight, turn to them via phone calls and text messages. Reach out to them when you feel like you are sinking – they are probably feeling the same way!
Look at children. They have this great ability to let stress roll off their shoulders. Most of the children I know are not stressing about finding the perfect gift, planning the perfect party, cooking the perfect meal or breaking the bank with gift giving. You know why? (Well, a big part of that is because children are selfish little creatures - not a bad thing, that's just where they are developmentally.) I think a big part of it is because they know how to play. As I write this, my oldest son is sprawled out on my couch, wearing his pj's and drinking his decaf coffee while he plays video games. (Boy, did I leave myself open right there for a whole lot of judging.) He could not be happier. Later today he will hang out with some of his friends and they will probably do nothing but flip water bottles, make Musicly videos and watch the Pats game. You know what? They will have a blast because they are playing. We could take a page from their book. Take some time to play. What does that look like for you? Just because we are grown-ups doesn't mean we can't have fun.
5. Nurture yourself
Santa probably isn't going to leave you a big fat pile of presents on Christmas day and, if you are a parent, Christmas is sort of all about the kids. So, take some time and do something nice for yourself. Stop and sit at Starbucks by yourself and have a cup of hot chocolate. Get your nails done. Take a nap. Buy yourself a Christmas gift. Take a bubble bath. Go to the gym. Do something for you. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or take up a lot of time but it sure can make a difference and you deserve it!
I know this list isn’t going to remove all of the Christmas stress from your lives. The holidays can be intensely overwhelming and, at times, painful. But, maybe, just maybe, if you take a few minutes and follow some of these tips, you just might find the holidays a little more bearable and, hopefully, even enjoyable.
And, if not, there’s always wine and chocolate.
For more blog articles on stress and self-care, click the links below:
Those of you who know me have probably heard me mention the use of essential oils in our household. There are multilevel marketing companies selling quality essential oils, therapists and doctors diffusing essential oils in their waiting rooms and more mainstreet retailers are now carrying essential oils in their stores.
But, if you are anything like I was a couple of years ago, you likely are overwhelmed and confused by all of the essential oil options and uses today. Here are the top 7 ways my family uses essential oils in our home:
My oldest son gets migraines fairly often and I am frequently hit with tension headaches. Essential oils have done wonders for our headaches. I prefer to use the straight Peppermint Essential Oil while my son prefers to use Head Ease Essential Oil Blend. As with all essential oils, they can be diffused with water in an essential oil diffuser (see the end of this post for a link to some of my favorite diffusers) or diluted with a Carrier Oil and then applied directly onto the skin. When it comes to headaches, essential oil applied to the temples can knock a headache away in just a few minutes.
Do you ever have those nights where you just can't relax and calm down? Those nights where you stare at the clock and watch your sleep opportunity literally tick away? Those are the nights we find ourselves turning to either pure Lavendar Essential Oil or Good Night Essential Oil Blend. As with the oils for headaches, these can be diffused or mixed with a carrier oil and applied to the temples.
3. Colds and Respiratory Viruses
When you have kids, there will inevitably be times where you feel like you are living in a germ factory and few things are worse than the discomfort brought about by a head cold. We love to diffuse Eucalyptus Essential Oil or Breathe Easier Essential Oil Blend. When my boys have a cold, I'm extremely generous with the oils, I belnd them with a carrier oil, apply to their chest, back and even the bottoms of their feet AND I diffuse the oils. I don't know that it shortens the illness, but it certainly makes it easier to sleep.
We've all done it. Despite frequent re-application of sunscreen, wearing gigantic beach hats and triyng to hide under rash guards and giant umbrellas, we all have come home with a sunburn on ourselves and our children. While I am always partial to pure aloe to help the sunburn heal, my children have become very fond of how it feels to have a blend of carrier oil and Peppermint Essential Oil applied to their skin before bed after a sunburn.
5. Food Smells
I love cooking but I HATE the way my hands and my kitchen smell after working with garlic and onions. A good Lemon Essential Oil or Simply Citrus Essential Oil Blend mixed in with a carrier oil can cut through the most offensive food odors. Diffusing these in the kitchen also tends to freshen the air without overpowering the scent of whatever is cooking.
6. Stinky Shoes
You know that horrid smell when your children wear their shoes outside in the wet, rainy weather or, worse yet, when they decide to wear their shoes without socks? You know that smell. The one that kicks you in the stomach and makes you want to burn the shoes. Before you burn them, buy yourself a bottle of Four Thieves Essential Oil. Now, be forewarned. This stuff smells awful. But, it works. When you have a foul smelling sneaker or trashcan problem, put some of this oil on a cotton ball and leave it overnight in the shoe or in the trash can. Somehow it absorbs the terrible odors. It has also been said that diffusing this essential oil can build up immunity and ward off illnesses. I cannot get past the smell to try to diffuse it. Let me know if it works for you.
As I revealed in my blog, Raising Aliens, I am raising stinky alien-like boys. Sometimes these aliens make our house smell very unhuman-like. During times like these, I love to diffuse some nice essential oils throughout my house. My favorite is Hope Essential Oil but Eden's Garden sells a wide variety of very pleasant smelling essential oil blends and sets like this one.
While there are countless companies that sell essential oils these days, I prefer the Eden's Garden product line as their oils are affordable, reliable, consistent and ship super fast through Amazon. The last few sets that I purchased from Eden's Garden came with a detailed booklet with over 100 ways to use essential oils. It's been a great resource!
To view a variety of different diffuser options, please visit the link below:
To see more of my family's favorite essential oils, visit my store. Go ahead and try a few oils and let me know what you and your family think.
Sometimes I look at my children and I can totally and completely understand what is happening inside their brains. I get them. It's like they are little versions of me as a child, yet slightly different and much improved. Their choices in food, music, television and movies often sync perfectly with mine. The way they approach problems and their interpretations of the world also line up neatly with my own. They are perfect little humans.
Then there are other times where I look at my children and I don't get them. At all. In those moments, I look at their handsome faces, devilish eyes and playful grins and think that surely I gave birth to aliens. How on Earth can they be so vastly different than me? So unhuman at times??
Clearly, the only answer is that I am raising aliens.
If your son approaches the following topics the same way as my boys do, then it's safe to say that you may also be raising aliens:
It's snowing outside, why is it so terrible that I require my children wear pants to school? "Mom!? No one else wears pants!" "Can't I just wear shorts and long socks instead?" Yeah. That's a great look.
Why is it so hard to pee IN the toilet? This is not a problem to which I can relate. (Although I have been in enough public women's restrooms to know that clearly it IS an issue for some women.)
Mornings would be so much easier if my children would put their shoes where they belong each night. But, for some reason, they prefer the very fun game of "I can't find my shoes!" every morning where we pull open drawers, look under beds and couches, and rummage through closets to find shoes as we rush to make it out the door on time. Apparently it's super fun for them to see me lose my mind each morning.
You know what you won't find when you open my closets? Shoes. (see above) You know what else you won't find? Boy's coats. They despise wearing them. They would prefer that I wash their 3 Under Armour sweatshirts daily so they can wear those as coats. I got tired of hearing "Mom!? Why can't I just wear 4 layers of shirts and sweatshirts?" So, I gave up on coats.
Good God. Why can't my children smell themselves? I've lost count of how many times I have walked by my children and had to stop, lean closer, sniff them and then banish them to another shower. "Did you use deodorant this morning?" I always ask. "Oh. No. I forgot. Oops." Every. Damn. Day. How they have friends is beyond me. Perhaps they all smell like dirty feet.
If a ball makes its way inside my house, my boys seem to be programmed by their mother ship to throw the ball inside the house as much as possible and as close as possible to all things breakable. Lamps. Chandeliers. Mirrors. Anything delicate and expensive will be in the direct path of the ball.
I think the Alien Code of Conduct states that all plastic water bottles must be left 1/3 filled to maximize the ability of said bottles to be flipped and capped, bonus points for dabbing after capping it. If you have 15 almost empty water bottles scattered throughout your house or you find yourself shouting “Stop with the bottles!!!” then you probably live with aliens.
Someday I will conduct and publish a study about how the IQ of pre-adolescent boys drops significantly whenever they are in groups. The more boys there are in the group, the lower the group's IQ. Each time they get together, I find myself saying something along the lines of "Remember all those crazy things you got in trouble for last time? Don't do those again this time" and then I try to look at the environment and see what crazy decisions they can make this time. Inevitably I forget something...
So, what’s the best way to approach the difficult task of raising aliens?
1. Don’t try to see the world through their eyes.
You’ll hurt yourself.
2. Pick your battles.
You need to conserve your energy when it comes to aliens.
3. Learn to speak their language.
Yes, this may mean that you need to learn how to flip bottles, dab, juju on that beat, whip and even nae nae.
4. Utilize their communication systems.
You may need to become proficient in things like Musicly and Snapchat so you can monitor their interactions and make sure your alien is not being a jerky alien.
5. Stockpile deodorant.
You never know when your little alien might need some extra deodorant so it’s a good idea to keep a few spares around.
6. Invest in a good washing machine.
You’ll need it to keep up with the alien stench that arises when they forget the aforementioned deodorant.
7. Hold on tight.
Love your little alien fiercely and take advantage of all the moments you have with them. Snuggle them when they let you. Hold their hand when they let you. Lay in their stinky alien bed at night before they drift off to sleep and talk about their day with them. Time moves faster when you are raising an alien – hold onto it before it slips away.
For more blog entries on raising aliens (and boys), be sure to check out the links below:
Are you a teacher, school administrator or school support personnel? If so, think back over the past three years. How many times has a student in your school lost a parent, sibling or significant family member? How many times has your school community lost a student or a teacher? Chances are fairly high that every single one of you could think of at least one instance where grief reared its ugly head in your school.
Now, think back to your professional training experiences. How many courses did you take about the psychology of grief, common grief counseling interventions or how to support grief inside the classroom? How many grief courses were required for your professional licensure? For most of you, the answer to both questions is probably "none."
The statistics regarding children's grief in schools are staggering. According to Comfort Zone Camp, one out of every 7 Americans will lose a sibling or a parent before the age of 20. That's 15% of children under age 20. Yet, it's not unusual for teachers to feel completely unprepared when it comes to supporting a grieving child in their classroom. Teachers are with our children 5-6 hours each day, 5 days each week, 9 months a year. They are the frontlines of support in the classroom for grieving children yet we arm them with few resources and guidance on what to do and what not to do.
For many people, things that make us uncomfortable or cause us to feel inadequate and unprepared often become things we avoid. It seems like this holds true for many teachers and schools across America. Grief is not discussed in many classrooms. Most classroom libraries probably do not have books on death, loss or grief. Group discussions after a death strikes a classroom are likely a rarity. Teachers surely make referrals to the school social worker (if one exists in the building) and figure that it's probably best to not mention the loss to the grieving child or to their peers. After all, they don't want to make their students hurt even more. But, the silence many grieving children receive from their schools following a loss can be deafening.
Below are some tips to help teachers and districts begin to improve their ability to provide support to grieving children within the classroom. Remember, nearly 15% of your students are likely to experience a significant loss before they reach the age of 20.
How to Support Children’s Grief in the Classroom
1. Reach out
Perhaps the most important suggestion I can offer is to take an active role. When you hear of a child's loss, reach out. You will not be inconveniencing the family. You will not be a bother to them. Your genuine concern and offer of support could be something that is remembered forever. While you cannot take away that student's loss, by reaching out you are telling them and their family that they are important to you and that they are valued members of the school community. You don't have to offer anything - just your acknowledgement of their loss and validation of their worth is important enough.
2. Share accurate information
In today's super connected society, news travels at lightening fast speeds. One Facebook or Twitter post can notify a whole community of a death in just a few moments. Sometimes the information that gets circulated is based on speculation and is inaccurate. One of the best ways to address this issue is to formally share the information with the correct details. Ask the student's family what information they would like shared and if they would like someone from the school to share it with the school community. Imagine the stress a student may feel returning to school but not knowing who knows about their father's death. Who do they have to tell? What do they need to say? When someone from the school takes that pressure away from the family and child, they take away what can be a very heavy burden.
3. Involve peers
No matter the grade, one of the most important aspects of any child's school experience is their relationship with their peers. When a student loses a family member, it is important for their peers to not just be notified but to be provided with an opportunity to explore the loss themselves. Perhaps their friend's now deceased parent used to volunteer on Field Day or helped out in a carpool or came to school on the student's birthday each year. For many children, seeing a peer lose an important family member can also trigger worries about the possibility of losing their own loved one. That math unit can wait a day while classrooms take an hour to allow the peers to ask questions, support each other and perhaps even identify a way to help their peer.
4. Formally commemorate
Most schools value formal ceremonies. School concerts, school plays, pep rallies, academic assemblies, holiday gatherings and graduations are common occurrences in schools. Why? Because they bring the community together, reinforce the concept of interconnectedness and allow for shared experiences. Schools should not be saving these formal gatherings only for positive moments. During times of grief, schools can find a way to bring everyone together to commemorate the loss of a member of their own community. Some schools plant a tree, install a bench or hold a naming ceremony when the community experiences a significant loss. Formal commemoration activities can also be done on a smaller scale. Perhaps the student's classmates could put together a book of poems, cards or pictures that the students create and then give the book to the grieving child and family (teachers and parents should proof it first though!).
5. Be flexible
For many children, returning to school provides them with security, structure and safety. It is not uncommon or abnormal for a child to want to go to school the very next day after they have had a loss. School can provide grieving children with an opportunity to be distracted from the loss and sadness for short periods of time. It can allow them to feel normal and feel a connection to the life had prior to the loss. But, for many students, there are moments in the school day when they may find it challenging to focus, attend to a task or even sit still. Be flexible with children, regardless of their age, when it comes to their coursework after the loss. Accommodations such as extending deadlines and allowing extra bathroom breaks will probably not ruin the child academically. However, setting rigid standards, being inflexible or accusing children of taking advantage of their grief situation may set children back academically, socially and emotionally. Yes, I am even suggesting applying this same flexibility to teens.
6. Resist the urge to share and compare
While you may have had a similar loss as a child, it is not always helpful to share such experiences with a grieving child. It can potentially minimize their experience and loss. The same holds true to statements like "I lost my Dad too. I know how it feels." The truth is that no two people experience loss and grief in the same way. Avoid sharing and comparing your own experiences and focus instead on providing genuine support.
7. Anticipate re-grieving
Many adults who have experienced a loss can appreciate that there are certain times of the year where their grief gets re-triggered. Anniversaries of the death, certain holidays and birthdays are all common events that can cause a surge in grief. Children experience this same phenomenon but they also have an added layer of complexity in their grief. As children develop cognitively, emotionally and socially, they begin to understand and view their world differently. They start to apply different questions and interpretations to their world and to any losses they may have had. So, while your 6th grade student may have lost their sister in the 2nd grade, they may re-grieve that loss in completely new terms as they begin to see the world through 6th grade eyes. For them, it could feel as if the loss is brand new.
8. Track community losses
Schools and school districts should consider tracking data around grieving children - even if it is only for certain losses such as parents or siblings. Tracking this data will allow districts and schools to identify patterns that are out of the ordinary. For example, if your small elementary school has 9 students who have lost a parent in a span of 2 years, your school may want to explore the possibility of offering more specific resources for those students and families as well as the rest of the school community. That's a lot of grief to be experiencing for one school in one short period of time.
9. Support the staff
Let's face it, being a teacher is one of the hardest jobs out there. Teachers are tasked with an immense amount of goals, objectives and responsibilities without an immense amount of funding or resources. While grief can enter the classroom through the experiences of the students, it can also enter the classroom through the experiences of the school staff. Teachers, administrators and staff members all also encounter loss and may be actively grieving alongside the grieving children in the school. Explore ways to come together to support each other as professionals.
10. Provide support over time
There is no timeline for grief. There is no such thing as closure. When people lose someone important to them to death they don't ever get over it. Grief is with them forever and while sometimes it's a silent companion, other times it's a loud, unruly, disruptive companion who is difficult to manage. Just as grief will exist over a long time frame, so too should the support from the school. Check in frequently with the student to see what they need, not just in the days and weeks immediately following the loss but in the months and years after the loss as well.
If you are interested in receiving additional training and education on the topic of supporting children's grief in the schools, be sure to visit Children & Grief: Guidance and Support Resources from Scholastic/New York Life for helpful resources such as lesson plans, handouts and training modules. Also explore the website for the National Alliance for Grieving Children for additional training resources and to identify children's grief centers in your area. If you are in the Massachusetts area and would like to arrange for a grief/bereavement in-service in your school, please send an email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
For more blog articles on grief, click the links below:
About Changing Perspectives
I often find myself encouraging people to consider changing their perspective or reframe the way in which they view things. This blog is an extension of that practice and is also an opportunity for me to write from a number of different perspectives including clinician, educator, mother, friend and supervisor. Blog topics are also quite varied and changeable. Topics explored include, but are certainly not limited to, grief, parenting, health and wellness and relationships. Join me and explore a number of changing perspectives!