Teacher and pupils
Don Laird

Back to School: A Mental-Health Check List

It’s that time of the year again. When a simple three-word phrase evokes dread for most school-age kids and relief for most parents: “Back to School.” Yet, ask any parent, child or teacher, heading back to the classroom is not without its challenges. It can be an exceptionally difficult time of transition for children who suffer from a mental health or learning issue.

Anxietyespecially unrealistic self-expectations and generalized fear of the world at largeis growing among school-aged children and adolescents these days. Potential root causes for this are both broad and complex, and worthy of a separate, stand-alone article. So returning to school can be an enormously challenging task for any child. Let alone one who struggles with anxiety.

Let’s look at it through a practical lens. Children are away from home and routine, and the rules have changed. The school environment requires certain demands that a typical summer setting does not. Summer rarely needs a child to sit still, stay organized, remain focused and on task and adapt to an extremely structured schedule.

Here are five things you should keep in mind before the first homeroom bell rings:

  1. Anxious Parents, Anxious Kids.

Modeling confidence and calm behaviors are central to most parenting situations, particularly when preparing a child ready for school. By fostering structure and daily routine in family life (bedtime, homework, etc), parents will find this transition period to be much smoother. Giving your kids too many choices about routine can backfire and ultimately put them in the seat of control. Remember, you are the parent.

Anxiety issues and traits can run in families. Children with anxious parents run a greater risk of experiencing anxiety themselves. It is still debatable (just read all the conflicting studies when you are having trouble sleeping) as to whether it is genetics, environment, both or something else, but there is no smoking gun when it comes to the root sources for anxiety.  Yet, it is quite observable that children – and most adults – can be like energy sponges, absorbing energy and assimilating behaviors. Remember, a child is usually no calmer than his or her least-relaxed parent. Anxiety can impact someone’s ability to focus, stay on task and is generally categorized by a state of unrealistic and persistent worry.

Sometimes it can be difficult to vet between what is age-appropriate behaviors and anxiety, but if you have concerns you should first discuss these with your child’s teacher and then a mental health professional should the behaviors continue to escalate.

  1. Teachers Can Be Your Best Ally.

Teachers get to know how a child behaves without family being present. Thus, parents can gain information about learning difficulties and peer problems and friendships. Teachers are your closest allies when it comes to your child’s success in school, and you should talk to them regularly. You will learn more about how your child is navigating his or her world, both academically and socially, by talking with the teacher.

  1. Routines Are Crucial.

Above all, be positive and encouraging. Examples of some good routines might include creating an uncluttered work space in the home; organizing a backpack, reviewing assignments; and discussing homework. You can observe your child’s strengths and weaknesses this way while also establishing and fostering good study habits. Also, be sure that your child is staying hydrated with lots of water and has the recommended amount of sleep for his or her age group.

  1. Don’t Worry.

Kids grow, learn and develop at different rates. A delay in one area of development doesn’t necessarily mean your child has a disorder. There needs to be significant evidence and some testing to reach any firm conclusion. However, if you suspect there might be a problem with your child’s development, talk to her teacher and consult with a mental health professional.

  1. Leave Them Alone.

This may sound counterproductive or even counter intuitive, but a child needs downtime. A schedule that is bursting at the seams, with little or no room for relaxation is also ripe for an anxious or depressed child. Give them time. Life is short, sometimes hard. Don’t unpack your stuff on that person who happens to be your child. Give them breathing room, and let them find out that the world can be a secure and inviting place without regimented schedules.

If you would like to continue the conversation or discuss more techniques to overcoming anxiety, contact me to schedule an appointment or free phone consultation today.

In Good Health,
Don

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Don Laird

How Healthy Is Your Relationship?

By Don Laird, NCC, LPC, DCC

As a therapist and relationship coach, I all too often watch couples fighting against their relationship instead of for it. The reality is we often fall short when trying to communicate our needs and wants to others. Instead, couples waste energy and time focused on each other’s flaws rather than ways they can repair or foster their relationship. Indeed, if you are waiting for the other person to change then you better pull up a chair, grab a snack and settle in for a very long wait. Rather than giving up on your relationship, why not focus your time and energy on getting it back on track by trying something different?

If you don’t take some new and different approach on your own behalf, no one else will. For example, instead of pointing out your significant other’s flaws, why not try some positive reinforcement? Highlight your partner’s positive qualities and things you appreciate about them. It’s not a way to avoid issues in your relationship, but an effective way of starting the healing process. Keep this thought in mind, “Change begins with me.

Here a few key items to try when working on your relationship:       

  1. Remain present and focused: Don’t allow your emotions to steer the ship. Above all, avoid name-calling and personal attacks. Remember anger is a symptom of hurt, fear, and frustration. It’s never about the dishes or trash or being late. It’s about being heard and understood. Do healthy things to deal with your anger such as physical exercise, yoga, creative endeavors, or meditation.
  2. Don’t blame your partner: Concern is fine, but criticism is damaging to a relationship. It’s okay to express a specific complaint such as, “I was worried when I couldn’t reach you by phone and it was getting so late. We had agreed to contact each other if one of us was running late.”  Verses “You never call or text me, you’re always so selfish and uncaring.”  Also, using the word “I” is much more effective than using the word “You.” It’s about communicating what you need versus what you don’t need in your relationship. This is a great first step toward a healthier partnership.
  3. Unplug: Look at your partner, not your phone or other devices. The table and bed should always be device free areas. In fact, your bedroom is designed for two things: sleep and sex. So check your devices at the door. Try new activities that you both find interesting and pleasurable. You fell in love with this person without the device, why allow it to divide you when you could be using that time to strengthen your bond?
  4. Increase touch: Studies show that physical contact always helps in a relationship. Holding hands, hugging and touching can release chemicals in the body that cause us to be calmer, connected, and more attentive. Whether through touching or the act of sex, physical affection also reduces stress hormones – such as cortisol.
  5. Compliment your partner: Express your positive feelings out loud every day and say something kind about your partner. Don’t reserve these niceties exclusively for birthdays, anniversaries or holidays. Practice flirting with your partner. Let them know that you desire them through both your words and actions.
  6. Be vulnerable: In other words, don’t hold your hurt inside. Be open about your thoughts, feelings, and wishes in a respectful and constructive way. Resentment and frustration build when couples avoid communicating, so don’t bury those negative feelings. Make sure to use those “I” statements and not the “You” word.
  7. Take responsibility:  The old saying holds true, real change starts with you. Own your feelings without pointing out your partner’s flaws or going on the attack. To be ready for love you must become the person you want your partner to be.

Most importantly, do your best to remember why you fell in love with your partner. Instead of focusing on her or his flaws when you have an argument, examine your own words; check your own body language. Focus on repairing hurt feelings and creating a relationship worth being in. Breaking the cycle of an unhappy relationship requires you to make a shift in your mindset. It starts with you.

If you would like to continue the conversation about your relationship or marriage contact me to schedule an appointment or free phone consultation today.

In Good Health,
Don

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Don Laird

Boosting self esteem and body image in boys

By Don Laird, NCC, LPC, DCC

The phrase “poor body image” is typically thought to be a term exclusive to women or adolescent girls. However, in recent years we have seen a growing number of adolescent boys and even adult men reporting poor body image. How can you help teenage boys develop a positive outlook with the way they feel about their physical appearance?

Talk about it. Don’t pretend as though he’s just “going through a phase.”

The effects of poor body image among boys tend to be internal and are usually associated with reduced confidence and low self-esteem. Poor body image is often much more difficult to identify in boys than in girls. Teenage boys’ issues are usually not physically apparent or outwardly excessive, although some may engage in extreme exercise and/or develop an eating disorder.

If you suspect a problem, ask questions. Then be patient and listen without judgment, criticism or using minimizing statements such as, “You just need to stop always comparing yourself to other people,” or worse “Be a man and suck it up.”

Indicators of a poor body image in adolescent boys are often subtle and may include:

  • Unrealistic expectations for body type.
  • Excessively conforming to others expectations.
  • Having low energy.
  • Poor diet.
  • Becoming withdrawn or demonstrating a low mood for an extended period of time.

Model healthy behaviors. We’re all in this together.

Kids and teens gain knowledge from their surroundings. They observe much more than we give them credit. Consequently, make every attempt to model healthy behavior by eating a balanced diet and making those foods available to your kids. They may not want or like them, but you are setting the bar for how they forge their relationship with food and themselves. In addition to focusing on his nutrition and physical activity, pay attention to his exposure to media.

Just like girls and women, the media exposes boys to continuous messages about an ideal body image. During the teenage years, this can be damaging because teen boys are undergoing dramatic body changes. They are vulnerable to holding themselves to unrealistic standards and often feel bad about who they are because of what they look like. Obviously there is no way to escape all media influence, but you can engage your children by teaching critical thinking skills without passing judgment on them or others.

Talk with your son’s doctor or a professional counselor.

If in doubt, or if you notice your son is growing more obsessed with body image, talk with your teen’s doctor about your concerns. He or she can discuss these issues with your son, such as what is the meaning of body image, proper nutrition and skin care, and what should his expectations be for himself.

In Good Health,
Don

eTalkTherapy - talk with a counselor online
Don Laird

31 Days of Change

by Don Laird, NCC, LPC, DCC

Ah, keeping our New Year’s Resolutions. We all talk a good game, but by the second or third week of January it all quickly goes downhill. So, what are your obstacles? How many of them are self-imposed? Are you better at making excuses than creating solutions? You’re not alone. Research demonstrates that most people fail to keep New Year Resolutions. Perhaps this year you can take a different approach.

Commitment is a choice. The moment you allow an excuse to become an obstacle is the moment you rob yourself of choice. And a life without choice is not really worth living. Rather than set some lofty resolutions, plan to use each day of January to think about and implement one lifestyle change that is realistic and obtainable. Meeting a goal, even a simple one, requires a major mind shift. Take a look below at my plan for the first 31 days of 2019. Perhaps some of my goals match yours? Join me. Email me at etalktherapy@gmail.com to let me know how you are doing throughout 2019 with keeping your resolutions. If some of my ideas don’t fit, then tweak them to suit your lifestyle. Keep them moving forward and never allow them to be far from your daily routine. Remember, most obstacles are self-imposed.  You have only yourself to blame if you can’t follow through.

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Download the 31 Days of Change Calendar and best of luck!! Happy 2019!! Feel free to drop me an email if you need clarification on any of these resolutions or goals. If you wish to explore or tend to your mental health needs in 2019, please reach out to me through email, phone or this website.

In good health,
Don

Don Laird

You Will Be Visited By Three Spirits

 

An Existential Yuletide Greeting
by Don Laird, NCC, LPC, DCC

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Illustration by Harry Furniss

“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they the shadows of things that May be, only?”

Scrooge. A word synonymous with images of a bitter, elderly man concerned more with greed than humanity; a cultural archetype of someone wanting nothing further to do with his species and one who has no use for words like “compassion” or “care.” Yet, on closer examination, Scrooge’s story reveals some remarkable insights for our modern times. There are facets to his narrative that are ostensibly universal, a playful commentary on the mores of the time, but he is more relevant today than ever.

On its surface, Dickens’ Victorian yarn can be simply read as “Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.” However, there is much at stake for us in this tale. And so, it is in the spirit of the season, and in this brief blog format, I assert to you that Charles Dickens’ seminal 1843 work A Christmas Carol remains one of the finest examples of existential psychotherapy ever written (albeit in fictional form). The tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge opens a time and space for self-reflection for those who want to examine life in a meaningful and in-depth fashion. This is not about instant transformation for the client, positive psychology to sooth the therapist’s fears, or worse, wishful thinking from both parties. It is an existential crisis that is illuminated by one of the key tenets of psychotherapy – fear of death.

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Illustration by Harry Furniss

We all know the story, so it is here that I wish to briefly highlight the other side of Scrooge. No one arrives at a certain age without a back story and Scrooge’s history is one filled with disappointment and neglect. He is an ignored and isolated child abandoned even at Christmas. Scrooge knows pain all too well at an early age, and the world and its inhabitants are not to be trusted. People, above all, should be shunned. They are to be feared as they need and require emotional attachment and engagement. These qualities are easily dismissed by a young man whose growing trust in currency and greed will eclipse his life for years.

In the beginning of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge exemplifies one of the central canons of existential depression and anxiety, that one has always been this way, and one always will be. There is a loss of agency and caustic determinism quickly fills in this void. When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come points at the tombstone, Scrooge understands for the first time that life can be written differently: what seems to be etched in stone isn’t. The specter’s message is powerful; an opportunity for Scrooge to see what life on earth would be like after his death. Scrooge observes his own forgotten corpse as his peers minimize his demise. He watches in horror as strangers quickly sell his belongings, while mocking his death with no regard or mercy. In death, he can no longer be an agent of change. He is a spectator to a cruel and vicious world he created.  Yet all Three Spirits show him that he was and is agent of change as long as he is alive. It is through an encounter with one’s mortality that a fuller life may occur – to know death is to know life. Scrooge accepts the significance of death, so that he may live his final months and years embraced in the richness of his relationships with others.

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Illustration by Harry Furniss

Death anxiety is real; despite those in modern psychology who often relegate the subject of death to the closet of “let’s not go there unless we have to” (even by some seasoned practitioners who should know better). In short, beware the therapist who professes that the exploration of death anxiety is not particularly helpful in therapy. Yes, therapists can spend far too much time focusing on one area while neglecting another. It happens. Not every therapist is well-rounded enough to create a new therapy for each of her or his clients. However, that shouldn’t allow for a wave of “positivity” to sweep us away from Otto Rank’s maxim, “Some refuse the loan of life to avoid the debt of death.” Exploration of death and dying serves as a profound catalyst toward some remarkable life changes. It is the confluence of both past, present and future; an investigation of life by way of an awareness and acknowledgement of our finite time here on Earth. In this way, we are all a reflection of Dicken’s vision.

Thus, A Christmas Carol calls us to embrace some definitive questions, “How would the world be different if I were to die today?” and “Do I ever have a true sense of how many lives I’ve touched?” Scrooge’s story may, in fact, provide the answers. Our relationships with others are so intrinsic that our absence creates an entirely different existence – a ghostly existential vacuum, if you will.

In the Victorian era, people saw ghosts and had premonitions. It was a system of supernatural beliefs that was not uncommon. Freud came along and said that this was the result of repressed memories. The dead were reduced to misleading or damaged recollections that resulted in certain beliefs and behaviors. Ghosts haunted the mind, not the house. Yet, there is something within Scrooge’s narrative that calls to us, pushes us beyond cause and effect, beyond determinism, and reminds us that we can be responsible and compassionate with our life choices and that no person is indeed an island.

Be well, and remember to keep the spirit of this season in your heart today and throughout the year.

In good health,
Don

Photos courtesy http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/furniss/xmas.html#cc