Category Archives: Fighting Stress

Talking about Those Winter Blues

Does your child's mood affect everyone in the home?
Does your child’s mood affect everyone in the home?

It is the season of the blues. Whether it is caused by lack of sunlight, too little outdoor time or post-holiday season let-down, many people are starting to feel down in the dumps – right about now. It’s not just adults, but kids too. In fact, kids can begin to feel particularly edgy as winter progresses. There may be lots of reasons for that, but I want to look at how a child’s mood can affect your mood as a parent.
Parents are like most other adults: they are subject to bouts of happiness or sadness, euphoria or depression, optimism or despondency. However unlike adults without children, parents are more likely to feel these emotions based on how their children are feeling.

As the expression goes, ‘you are only as happy as your least happy child.’

When your child is struggling, it’s hard to not let it get you down.  It’s only natural to be upset by seeing the challenges that your atypical child encounters daily.  But if you let it affect your mood, then you can’t help your child regulate his or her moods, right? Grouchy kid, grouchy mom? Not a good combination.  You have to be at your best,  so that you can help your child learn how to regulate their moods and their mental outlook.  We naturally help children self regulate; one way is by  modeling encouraging self talk:  “you can do it!” or “it’s going to be ok, just relax”, or “it will only hurt for a minute, you can handle it”, these are important prompts to help encourage kids to model appropriate reactions.

But what happens when your mood becomes so submerged with your child’s mood   that you can’t distinguish your bad mood from their bad mood? Does this mean that your own mood regulator is broken or simply you have lost the divider between what is your own mood and your child’s mood?

Separating your mood state from that of your child is important. Adults often submerge their individual identities as they raise children, they become “a family 24/7” rather than an individual in a family. This is partially a normal response but it can go too far.

Here is an example: you are on a double date with another couple and you haven’t  been out with adult company for months.  You want to enjoy yourself but you can’t because you keep remembering your child’s morose face when you left and you keep ruminating on how much homework he has and wondering if he is able to do it without you and if she was able to eat dinner without you monitoring and if they are going to get to bed, it’s a school night and they can’t be tired tomorrow morning…….and on your brain runs, unable to enjoy your adult company and special time away from your kids.

Because what happens next is that when your kid has a bad day, your mood plummets like a stone down the well. When your mood becomes dependent on whether or not Timmy has had a good day or bad day, you lose the ability to be the anchor to the family instead of a reactor. And atypical children often have moods that need to be managed, not reacted to.

Parents, work on your mood tune-up!

It is important that parents find their emotional set-point apart from how their children are doing. That way, you remember that you are still YOU, and not just your kid’s mother or father.  This will come in handy both in helping your child self regulate as well as keeping you with one foot firmly planted in your individual life as a grown up person.

5 Quick and Easy Mood Tune-Up Tips

1. Listen to a happy tune:  Research has shown that people who listen to cheerful music can improve their mood.  Listening to music actually improves people’s moods  so turn that radio dial to a happy music station!

2. Smile:  the physical act of smiling has also been shown to improve mood.  Even fake smiles reduce stress. Studies by Paul Eckman and other researchers has shown that smilers exhibited lower heart rate levels after a stressful activity than non-smilers. So even if you aren’t feelin it, paste that smile on your face!

3. Do good:  do something good for someone else. Even a small gesture, such as giving a coin to a homeless person has been shown to lift a person’s mood.  Try it for yourself and see.

4. Do good for yourself: when is the last time you took a moment to treat yourself?  No, I don’t mean that bag of chocolate chip cookies. Maybe invite a friend out for coffee or excuse yourself after dinner to go for a long walk. Alone.

 5. Shake it up: exercise raises your natural endorphin levels.  The link between exercise and mood is well researched. Studies show that within five minutes after moderate moving produce a better mood.  Too cold to go outside? Turn up the radio and dance! Even for a few minutes will raise the mood barometer.

The Best Gift of All

Courtesy of Ikar, Los Angeles
Courtesy of Ikar, Los Angeles


Now that the gifts are unpacked and family celebrations are winding down, is it possible to include an often overlooked dimension to this winter season?

This might be the right time to introduce to your child an extra awareness of the world around us and to cultivate your own version of spirituality.  Recent research has found that children who are more spiritual are happier – and healthier.  This doesn’t necessarily mean typical religious practices but the research included qualities such as a child’s sense of personal meaning and their sense of basic values as kindness towards others, altruism, meaningful relationships and volunteering.  All of these things, the research found, were associated with a spiritual life and ‘enhanced well being.’

It is often said that children are more open to spirituality than adults who have become hurried, cynical or just too busy to consider adding a spiritual dimension to the day.  But children also need to be exposed to the possibility of expanding their consciousness outward, not just downward into the face of an ipad tablet, but outward to notice the gifts of nature and the wonder of living a life that transcends the material world.

When we elevate our children’s sense of wonder, we also open the possibility of having a child who just might be more contented, less hyperactive and more open to other types of  thinking that is not found automatically from living in the grind of the daily routine or found on TV.

Children who are atypical are often more vulnerable to the commercial influence of the shopping ‘gotta have it’ culture.  And parents of atypical kids are more stressed, and more invested in trying to make their children happy so they also may buy into the culture of ‘more’ while forgetting that there is another side to life.

Yet, just as spirituality is good for kids, it is also good for you, the parent. Even the most secular and least religiously affiliated parent can consider the possibility of connecting children to forces outside their own sense of self.  When we experience living as connected to the world as a whole, rather than the “me-me-me dimension” ,  lives become enriched.  Consider, for example, how you might feel after a morning volunteering at a homeless shelter rather than another trip to the local mall?

Providing perspective on life is important, especially for atypical children who are struggling in their own way and are confronted with a great deal of inner stress.  In this season of wonder and change for the new year, consider the possibility of adding an extra dimension to your life as well as that of your children.

5 tips to cultivating spirituality in yourself and in your children.

  1. Gratitude –   give thanks before you eat, not just for the food but for everything that allowed the meal to get to the table.  The farmer, the store, the truck that brought the food and the blessing of being in a country that has food in abundance. Get in the habit of pointing out your blessings, from the big things to the little things we all take for granted.  Children will learn what they see, and gratitude will help a child be more sensitive and appreciative.
  2. Practice wonder – a mindful contemplation.  Experiment with having a moment of silence and pay attention to how you are feeling.  Do this with your children.  Report to each other how it felt to be silent and what you were thinking and feeling.  You can do this before before bedtime, including breathing and stillness as a practice.
  3. Helping others – practicing kindness and giving are experiences that children can learn to model.  Volunteer as a family or just perform random acts of kindness, such as helping an older person open the door or take their groceries to the car for them.  It can open conversations for children that would not occur otherwise.
  4. Connect with nature – consider spending your evening with a contemplative walk outside and appreciating the stars.  Experience along with your child  a walk in the forest or a picnic at the beach. Take the time to look at the shore, the waves and the sky and point out details that might get overlooked. Consider the snowflakes as being unique and draw parallels to your unique child.  By having these conversations, you are exercising your child’s ‘spiritual muscle’ and are building more calm and resilient children as well enriching your self.
  5. Provide a spiritual role model – If you don’t feel like you can be a positive spiritual role model, try to find one for your child.  This will help your child connect outward and learn from others a more purposeful and positive outlook.

For more information on building spirituality in children, visit these websites:

Who Are You Going to Call at 3 a.m.?

8184302_s (1)As a parent of a special needs kid, your brain often runs on overdrive. During your busy days of getting kids up and going; getting yourself to work; shopping and meal planning; getting your kids through a seemingly exhausting day of school, therapies and homework, and taking care of household chores before falling into bed, your mind is often in autopilot mode, just active enough to get all your jobs done. For many parents, falling asleep is easy, you’re too tired to stay awake for another moment.

It’s not until 2 or 3 a.m. that your worry brain decides to rev up, your eyes pop open, staring at the ceiling in the dark, your thoughts running a mile a minute.

F. Scott Fitzgerald described this phenomenon in The Crack-Up: “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.”

Why We Worry at Night

Scientists still haven’t come up with a solid answer for why we wake up in the wee hours and paint our worries on the dark bedroom ceiling. One explanation is that when we relax at night, the defense mechanisms that shield us from worrying, unhealthy thoughts are also lulled to sleep. This leaves our “worry brain” free to roam.

Another possible explanation is that, because the distractions of busy everyday life are silenced in the middle of the night, our mind has time to run an inventory of all the problems that need attention. In parents of atypical kids who are already anxious, these feelings become more exaggerated during the middle of the night. The quiet isolation and lack of distractions – 2 things you long for during the day – become your enemy at 3 am, as you long for the peace of restful slumber but for your busy mind reminding you of your worst worries, most pressing problems as well as irrational problems.

And what do we worry about? The wellbeing of our kids, first and foremost. This is especially true for parents of special needs kids.  Sleep is important. Fatigue and lack of sleep in parents has recently been identified as a key factor to lowered parenting efficacy and satisfaction.

One parent of two children — one with a life-threatening illness and the other with high-functioning autism — noted that she worries more about her child with autism in the middle of the night. Will he be okay at sleepaway camp? Will the bullies leave him alone? How will he ever grow up, grow away, and live independently? When will he discover girls? Will he go to college?

These are just a few worries of one mom. I’m sure they sound familiar to many parents reading this. During the day, there are a variety of strategies you can implement to help cope with your worries about your child. You can call a friend, arrange an appointment with your child’s therapist, talk to your own counselor, go for a long walk or just veg in front of your favorite TV show. But lying in bed in a dark room, your worries can seem insurmountable, inescapable and even propel some people into panic. Middle of the night panic disorders are not uncommon in people who are already prone to anxiety.

5 tips to handle your middle of the night worries:

1. Prepare for sleep:

Falling into bed mindlessly may be the most common temptation when you have finally done the majority of your to-do list for that day. Don’t do it. Instead, prepare a bedtime ritual that will soothe you and ground your mind and body to ensure a more long lasting sleep. A warm bath, a cup of camomile tea, a cuddle session with your pup or loving partner. Be sure to give yourself a mental hug for making it through another very busy day. Feel as if you didn’t do enough? Remember Scarlett Ohara’s words: “Tomorrow is another day.”

2. Gentle stretches before bed:

Chances are, you didn’t get a chance to take good enough care of your body in your busy day. Gentle pre-bedtime stretches such as child’s pose, gentle seated twists, or legs up the wall will allow you to re-center yourself back in your body. Note the emphasis on the word ‘gentle’. This is not the time to think about how you need to get more aerobic exercise or why you can’t seem to do the splits like you used to. Take it easy and ease your mind back into your body with some gentle releasing moves.

3. Worry Diary:

If you can’t remember your 3 a.m. worries in the warm light of day, keep a worry journal next to your bed. When a worry pops into your head, write it down. Look at your worry journal during the day, and you’ll find they won’t seem so bad. You might be surprised at how much relief this simple exercise can bring.

4. Practice gratitude and compassion

As you prepare to go to sleep, take a few moments to review your day. Breathe deeply and feel gratitude for another day accomplished. Ask yourself, what is one thing that happened today that you are particularly happy or grateful about? Take a few moments to become aware of how that feels. Think about your child. Is there one thing that he or she did today that was growth or was it a difficult day? Remember to feel compassionate for yourself in this moment, shouldering the burden of taking care of this magical child with both good days and harder days. Tell yourself that tomorrow will be a new day and if you can, try to imagine putting your worries to bed on a shelf across the room. Remind yourself that those worries can be picked back up in the morning if you choose but now your mind is going off duty. Finish your meditation with a few slow deep breaths as you attempt to empty out your mind and prepare for sleep.

5. What to do in the middle of the night:

Avoid going to your phone or tablet.  Don’t turn on any electronics because the blue spectrum light emitted from such objects is know to impede sleep.  Instead, get up and walk around the house. Fix yourself a soothing cup of warm milk or a bite of a banana.  Prepare to go back to bed, most people will fall asleep again within the hour.

If you feel comfortable, share some of your worries in the comments below. In future posts, I’ll try to address some of these worries so your pre-alarm-clock hours become more calm and restful.

Until then, sleep well!