Back to School Books

It’s that time of year again…back to school. Whether your kids are back this week, next or after Labor Day, I've listed some helpful reads for both students and families. As a child and teen therapist, I work a lot with school transitions particularly big milestone transitions like kindergarten, high school, and college. Below are some of my favorite books for parents to read that talk about starting school.

Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten by Joseph Slate

First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg

Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come by Nancy Carlson

The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes and Vanessa Brantley-Newton

The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson

Also below are some of my favorite books for parents that talk about developmental milestones from childhood through adolescence.

Middle School Matters by Phyllis Fagell

Untangled by Dr. Lisa Damour

Enough As She Is by Rachel Simmons

Social Media Wellness by Ana Homayoun

If your child is struggling with a new school transition, I’d be happy to help!

Mental Health Literacy

Would you know the signs of a heart attack? Were you taught to look for chest pain or tightness, trouble breathing, pain in the arm? Chances are that yes, when it comes to health issues you are fairly literate because you’ve been educated about it. Most likely you’d see a doctor right away or at the very least talk openly about your medical condition to your partner, friend, family member.

What about mental health? Do you know the signs of depression? Do you know what to look for? Do you know that depression is NOT “just a bad day?” Would you seek out the help of a mental health professional with the same earnestness as you would a physician? What about talking with your partner, friend or family member about what you’re feeling?

According to the CDC the suicide rate for children aged 10-17 increased by 70% between 2006 and 2016. And did you know that 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselors, psychologists, nurses or social workers? To read more about that check out the research done by the ACLU here: https://www.aclu.org/issues/juvenile-justice/school-prison-pipeline/cops-and-no-counselors

How are we as educators, parents, and community members talking about mental health literacy? If someone opens up to you about their depression what do you say? Would you know the resources in the community to connect them to?

Mental health still carries a stigma because people are afraid to talk about it. They are afraid that people will see them as crazy, weak, or troubled. There are so many barriers to why people don’t seek mental health counseling- time, money, shame, previous bad experience, cultural concerns. It’s time to connect people to resources. Here are just a few ways to do so:

  1. If you don’t know the numbers for the suicide hotline in your area, then know this number for the national hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

  2. If you are an educator at a school, advocate for bathroom flyers, posters, or even student ID badges to have resource numbers for students to use

  3. Listen and empathize. I keep coming back to that video that Brene Brown posted about empathy vs. sympathy but it’s so true. Rarely do our words make someone feel better; rather it’s knowing that we see them and we care about them. Looking someone in the eye and saying, “I don’t really know what to say but I’m just so glad you told me” means more to that person than you might know.

  4. Make time. Next time someone talks about how they’re feeling don’t go with the easy way out by saying “oh i’m sure you’re just stressed” or “I bet it’ll pass.” Take the time to ask- “is there more you’d like to talk about? I’m here for you.”

Here are some resources to add to your toolbox:

http://teenmentalhealth.org

https://www.thetrevorproject.org

https://www.nami.org/

Graduation

This is for all of you graduates out there. Whether it’s high school, college, or graduate school this one is for you.

First of all, congratulations. Maybe there was a moment on your journey when you felt like you couldn’t go anymore but you pushed through it. Maybe your journey was an easy one and the next chapter is your challenge. Whatever your journey looked like I imagine there were good times and hard times, people who supported you and people who walked away, times when you believed in yourself and times when you questioned yourself.

As you approach graduation, you might feel overcome with a myriad of emotions and that’s ok. Hopefully you’ve learned that you can be proud and nostalgic, relieved and disappointed, excited and unsure. Perhaps you are stepping into the next chapter confidently but what if you’re not?

Not everyone’s journey is a straight line and yet that’s what all the Hallmark cards and social media posts lead you to believe. You move throughout your journey in your own way, trying so hard not to fall victim to the comparison trap. So how can you stay true to yourself?

Surround yourself with people who support you. Spend time with those who build you up, not bring you down.

Develop a self-care routine. Hopefully you’ve learned at least 2 strategies for self-care so as you head out on your new journey incorporate those into your schedule.

Self-reflection. Where do you feel most grounded? Is there a place or setting like being outdoors hiking where you feel centered? If so, go there and spend some time thinking about what comes next.

Take small steps. If there’s an industry or a job you want, talk with people who work there or do that job. Find out as much information as possible.

Be open. I wonder if you ask people in their 40s if their job is what they have wanted since age 6 or 16 or 26. For some people the answer might be yes and yet I think you’d be surprised to hear the stories of people who thought they were headed on one path but changed course. Perhaps it was a place, a person, or an experience that changed their course. Be open to possibilities.

Be patient and kind to yourself. Transitions are hard. Often we create expectations around what the next chapter should you look like and when those expectations aren’t met, embarrassment, disappointment, worry can all creep up.

Looking for additional support? I’d be happy to help. I work with individuals going through the college and career transition.

Broadening our Definition of Family

Yesterday I saw that Sesame Street had introduced a new character to their show, Karli. Karli is a foster child and is being raised by Clem and Dalia. Then today I came across this article in The Atlantic about this new character.

https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2019/05/sesame-street-created-foster-care-muppet/589756/?utm_content=edit-promo&utm_source=facebook&utm_campaign=the-atlantic&utm_medium=social&utm_term=2019-05-20T13%3A00%3A27

I decided to dig deeper into the world of Sesame Street by visiting the Sesame Street in Communities website found here: https://sesamestreetincommunities.org What I found on this website was a wealth of resources ranging from homelessness to trauma to big feelings.

The new addition of Karli really resonates with me because I just wrote my first picture book All Families Invited which celebrates different types of families. By using less-limiting language and by broadening our definition of family, we can help all children feel like they belong. I also resonate with these new initiatives to talk about hard topics in a developmentally appropriate way that kids can understand. Whether it’s in a picture book or on a kids show, it’s important that children are able to see characters who look like them and this might mean in terms of ability, race, family composition, etc.

Thank you Sesame Street for surfacing topics that often adults don’t want to talk about but are so important to the well-being of children.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month

There is still this vast difference between our comfort levels of talking about physical health vs. mental health. If you are on a weight loss plan, you’re telling everyone because a) you are proud of this lifestyle change, b) to help hold you accountable, or c) a combination of both. People are posting and talking about the latest cookbooks, workout venues, and weight loss regimens and yet we talk very little about how we are supporting our mental health.

So, how are you supporting your mental health? Do you get outside regularly? Do you have a group of friends that you talk to face-to-face about what’s bothering you? Do you have a counselor? Do you get enough sleep? Do you allow yourself to feel all your emotions and not label any of them as “bad?”

There’s the fascinating documentary called “Like” by IndieFlix which talks about the effects of social media. There are many poignant points that resonated with me as a child and teen counselor but one of the most important is this idea of selective posting and how it doesn’t replicate reality. Teens and adults look at social media posts and often think “that person has it all together” or “i’m the only one who _______” which can lead to further isolation. I hope you realize that people are selective in what they post and that their posts show only a snippet of who they really are.

Along the lines of social media is this idea that we, as a society, are connecting less face-to-face. So what’s the big deal? We can Face Time with our friends and family across the country and world? And yes while it’s great to see my mom’s face instead of just hearing her voice, it still doesn’t replicate the nonverbal communication that would be present in-person. I could notice if she’s fidgeting with her hands or even more important if she’s upset I could put my arm around her or give her a hug. How often do you have the opportunity to connect with someone face-to-face and feel heard? Do you have one friend, two friends, a partner, a neighbor who would sit with you and be present? I often think the urge to use social media is because we don’t know how to sit in stillness anymore with uncomfortable feelings so when we are felling sad, lonely, frustrated we mute those feelings and reach for the phone instead.

If you are looking for a counselor and don’t know where to look here are some ideas. Goodtherapy.org and Psychology Today are usually good places to start. You can narrow your focus to counselors by a zip code, speciality, insurance, etc. From there spend some time reading their bios to see if their approach would be a good fit and even better if they offer a free in-person intake. I do this as a counselor. I feel that if counseling is really going to work then both myself and my client need to feel comfortable. I invite new clients in for a 30 minute free intake so they can meet me face-to-face and learn more about my personality and approach. I would encourage you to find a counselor in your area who would do the same.

And finally, I keep coming back to that Brene Brown video on Empathy vs. Sympathy. Often if someone shares something troubling there aren’t words that will fix it and it’s not about “fixing” but rather about being seen. So next time a friend/partner/family member shares something vulnerable with you consider saying something like “I just don’t really know what to say right now but I’m so glad you told me” or “That sounds hard and I’m here if you need someone to talk to.”

All Families Invited

 
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I remember the very first book I purchased as a new school counselor. It was 2009 and I bought Enemy Pie by Derek Munson. I planned to use this book as bibliotherapy for my classroom guidance lessons on friendship. Over the course of that year and the ten years that followed, I stocked up on more children’s books that I could use to teach about certain topics- feelings, divorce, grief, bullying, acceptance, anxiety, self esteem, and so much more. I believe in the power of books as an outlet for children to relate to which is why I wrote All Families Invited.

That’s right! My very first children’s book comes out next week! All Families Invited celebrates different types of families. I read a fascinating article (https://ifstudies.org/blog/1-in-2-a-new-estimate-of-the-share-of-children-being-raised-by-married-parents) that said based upon 2016 data collected by a National Household Education Survey that only 50% of high school seniors live at home with married, birth parents. Of course, I’ve seen this shift in demographics in the ten years I worked as a school counselor and yet I am often surprised by the limiting language that is often used by schools such as “father-daughter” dances or “mother-son” breakfasts.

The premise behind my book is not to diminish the relationship between a father and daughter but rather to open the door for more inclusive language for children whose bonds are with someone other than “dad” or “mom.” Someone might ask, “so what’s the big deal? it’s just the name of a dance,” to which I would respond “yes, and if the name really isn’t important than why not change it something more inclusive?” I would guess that many schools who have designated dances as mentioned above would certainly be okay if a student whose family composition is different were to bring grandpa or a stepdad but what adults often fail to understand is that children are the ones left explaining their situation. “Are you bringing your dad to the dance next week?” asks one child. “No, I’m bringing my uncle,” responds another child. Developmentally children are curious right? Why is the favorite question a young child likes to ask so in this scenario imagine these are the why questions? “Why aren’t you bringing your dad?” “Why doesn’t your dad live with you?” “Why did your parents get divorced?”

I believe so much in the power of role models and for many children it is their mother and father but that’s not necessarily true for all children and as the above referenced study mentions just because a child lives at home with two married birth parents in second grade doesn’t mean that his family composition will be the same as a senior in high school. There are many reasons to account for the differences and it’s important for adults in school communities to be mindful of the changing family structures and work to create more inclusive language.

Where can you purchase my book?

It’s available online at Amazon AND if you have a favorite independent bookstore like I do, they should be able to order you a copy even if they don’t carry it on their shelves. Just ask!


Shy or Highly Sensitive?

I recently read The Highly Sensitive Child by Dr. Elaine Aron. Before the book begins, there is a survey for parents to answer “True” or “False” to characteristics of their child. Some of the statements on the survey include:

  • startles easily

  • doesn’t enjoy big surprises

  • seems very intuitive

  • doesn’t do well with big changes

  • prefers quiet play

  • feels deeply

  • notices subtleties (something's been moved, a person looks differently, etc)

I think what fascinated me the most about this book is how often the term “shy” gets thrown around when actually, based upon the research Dr. Aron writes, the child is highly sensitive. Since I work with school-aged children I thought I’d describe how a typical school day might affect a highly sensitive child.

First, for parents of kindergarteners I bet you can attest to the transition period that happened during the first days, weeks, and even months of school. Transitions are hard for kiddos in general; they thrive on routine but especially hard for highly sensitive children who need to know what to expect. Showing your child the setting ahead of time is incredibly helpful. This is why most schools offer back-to-school days for students and families to walk around the school, see where classrooms are, where the lunch room is, etc. If your child takes the bus helping them know where they’ll get dropped off at school and where to catch the bus are important transitions as well.

Second, the classroom can sometimes be overstimulating for highly sensitive children. Working with your child’s teacher to help identify ways to self-regulate during overstimulation times is important. Many teachers have reading nooks or sensory corners where children can take breaks and over time develop strategies to regulate their emotions.

And the last point I wanted to share is about naming emotions and normalizing them. If you bring your child to a classmate’s birthday party at a jump house and notice tears, name that feeling. “It seems like you’re feeling scared. It’s okay to feel scared when you’ve never been in a jump house before. I know that sometimes I feel scared the first time I do something new.” In this example, you might also add a recommendation that Dr. Aron talks about which is tapping into a familiar experience. “This is your first time going to a jump house but you’ve been on a trampoline before at Sam'’s house and I remember at first you felt nervous but then you found it fun.”

I’d be happy to connect you with other resources or talk with you further about school transitions. And for parents of high schoolers, college is a big transition too and I do a lot of work with students preparing for that transition.

My Letter to College Admissions Officers

The recent college admissions scandal has generated lots of discussion. I chose to focus on the point that I know best as a mental health counselor- this process is taking a toll on students’ mental health.

Dear College Admissions Officers:

I write this letter from the perspective of someone who works with lots of high school students and sees how your acceptance process leaves students perplexed at best and suicidal at worst. I started undergrad 18 years ago and sure there were times when I felt frustrated during the process but I still got to be a teenager. In my downtime I’d listen to Jewel’s latest album, go to movies with my friends, and watch Dawson’s Creek. My admissions experience was quite a simple one because of the privilege I was afforded. So why am I concerned?

I am concerned for the mental health of our students. Do you know that the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision making, planning, and judgement, starts developing at age twelve and isn’t fully formed until mid-late twenties? The excessive scheduling of sports, music lessons, and tutoring means either a still-functioning teenage brain has to manage that OR a parent steps in. When I was in high school, the “talk” was to find something you’re good at. I liked writing so I did that and I also liked helping people so I volunteered at the hospital after school. Now, it’s simply not good enough to have one thing you’re good at, you must have many. You must be popular but kind, athletic but well-rounded, make good grades but also volunteer and if you’ve already founded your own nonprofit or learned four languages then WOW! Is that picture that I just described really attainable? Where is there time in that picture for self-care? For the recommended 8-9 hours of sleep? For time to connect with friends and family that doesn’t involve a screen? 

I don’t know if you realize this but the competitive nature of college admissions means that students now associate asking for help with failure and struggling with a mental illness as a sign of weakness. When I missed school because I was sick, I’d call up my friend on her land line and asked her if I could I borrow the notes that I missed in class. During 11th grade, two of my closest friends tutored me in calculus because I was so confused. Do you think that same mentality happens now? Sometimes yes, but I think you would be shocked to hear that students don’t share their notes now because “tough luck that person was sick. They should’ve stuck it out like I did.” Can you imagine how it feels to be struggling with depression and feel totally alone because society tells you it’s a weakness? Don’t you think that everyone would benefit if there wasn’t this mentality of “taking away from me in order to give to someone else?” 

Not that you’ve asked but I’d love to offer you some possible essay topics for those applications of yours. 

·     What do you do for self-care?

·     What would you give up for someone else?

·     If a camera crew followed you around all day, would they see that you are the bully, the bullied, or a bystander? If you are a bystander, would they see you stand up for the kid who’s bullied or turn away and act as if nothing happened because it doesn’t affect you directly?

If you ever want to trade places for a day, give me a call. I think you’ll find the issues facing teens today very eye opening.

Teaching about Mistakes

I often have parents of young children ask me how to talk about mistakes in a way that is developmentally appropriate. I wanted to share two of my favorite children’s books.

First up- Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg. This creative board book helps children see that a bent piece of paper can be something to celebrate because the bent corner is actually the beak of a penguin. It’s colorful design and three-dimensional aspect makes it a fun book to explore with children.

Then there’s The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken which looks at how an artistic imperfection can spark inspiration. It’s beautifully illustrated and will resonate with any child (or parent) who has experienced a meltdown when drawing. “I didn’t want that circle to look that way,” can lead to tears but Luyken helps kids understand that the circle can be easily turned into something different.

And finally a great read for supportive adults is The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. Her book encourages parents to let their children experience failure so then they can problem solve for themselves solutions. Here’s an article about Lahey’s book written by Julie Lythcott-Haims author of How to Raise an Adult:

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/23/books/review/the-gift-of-failure-by-jessica-lahey.html

What does a healthy relationship look like?

Our teens learn about relationships from what they see around them which includes adults in their lives as well as through the media. Too often, movies and shows portray love in a way that is unhealthy. So what does a healthy relationship look like? To answer that question, I’ve turned to one of my favorite resources, One Love Foundation. Here are their 10 signs of a healthy relationship:

-Comfortable pace

-Trust

-Honesty

-Independence

-Respect

-Equality

-Compassion

-Taking Responsibility

-Loyalty

-Communication

For more information, check out the great resources listed on their website here: https://www.joinonelove.org/signs-healthy-relationship/