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When is a Stress Toy Helpful?

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kid playing with fidget spinner

A few years ago fidget spinners became insanely popular with kids and were suddenly widely available at the check out of almost every store. They also became one of the most frequently confiscated, and even banned items by teachers. Does this mean fidget toys are bad? Not at all. There are a few key considerations, however, in choosing an effective and appropriate stress toy or fidget.

First of all, stress toys and fidgets have different purposes and audiences.

Stress Toys

  • A stress toy is meant to channel nervous energy and provide emotional relief through physical release
  • Learning style is not a significant factor

Fidgets

  • A fidget is meant for kinesthetic/tactile learners. It helps release a surplus of physical energy so the child can better focus
  • Stress is not a significant factor

Some kids are very tactile learners and find it hard to concentrate without moving. Physical touch and activity helps them process their thinking. So the first consideration, is ‘does that sound like your child?’ Do they actually learn better when moving/doing? If so, a fidget may benefit them and anyone who shared space with them in a classroom.

How do I know it’s a good fidget?

  • A good fidget allows a child to channel the excess physical energy into the toy so they don’t do something that distracts others or themselves (clapping, tipping back on their chairs)
  • Is focussed on the sense of touch
    • It does not make noise
    • It is not visually distracting
    • Does not become a ‘multi-player’ game
  • It does provide appealing fine motor movement (rolling, twisting, squishing)

Some examples of tactile based toys and devices

  • Yoga ball instead of a chair (again, this depends on how it is used. I personally cannot be trusted with anything that bounces. They do have yoga ball holders which can help)
  • Rings or bracelets that can be easily rotated, twisted or shifted from finger to finger
  • Twiddle muffs (fit on your wrist and have different things to pull, twist and press)

What makes a good stress toy?

A good stress toy allows the user to channel frustration and anxiety in an unobtrusive way. A fidget is mainly to focus that sensation of touch. A stress toy should require a degree of physical effort.

  • A squishy ball that requires some force to compress
    • A blob of plasticine in a ziplock works well
    • Try putting sand in a deflated balloon for a similar effect

Context is everything

Tactile learners will always need to work in movement and/or physical touch to help them learn. If they are not in a classroom/audience situation, they can make as much noise and move around without distracting anyone else. For some kids, taking time on their own to work off stress physically (going for a walk, run, playing a sport, creating something, or working on a zen tangle) will be better than just the stress toy. The trick is finding something that will help them get through situations where they are not as free to choose.

  • Talk to your child and your child’s teacher about their needs and what has worked or not worked in the past
  • Put the onus on them to test out different strategies and report back

How Kids Can Push Back When Faced with Social Isolation

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kid shrugging off friends

One of the most common and ugly social scenarios I see at the tween stage is the use of isolation as a form of social control. One person (sometimes more than one) is targeted as a scapegoat by the group and is ignored, left out, and often the subject of rumours and online harassment. This seems to be more prevalent in girl friendship groups, but it can certainly happen with boys and even mixed groups. If this is feeling really familiar, let me plug a useful book Queen Bees and Wannabees by Rosalind Wiseman.

It is worth noting that in an isolation situation, the majority of ‘players’ are not either the direct target or the instigator. They become involved as a peer pressure ‘helper’. While kids often feel like they don’t have choices, this position offers them more control than they realize. They just need to take time to break down what is happening.

Breaking it Down

A couple of weeks ago, I was working with one of my groups on identifying different ways people try to control one another. This is what they came up with:

  • Persuasive reasoning/logic
  • Setting an example
  • Bribery
  • Threat/blackmail
  • Isolation/ignoring
  • Peer pressure based on multiple versus one, or social status

Next, we listed some of the more common and problematic situations where they have either used or had one of the aforementioned strategies used on them.

  • Being told by a friend not to be friends with someone
  • The larger group has decided to do something and you will be the odd one out if you don’t go along
  • Overtly or implicitly threatened that you will either share a consequence/be blamed or become the next target if you don’t do something
  • Passing a rumour that you have either started, or embellished
  • Passing on an unsubstantiated rumour that you heard

Never underestimate the power of simply breaking something down into pieces and looking at it. Having 2 lists meant that brainstorming strategies were a lot easier to tackle than we initially thought.

Pushing Back

Planning and practicing strategies to deal with tough social situations, when they have a bit of emotional distance is so important. They all agreed that the ideal is to stand by what you truly believe. Be direct and logical. For a lot of kids, however, that this is not always realistic. Social status means a lot to them, and ‘pushing back’ risks their social rank. Here is what they came up with for managing a friend who gives an ultimatum like “You can’t be friends with _ if you want to be friends with me”

  • Call their bluff “I am not going to dump my friend because you want me to. I’m sorry if this means we can’t be friends right now”
    • They may retaliate
    • They may back down
  • Find a way to buy time so you can think and not just react emotionally or even talk it through with a trusted adult or uninvolved party
    • Say you need to think about it
    • Make an excuse to get away temporarily (cough, need a drink, important text, headache)
    • Distract friend from the emotional charge by making a joke and pretending that you don’t think they are serious

Try to prompt your child to look at various options/strategies for responding to a challenging situation. Help them work to think through the possible results of each option when they are not in the emotional heat of the situation. This will help them regain some of the control that peer pressure seeks to remove.

How Can Kids Feel Safe When They Need to Cry?

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crying child with critical onlookers

My students are always in a state of transition. I guess we all are on some level. My grade 6’s in particular, at some point over the course of the year, struggle with expressing frustration in public; particularly crying.

Up until middle school, according to my Junior and Primary colleagues, crying is par for the course. In my school’s situation, (grade 6-8), the grade 6’s still cry in class when they run out of words. Afterwards, they often worry that they shouldn’t be crying anymore.

Crying is normal, natural and can be both emotionally and physically cathartic. Unfortunately, the flip side is that anything we do publicly is subject to judgement. Social judgement is not always equitable either. Girls still tend to have more leeway. Context also has a large impact – there is a difference in ‘social response’ to someone crying over a death of a loved one, or serious physical pain (gender gap here though) and someone crying because another person pushed their buttons and the crying is a frustration response.

I don’t believe there is an all encompassing rule here. There are a few things for kids to consider, and as I have said in previous posts, thinking it through in advance, rather than the heat of the moment is what I recommend…

feeling - thinking

Below are some of the factors we talk about in the group, to help decide where each individual’s comfort zone is. It is different for everyone.

  • How I am likely to feel after?
  • How does the context change this? (think of different likely and previously experienced scenarios)
  • Do I trust the people around me, given the context (think about the friendship pyramid)? (hot link)
  • Is there time and space (permission) to get privacy first, if I want it?
  • Can my stress buddy help me if they see that I need it?

It may seem crazy to plan something like a cry in advance, but given the fact that for our kids, the rules around such things do start to really shift at this age, it is worth a conversation. As I write this, lurking in the back of mind is that gender inequity. I try to teach my kids how to keep themselves physically and emotionally safe, but is there room to challenge social norms here? I would like to think that we could evolve into a society where we would all feel equally able to express painful emotions without fear of social judgement, particularly based on something like gender. In having them link crying with safety, am I enabling toxic masculinity on some level? I don’t know. It is certainly a conversation worth having, and one I intend to bring into the next session with my kids.

Why Your Kids Are Stressed and What You Can Do

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kid reading a book about why kids are stressed

This week I thought I’d share a couple of timely and insightful articles. The first article is 10 Reasons Why Teens Have so Much Anxiety Today by Amy Morin. It’s about why we may be seeing more stress in teens today that we did in previous generations. There has certainly been a lot of talk within education and the mental health community about rising rates of anxiety in youth. We are finally at a stage where we can talk about feeling anxious more openly than in the past. However, I don’t think that this is simply a matter of increased disclosure rates. Our society is ever changing, and that change seems to be happening at an ever increasing rate. It is not a surprise that anxiety levels go up.

This article 9 Strategies for Building Coping Skills in Children With Anxiety by Katie Hurley, is a handy guide for some stress management strategies to use at home. It is simple and comprehensive. I would suggest you even make a list of the key strategies and post them on the fridge to keep them top of mind on a regular basis. Enjoy!

What Makes a Good ‘Stress Buddy’?

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Kids helping each other through stress

It’s one thing for kids to be aware of helpful strategies, but another altogether to be able to use them when needed. The thing with stress is that it is emotionally fed. It can really block our ability to think.

The main motivation behind this entire blog is to help parents cue their kids by sharing vocabulary and strategies. Tweens, however, are funny beasts; they can appear one way with adults and be an entirely different person with other kids. This means that even with adults ‘on the job’ cueing a child when needed, they can still manage to hide a lot. At this age, many of them are more likely to let it out with trusted friends. This is where having a same age stress buddy can really help.

I encourage the kids in my groups to pair up with someone. Ideally someone in their class, so they can help each other out. When one is feeling stressed and too emotional to be able to access their ‘training’ the other partner does the thinking for them. Usually, this just involves a reminder in the form of a simple question.

Stress Buddy Approach

“You seem really frustrated right now. Remember your self talk; what are you saying to yourself in your head?”

This does mean that both partners need to be aware of the signs of stress from the other, and to be aware of appropriate strategies. If your child does not have a friend who is in this position, it may require a bit of teaching when both are feeling good. This can be as simple as sharing typical signs of stress and a few key strategies.

“Hey when I’m stressed, I get really quiet and avoid eye contact. If you see me do that, can you check in? Usually, I need to pay attention to what I’m saying to myself in my head. I can be really negative when I’m upset. Reminding me to think about my self talk will really help”.

The goal is just to get the more emotional partner to a place where they can think a little more clearly. Once they can do that, their memory is likely to work much better.

Good Stress Buddies:

  • See each other regularly, including times when parents/adults do not
  • Can recognize each other’s most common signs of stress/anxiety
  • Are comfortable checking in at that point
  • Can suggest a simple strategy to help partner move from the feeling end of spectrum toward the thinking end of the spectrum

5 Steps for Kids to Manage Stress and Anxiety in Public

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kid meditating calmly

Many students find their stress ramping up during class, either because of the actual academics or because of social issues pressing in around them.

As adults, we often have separation between our friend groups and our colleagues. This distinction is much more blurred for kids in school. Navigating friendship groups and social status is a lot of pressure for kids and not an intuitive process for most. Add to this the pressure of juggling academic expectations (theirs, ours and the teacher’s), and they may be having a rough time focussing in class.

This week’s strategy is about taking a subtle time out in the middle of things to try and regroup and refocus. Given that your kids are heading back to school from a break, this is a great time to go over the following strategy before they are stranded in a crowded classroom in an unhelpful emotional state. Even in a crowd, it is possible to build some time and space.

1. Hearing

Have your child consider where they are when they feel most stressed (in the gym sitting on the floor, at a desk, or on the schoolyard). They should try to simulate the physical positioning they will need to deal with during the week. With eyes either closed or fixed on a particular object/spot in the room (feet work well), begin by paying attention to the sounds in or attached to their bodies:

  • Breathing
  • Heartbeat
  • Rustling clothes

Give them 30 seconds to a minute and then cue them to broaden their focus to sounds immediately around them in the room. Encourage them to pick out at least 3 sounds, as the specificity increases their focus and continue at a similar pace (30 seconds to a minute) and continue to broaden their focus in an ever widening circumference.

2. Physical Feeling

Once they have stretched their hearing to a logical maximum (sounds outside the building), have them shift senses to focusing on physical feeling. Begin by cueing them to notice how warm or cold they are; are there parts of their body that are warmer than others? Have your child:

  • Pay attention to the sensation of the different fabrics they are wearing on their skin
  • Focus on the sensation of the air around them (is it still or moving, temperature)
  • Focus on the parts of their body that are more tense or more relaxed
  • Wiggle first their fingers and then their toes, focusing on the sensation that generated not only in their fingers and toes, but hands and feet – can they feel the air moving?

3. Smell

Have them focus on what the air smells like:

  • Residual shampoo/body wash scents
  • Food smells
  • Mechanical smells (the smell of a lamp bulb burning)
  • Sweat or other natural body odours (you know your kid – use your judgement here!)

4. Sight

Move onto their visual sense. This can be overwhelming and require cueing to restrict/limit their ‘visual processing’. Consider using one of the following:

  • Isolate 4 specific things you can see without moving your head or your eyes (just adjusting eye focus)
  • Pick out 4 things by the far wall that are red
  • Identify 4 different textures within 5 feet of you

5. Emotional Feeling

Finally, have them do an emotional check-in. This can be done by choosing an adjective to describe their current state of mind (such as optimistic, worried, tired), or simply using a 1-10 rating scale. A final cue that all feelings are temporary may be useful! Practicing taking in a couple of deep breaths while repeating in their heads a positive mantra (like all feelings are temporary) is a good way to bring them back to focusing on being part of the group they are in.

Teach Your Child to Let Go of What They Can’t Control

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sad kid with bowl of things to control

When I think about the things that ramp up my own stress, it becomes a laundry list that can be boiled down to feeling like I have a lot of responsibility and very little control. Many children seek to control situations in order to limit the resulting change (too much change = stress). To a degree this is a good strategy, but like anything, can be taken too far and become counterproductive.

I like spectrums for their simple visual appeal, so consider the following…

Stagnancy, Stability, Novelty and Excessive Change

We all need a certain amount of both stability and novelty. Move too far toward either end, however, and you tend not to feel very good. It also becomes harder to think clearly about what you or your kids may need to get to a more comfortable place. This week’s strategy involves helping your child to assess what they can control and what they don’t.

I am not only a prolific spectrum diagrammer but a prodigious list maker. I think it is the simplicity of a list that helps me distill and clarify my thinking. Sit down with your child and make a list of the things you identify as stressors:

  • Challenging classmates/teachers
  • Demanding extra-curricular activities
  • Pressing deadlines
  • Specific family obligations

This is a very general example, but encourage your child to be as specific as they can. From there, sort each factor into 2 lists:

  • Things I control
  • Things I don’t Control

There are a couple of ways to play it from here. First, you can look at what your child doesn’t control and give them permission to not waste energy worrying. Their mind will fight it, so coming up with a mantra that they say to themselves (or heck, out loud) whenever the persistent negative thought whispers in their ear may help; “I do not control and am not responsible for the actions of others”.

Option two considers that sometimes we have more indirect control than we think. True we cannot control the actions of others, but to a degree we control our response to them. What can your child do to minimize those negative responses?

  • Mantra and walk away
  • Practice (roll play) interaction in advance
  • Plan a fun thing to do for each time they need to interact

Structure vs. Freedom; Finding the right Balance

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kid torn between freedom and structure

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As we head into the December holidays, most kids (and teachers) are desperately looking forward to some downtime. This abrupt release from a structured routine is a welcome relief to many, but for others, it is an open ended stress pit.

If we think of freedom and structure as two ends of a spectrum, imagine where your happy place is. Do you embrace not having a plan and going with the flow? Do you impose structure to feel productive and avoid a sense of aimlessness? A bit of both? How about your child?

Think about how your child responds to summer vacation – do they manage to fill their own time, or drive you nuts asking for something to do? Have you always filled their time (camps) for them?

This is a great week to sit down with your child draw out the spectrum above and see where they think they land. In my experience, particularly with my stress management groups, the majority of kids need a bit of structure to avoid feeling stressed. This doesn’t mean every minute of the day needs to be accounted for, or that as a parent you need to decide what they do and when. Intermediates are increasingly ready to take on more of this responsibility for themselves. They might just need you to point the way.

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  • See where they land on the spectrum
  • Prompt them to think of regular daily activities they could plan for to provide the right amount of structure for them
    • Daily walk
    • Reading
    • Play dates
    • Working on a personal project
    • Free time (yes some people do need to schedule this)
  • You could ask if there is an activity they need to limit in order to feel good overall (gaming, screens, excessive school work)

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What’s Stopping You? Barriers and Overcoming Them

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kid staring at wall

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It’s one thing to know what strategies are good for what situations, but using them when needed is a whole other beast. It’s kind of like a healthy diet–most of us know what is good for us and what isn’t, but it is often really hard to regulate ourselves when it comes to making those food choices. Food tastes good. Old habits are easy.

Step #1: Draw attention to symptoms of your child’s stress or anxiety. If you notice that your child is ramping up, showing signs of excess stress/anxiety, the first step is to draw their attention to that in a casual, non-threatening way.

“I notice you that you don’t seem to be enjoying all of your activities the way you normally do. How are doing?”

You could even ask them to rate their stress on a scale of 1-10. Sometimes a quantitative assessment is easier than putting things into words. It also provides a good starting point for a conversation.

“7 out of 10 sounds pretty high. I would find it hard to manage at that level”.

Step #2: Cue them to identify an appropriate strategy. Depending on the nature of the stress, and the symptoms you see, different strategies may work much better than others. Determining the fit depends on some of the following:

  • Are they rushing around so much they are not stopping to acknowledge the small positive things? (make a daily list)
  • Are they having a lot of negative self talk? (is it exaggerated/true–what’s the other side of the story?)
  • Are they overfilling their plates and not making time to relax? (relaxation is as important as every other responsibility)
  • Are they avoiding a task? (can it be broken down into manageable steps?)
  • How are they feeling physically (what is their body saying?)
  • Are they having difficulty sleeping? (what strategies, resources may help?)
  • Are they getting enough physical activity? (what can be adjusted in their daily routine?)
  • Can they use what they know about the mind body connection/do something physically to manage the mental? (posture check, breathing check, eye focus check)
  • Are they in a conflict situation? (type–CALM role play?)

Step #3: Are they actually making use of any helpful strategies? Sometimes the reminder of what they know is all it takes – maybe a little encouragement. If they are escalated/deregulated enough that this does not work, move onto step 4.

Step #4: What are the barriers? What is preventing them from doing what they know will help? Are they external or internal? Have them/help them make a list. For example:

  • It’s too much work and I’m already overloaded
  • I don’t remember what to do
  • I have no time
  • It doesn’t work
  • I don’t have the space to ….

Step #5: Overcoming barriers. Help them come up with strategies to manage the barriers–can something be allowed to drop off their plate? Can they have use of a specific space on a regular basis? Are they in need of a physical resource? Do they need to role play (talk) through a scenario to practice? Do they need permission to just say ‘no’? Do they need a day off?

It sounds really obvious, but usually, it doesn’t take a lot of intervention. They may just need to stop and with your help, assess where they are at. This is also a good opportunity to ask who they can go to at school or any other place they regularly spend significant time. Remind them that they are not alone, that they have people in their corner. Asking for help is healthy and not a burden on anyone. It is a sign of a self aware person.

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Assertive Conflict Management; The C.A.L.M. Method

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calm kids working through conflict

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In order to manage conflict effectively, it is important to move from the feeling end of the “feeling—-thinking” spectrum, to the thinking end. To be clear, when I say managing conflict, I mean resolving the core issue with the needs of both parties taken into consideration. This is a skill which is challenging to most adults, let alone tweens whose brains are under reconstruction.

I have found the CALM method (credit to Friends for Life) very helpful in this regard.

C= Calm Down. Depending on the nature of the conflict, this may take a few minutes or a few days or even longer. Not only do you need to take time and space, but time and space need to be given to the other person, whose time frame may be different. Use their body language and facial expression to help gage when it may be time to talk.

A= Acknowledge Feelings. It’s OK to be mad, hurt, disappointed, betrayed or sad. It’s also OK for the other person to have intense feelings that you don’t like.

L= Listen. Steps to active listening:

  • Let the other person share their point of view without any interruptions, even if you think they are completely out of line. Most of us just want to be heard, and so much of that is having the space to speak freely.
  • You will likely hear something you don’t like. Just hear it.
  • Make eye contact, positive body language (straight posture, leaning in, arms uncrossed, relaxed face)
  • Once they have shared, reflect back/summarize what you have taken from their words. This shows that you were really listening–which is such a big part of all of our emotional needs.
  • Share your point of view. Be brief, use ‘I feel’ rather than ‘you did’ as much as possible. Do not repeat yourself. Avoid emotional or overly descriptive language, which may be interpreted as rubbing the other person’s face in it.

M= Make a Plan. This will most likely involve compromise on both sides. Neither of you is likely to get everything you want. The goal is to make sure both of you can live with the resolution, and that basic needs (safety and respect) are met. Consider where you are willing to bend and if something is non-negotiable.

Frequently Asked Questions:

  • What if the other person isn’t willing to talk at all? You can’t control other people, so you may not be able to get them to work with you. Can you ask someone else intervene at this point, without making matters worse? Sometimes people feed on attention, and denying them that can speed up the desire to resolve. Is it time to cut your losses–can you realistically function without them in your life for now?
  • What if the other person isn’t willing to compromise? Again, because we cannot control other people, this is quite possible. Asking a non-involved party to mediate may be necessary. Failing that, is it time to cut your losses–can you realistically function without them in your life for now?
  • What if I can’t get past my own anger? You can’t effectively resolve a conflict until you are in a fairly neutral emotional state. That doesn’t mean there is no resentment or frustration, but you need to wait until you can think clearly and feel in control of your words and actions.

Once we go through what the steps are, we role play. Students, without using names, suggest situations they have experienced or witnessed, and we work through the steps together. It is hard work and takes a lot of practice. Practicing when they are not in the middle of a conflict is great because the more experience they get using the steps, the less difficult it will be when they are emotionally connected through conflict.

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  • Post the steps somewhere in the house
  • Make a game of role-playing random small and large conflicts with your kids
  • Model the steps if you have a conflict with someone in the household

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