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Mental health of children with special needs. By Ellington community member & mother, Amy Darling
Children with special needs need special mental health; a child who is unable to talk or communicate well cannot voice their concerns or anxieties, a child who lacks understanding of emotions will struggle to voice how they feel. We need to understand when and what may be bothering the child. Pay close attention to small changes in the child’s personality: is the child having more emotional meltdowns?, do they seem to be struggling to fall asleep?, and has anything major changed in the child’s life?.
Now I don’t know any statistics but children with special needs will, I would assume, struggle more with mental health. They are more likely to be bullied, are more likely to struggle with making & keeping friends, plus they are more likely to struggle with tasks that come easy to typical developing children. Eventually this starts to take its toll on the child, mentally. They begin to think they are stupid, weird, or that no one likes them -- which isn’t the way humans want to live.
Adults can support the mental health of children with special needs in different ways. Lots of active listening, to really understand the child while paying attention to the child and reaching out when something seems to be bothering them, and help them to put into words what is going on. Most importantly, seeking professional help if the mental health of a child needs more help than this. Parents know the child well but professionals have the knowledge to be able to help a child that may be too much for the parent to handle--and that is ok!
I want Ellington to realize that mental health is health! If you are not paying attention to your or your child’s mental health, you are not paying attention to the health of the WHOLE child. Struggling with mental health issues does not make you weak or less of a person...it just means that you are human and no human is perfect or the same as the next! My advice is that if you or your child is struggling with any mental health issues, seek out help from a professional.
I have found, personally, that I am extra aware of small changes in my son’s personality or behavior. He is starting to become anxious/scared about things more easily. Recently, he has been afraid to be outside after 6 P.M. He may not say “I am afraid,” but I noticed he refuses to go outside compared to times in the past when it was never an issue. When we’re outside he asks when he can go in constantly or says it must be past his bedtime (even if it's nowhere near bedtime). He will also be very on-edge, looking all around, pacing, needing to hold my hand, wanting me to go first. I pay attention and notice that all of these things are out of the ordinary so I realize that there is something going on.
2020 seriously needs a time-out… or does it?
I’ve been writing and re-writing this for almost two weeks at this point and finally feel like I’m ready to share. From the beginning of 2020 it has been one thing after another. For adults, processing the wildfires in Australia, followed by the threat of war with Iran, followed by a Global Pandemic, economic meltdown, and global unrest, is more than most of us can wrap our brains around. How are we supposed to also care for and teach our children, continue working our jobs (if we still have them) and simply hold it together?
Equating 2020 with a child who is out of control and who needs a time-out comes from a place over overwhelm and frustration. Perhaps what 2020 needs, is some serious, focused attention on systems that need to be challenged, changed, respected, attended to. Perhaps 2020 is the year where we all wake-up and begin to really pay attention to what is important; what we value and truly want to put our energy into.
2020 is shining a light on a world that needs to be more deeply cared for. A planet that has had a chance to begin healing while we have been staying home to protect each other from the spread of a novel coronavirus. Our forced time out has given many of us the chance to realize that much of the life we were living isn’t necessary or healthy. We’ve slowed down and found ways to connect with our families that we never would have found had we not had to jump off the hamster wheel! We’ve also begun long overdue hard work aimed at dismantling and rebuilding a community where all are welcome and valued. The protests and marches going on around the world attest to a system that has oppressed POC for far too long and those of us who have been blissfully unaware are recognizing that we need to be a part of the change. A healthy future for all children depends on us doing the work we’ve been neglecting. We are finally beginning to acknowledge and hopefully address, some of the root causes of our country’s biggest problems rather than just the symptoms.
Imagine 2020 is your child who is out of control and melting down. Perhaps, what that child really needs is not so much a time-out, but the same focused attention that we are beginning to give our world. Instead of a time-out, maybe they need you to really look to see what is going on in their world. Are they overwhelmed by demands they can’t meet? Are they confused about what is expected of them? Do they feel like they are not valued or seen? Are they over-stimulated? Are they simply tired, hungry or in need of a hug?
So often we miss the root causes of our children’s melt-downs. We don’t notice that they are hungry or tired. We don’t hear them when they say their feelings are hurt. We disappoint them when we make promises we can’t really (or don’t intend to) keep. We confuse them when we are not clear about what we expect from them or ask of them. We crush them when we expect them to be something they are not.
This year we have been given a gift. The gift of time to stop and reassess what is truly important to us. We can use that gift to learn and to grow. We can use it to begin having conversations with our children that we didn’t used to have time for. Conversations about what we can do as individuals and families to make the world a better place for everyone. We can make choices as individuals and families about where we want to spend our time and resources as the world begins to open up again. We can choose not to just go back to what was, but to create something new; a way of living that expresses what we truly value.
We can also take this time to really see our children for who they are, rather than who we want them to be. We have the chance to stop and really listen to what they care about; what’s important to them. Children are incredible teachers when we allow them to speak freely without judgement. Just like we need to look to 2020 as a year to learn and grow through the challenges it has brought us, we can look to our children to help teach us more about the world they want to inherit from us and the life they want to live. Then, we can hold hands and do the work we need to do in order to bring that world about.
When people get married not everyone talks about what it will be like when they have children. Even those of us who did have the “when we have children” conversation find that once they are actually here, there is no guarantee that what we envisioned will come true.
When my husband and I got married we were young and idealistic. We were both going to have careers and children and we were going to share all the responsibilities. We didn’t really parse out how that would actually happen.
When we did start our family, earlier than we “planned”, we did a fast and furious learn as you go style of parenting together. We went through many “versions” of childcare as we went from one child to two and then three - tag team parenting, small center daycare, large center daycare, home daycare, preschool/daycare, home daycare again (all in 6 years!) – finally, I left my career to stay home.
When I left my career I was terrified that I would lose myself. I was smart, educated and had a future. I had arrogantly looked down on women who had given up their careers to stay home and felt like they were undervaluing their skills and intelligence. I worried that if I took on more of the “work” of family and home my contribution to the wellbeing of said family would not be as valued as the contribution of my husband’s salary. I wanted to do everything at home to prove I was pulling my weight, but I wanted him to share tasks because that’s what we agreed to back in the glow of early marriage.
Over the many years since, as we raised our family and I observed the lives of so many other families, I’ve learned much about what works and what doesn’t. As I re-enter the work of Marriage and Family Therapy, I’m reminded more and more that parenting and living in community with a family is HARD WORK. We assume that we should know how to do it all, but we don’t. Getting married because you love someone and want to build a life with them is lovely. If you don’t know how to actually live in community with someone and share the burdens of day to day life, and aren’t willing to do the work and have the hard conversations and make compromises, that rosy vision you held as a newlywed just might fog over.
When you add children it’s even more complicated. We come to marriage and parenting with our own assumptions about what it should look like and how it should be. So does our partner. If we assume we believe the same things and don’t talk about “how” to actually raise children, or at least have a basic level of respect for each other such that conversations can be had, the ground is laid for a whole lot of conflict.
Here is some of what I’ve learned:
1- Make no assumptions. You don’t know what your partner thinks about parenting, children, discipline, etc. unless you ask. Even then it’s hard. Tell your family stories. Talk about growing up yourself and what that was like. Share your thoughts on parenting and if you don’t have any, do some research. Don’t expect to know what to do when you are handed a baby unless you’ve actually be taught. If you have vastly different beliefs or thoughts about these things, WORK THEM OUT. Don’t leave them unresolved.
2- Expect to be flexible. No matter what you plan for, things can change. A lost job, a sick partner or child, a change of heart. Anything can alter the plan and if either partner digs in and refuses to be flexible, resentment and conflict are inevitable.
3- Couples or families who appear to have it all or to be “perfect” are either putting on a really good show, or are doing the work. Even those who don’t seem to have to put the time in now, most likely put it in up front. Peaceful happy families don’t just happen.
4- Work/Life Balance is whatever it means to you and your family. As long as partners have a mutual respect for what each person brings to the table, the balance of work/life for both will look different from family to family. One family might have two careers and equally split household tasks but if one partner doesn’t respect the other’s contributions it means nothing. Another family may have a stereotypical family with one parent working outside the home and the other raising the family and caring for the home. As long as there is respect for the contributions of both partners to the well-being of the family and both partners feel valued, it’s an equal partnership.
5- As an extension of 4, how parenting is balanced has a much to do with respect as well. If one parent does the bulk of the parenting, but the other parent is unsupportive and dismissive, undermining the primary parent, not only does it cause increasing trouble with the marriage, children get the message that the rules are “flexible.” When parents can present a united front with mutual support for each other, regardless of the actual distribution of parenting “labor,” children understand the rules and expectations of the family and can get on with the work of being children without feeling the need to figure out what the boundaries are.
6- When children are struggling and acting out, clarifying parenting roles and family rules to ensure both parents are on the same page is a great place to start (see 5). Children are incredibly intuitive and when the security of their home or family is at risk in anyway, it’s not unusual for them to shake things up.
Parenting is hard. Living with other people is hard. We all need to be heard and seen. We all need to be respected for who we are and what we contribute to the world big or small. The last thing I want to share is that one of the most powerful things you can do if you and your parenting partner are struggling is talk to each other. Tell your story. Listen to theirs. Forgive each other. Start fresh. Remember why you got into this in the first place. If you are stuck, there is too much pain or anger, ask for help. Marriage is hard. Parenting is hard. But don’t you value what you work hard for more?
Do the work.
Wednesday night I was overwhelmed with sadness and wasn’t sure why. The first few days of the week were good and my Music Together classes had gone smoothly on Zoom after a week of challenges on FB Live. It was good to see the faces of my MT families and have fun with them. We’ve also been managing to see therapy clients via a telehealth platform and those sessions seemed to be going fine with tech getting easier with more practice. Why was I so sad?
Thursday I got moving with my day and was reading through some articles that came across my feed and one caught my eye. “Zoom and Google Hangouts are Making Kids Miserable.” The post, written by Catherine Pearson and posted in the parenting section of HuffPost, jumped out at me. What if all this technology to help us stay connected and feel better is actually making it worse?
I have no intention of bashing technology or suggesting we stop using it for school, work and play, but for kids and many adults, these “virtual” connections may just remind us of what we are missing. When I teach a class online, I can see the sweet faces of my families but it’s just not the same. It is almost easier for me when I do a FB Live and I know families are there, but I can’t see them and be reminded of what we are missing by not being together.
Constant conversations on screen can also be exhausting – we get distracted by our own image, what’s happening in the background at other people’s houses, muting and unmuting etc… For young children, the ability to just “play” with your friends and interact informally in the way they do when they are together doesn’t exist when there is a screen between you. It is frustrating and no fun!
Video calls, meetings and classes have absolutely helped us manage life during the global pandemic – being able to work from home, connect with family, check-in with friends, continue with dance, music, or exercise via a screen has been a lifesaver. Like everything else though, we have to maintain some balance. If your child doesn’t want to look at a screen or is melting down after Zoom calls with their class, maybe there is something else going on. It may not even be that directly linked. You may have a child who is increasingly angry, sad or anxious – consider the possibility that their virtual world could be contributing.
Like us, kids are sad and many are anxious. Unlike us, they had no time to prepare for all of this and no control over their life during it. One day they were in school and the next day they were not. While we can’t fix this for them we can give them space to share their feelings. We can help them figure out how they can feel some control over their environment. If they are struggling to do school online, help them create a structure that gives them a break from the screen. Talk with their teachers about how things are going and let them help. Turn off the video sometimes and just use the audio. If you have young children and are doing an interactive program like a music class or a fitness experience, don’t worry about whether your child is watching the screen. To really engage them, model for them what you are seeing on the screen and let them engage with you!
While many parents are concerned that children are missing out on socialization experiences, video calls aren’t going to fill that void, especially given how some children are responding to them. What does fill the void is socializing with your child’s first “community” – the family that they live with. Make sure that you are spending time together talking, playing, working. While we all miss our friends, we learn to be social creatures by interacting with people of all ages in person. Think about pioneer families and the isolation they endured for months at a time! They found ways to work, play and entertain each other, learning how to cooperate and engage in socially appropriate ways while doing so.
Last, don’t forget the value of boredom. You do not need to fill every moment of everyday with screens or anything else. Learning to entertain themselves is something that will serve children for a lifetime. Provide them with books, craft materials (clean recyclables can be magic!), some boxes, just about anything BUT a screen, and see what they create. Go outside and let them lead the way – supervise from a developmentally appropriate distance, but let them explore the interesting nooks and crannies of nature. Even if they aren’t “fighting” screen time, if they are acting out, consider the possibility that the added video load is too much and pull it back for a bit.
The day that the Governor announced that schools would remain closed for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year was a hard one. Even though we all knew that was most likely going to be the case, having it be official was hard. No school events, no in person graduations or celebrations. No last day to say goodbye. For Seniors and to some extent 8th graders, the finality of this strikes to the core.
Technology allows us to have more access to each other than ever before and communities are creating virtual ways to celebrate the accomplishments of students everywhere. Prom pictures, graduation photos, car parades, Social Media posts… All of these things will both help us to remember what we’ve accomplished, but will also be a permanent reminder of what was lost.
The grief is real.
For many Seniors, not being able to say goodbye or have any kind of celebration of the end of their time as a student, is devastating. The final concerts, dances, banquets with all the traditions and awards that students look forward to won’t happen. The loss is real. So much work and effort into preparing for final performances all for nothing.
For students who couldn’t wait to get out of high school, the grief is be more complicated, but it may still be there, somewhere. Perhaps during these months of distance learning there has been a realization that maybe high school wasn’t so bad. We don’t always know we will miss something until it’s gone.
For parents who have raised these children and have looked forward with joy, or relief, or both to the day they graduate from high school, there is also grief. When my oldest graduated from high school, the celebration was as much for their Dad and me as it was for them. Raising children isn’t easy and seeing them becoming their own person and successfully complete a major milestone in life is thrilling! Seeing their name and face on a sign or a virtual screen is nice, but not the same.
As humans, we use rituals or rites of passage throughout our lives to mark transition points. We know from research that rites of passage, be they religious or secular in nature are critically important in helping people transition into new “chapters” of their life. In our culture, graduating from high school is, for many people, their transition into the world of adults. We’ve prolonged adolescence into the early 20’s for those who go to college, but there is still clear mark for much of the world that the end of high school is the end of childhood.
The grief is real.
With all this we can’t allow ourselves or our children to get stuck. Feel the grief. Write about it. Talk about it, Cry about it. Then dry your eyes and create alternative rituals for your children and community. So many plans and ideas are already out there to help celebrate this new class of graduates heading out into the world.
The perspective these students will have going into their future will be different than any other group. Their experiences this year will provide them with the chance to really look at their priorities – what is REALLY important to them? In the same way that students who graduated around the time of Columbine made decisions about their future careers based on that event and students that graduated around 9/11 moved into the armed forces in significant numbers, who knows how THESE events will shape THESE students.
What we do know is that all the hard work and preparation has not been for nothing. Sometimes the work IS the thing. The performance, celebration or event is the public face, but if that doesn’t happen it doesn’t mean it was all for naught. Post those pictures and videos. Share those projects and awards. Shout from the rooftops how proud you are of your child.
The grief is real, but so is the healing and the moving forward. We can help our children recover from this challenging time and they will thrive. They will in fact go forward with open eyes about the realities and challenges of our world and continue the hard work to make it better for everyone.
You be you.
Two months into this new reality and it has become more and more clear that there will not be a return to “normal.” Life as it was has changed. Some of those changes have been really stressful and overwhelming; some, not so much. What we know is that we are ALL going through it together.
What this doesn’t mean is that our experience of the pandemic is the same. I saw somewhere the statement that “we are all in the same storm, but in different boats.” Our living situations are all different, our family situations are different and our employment/non-employment situations are different. I’m using “employment” as opposed to “work” because, let’s face it, we are all learning what being a “stay-at-home” parent involves and it is WORK.
While some states are opening up, it is unclear how that will play out and I for one appreciate that CT is opening slowly and deliberately with much thought and attention to science. That being said I’m as frustrated as the next person that I can’t get my haircut or go to a movie or a concert. While there are simply things we can’t do, there is a lot we CAN do as long as we take proper precautions to protect each other.
One of the struggles I see now, and this is from the perspective of an empty-nest parent is that, much like the endless choices of activities and programs could be overwhelming pre-pandemic, there are now endless choices online. In the rush to make sure that children have all the resources they need to continue learning and playing at home, providers have rolled out endless programs, classes, and activities, paid and free.
At the same time, with school moving on-line, work moving on-line, socializing moving on-line, many of us are DONE. Just like you needed to pick and choose what to sign your child up for out in the world, you need to pick and choose what to sign them up for online.
Here’s the thing. You don’t have to do any of it. If all you do is help your child get some schoolwork done before they go play, that’s a win. If they stay up late and sleep in because that’s how your life works right now, that’s ok. If you have cereal for dinner or pizza for breakfast, that’s ok. If you stay in your pajama’s (or your kids do) everyday, that’s ok.
We don’t know what the near future will bring. What we do know is that children and families need to be fed, be sheltered, feel safe, and navigate the new normal together. Each of us in our own boat will find our own “normal.” If ideas and programs are helpful, use them. If they are overwhelming, ignore them. If you have to choose between fighting with your child over a school assignment and maintaining your relationship, maintain the relationship. Be clear about who is responsible for what and then take care of what you are responsible for.
Let go of expectations of learning a new skill, creating fun projects with recycling, photo-documenting your family’s covid-journey, unless it is fun for you.
You be you. Let the others living with you be their authentic selves and ignore anything that suggests you’re not weathering this pandemic “storm” right. If your boat is staying afloat, and your passengers are fed, healthy and safe, you’re doing just fine. If your boat starts to sink, reach out for help – someone nearby will throw out a life boat cause we’re all in the storm together.
My teen is really struggling right now~ how can I help?
With the Covid-19 Quarantine extending into May and possibly June, the reality is beginning to sink in that the end of the school year and all the fun that goes with that (especially for teens!) will be very different this year. Students who graduate in 2020 will have stories to tell for a lifetime about ending High School during the Global Pandemic of 2020.
As the novelty of being home wears off and the reality sinks in, the grief that goes with cancelled proms, concerts, sports seasons, and graduations, is beginning to ramp up. Some of our students may feel like it’s indulgent or selfish to feel bad about missing all these activities when people are dying. Others may be so focused on their own losses and grief that they come across as completely narcissistic and insensitive to others. Most are probably somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.
Let’s face it. There is nothing about this that is fun for anyone, but for teenagers it really stinks. Their whole world revolves around friends, activities, jobs and moving out into the world! Just when they are starting to launch, they’re being yanked back into the nest and there IS NO TIMELINE for when they can move forward again.
College decisions are being made and more and more students have no idea what their fall will look like. Some schools may begin the year online. For students looking forward to being on campus, this will call for a huge change in plans. Some families who were already anxious about paying for college may find themselves now completely unable to help at all due to Covid-19 related job losses.
No wonder we are seeing more and more teenagers struggling. Their world is upside down, they miss their friends, they are more aware of the stress and anxiety experienced by their parents, they have their own fears about the state of the world, they have little to no perceived control over their world right now AND the future they have been planning for is completely up in the air.
As a parent, what can you do to help?
First, make sure you are taking care of yourself. Even though teens sometimes seem adult-like, when life is scary, they still need to know they are being taken care of and it will be ok. They need to know that YOU are OK and are there for them. Don’t hide your concerns from them, but don’t burden them either. Find ways to check in with your teen about how they are doing, not just with school work and chores, but how they are doing emotionally. Be a safe place for them to vent or cry. Validate their sadness and frustration. You can’t fix it and belittling it (what’s the big deal? It’s just a dance! People are dying.) will simply push them away. All of our feelings are valid right now. While we can’t control what is happening we can control how we are responding to it.
Talk with your kids about what is going on. Help them to identify the things that they can control and do. Share with them the ways you are managing as a way to model for them, rather than telling them what to do. For example, when I’m working from home, creating a schedule for myself with an hourly check-in (alarm on my phone) helps me to stay on track and get done what needs to get done. If I told my college student daughter to do it that way she would be annoyed at me for telling her what to do. Instead, I simply shared the process when she expressed frustration at getting her distance learning done, and said “here’s what works for me.” She saw it as an example instead of a command and adapted it to a strategy that worked for her.
Teens need to know that while their world has changed and their ability to come and go has been severely curtailed due to no fault of their own, they still have the ability to create an environment and routine that works for them. As parents, we need to step back as much as we can, being available to help when asked, but allowing them to continue to develop their independence within the confines of home. Make sure they have time to create social connections virtually – there are lots of options via Zoom, google, etc..
Support OTHER parents by not allowing your children to have friends over right now, or go to other’s homes. We need to have each other’s backs and as hard as it is, enforcing social distancing guidelines right now is the best way to help our community get back on track. It’s really hard to be the parent saying NO. Help each other out!
Micro-managing them because they happen to be home won’t help anyone. As long as they are not doing anything that is harmful to themselves or others, and are following the rules of your family (this is NOT the time to push high achievement. Just like we need to cut ourselves some slack, we need to cut our kids some slack too), give them room to process this strange time in whatever way they need to.
Know that this too shall pass. Remind yourself and your kids that we will gradually move back out into the world as it becomes safe again. Life will continue. It will be different, but it will continue. Notice and comment on the good things that have come about while being quarantined and dream about the things to look forward to when it ends. For seniors, help them to find ways to celebrate the end of high school. Create your own virtual or social distancing events to mark these important rites of passage.
Above all, when you find yourself feeling more upset about what your child is missing out on than they are, learn from them. Reflect on the positives you are experiencing. THEY ARE THERE. Kids are resilient. They will be fine. So will we.
Covid-19 Quarantine day number __?
I don’t know about you, but as the days go by, I’ve lost track of how long we’ve been “at home.” For some people, keeping track can be helpful – it can be a sign of our ability to endure –“ We’ve managed 33 days at home, we can handle 33 more!”
For others, it allows us to feel some solidarity with each other. FB post – “Quarantine day 37 – how’s everyone else doing?”
I’m leaning more towards losing track of the days. When I think too much about it, I feel more anxious. I begin to focus on the days ahead and it can seem insurmountable. For families with children at home, seeing a calendar with endless days ahead at home can be completely overwhelming. Looking back at all the days and “events” that have been missed can bring out grief over and over again for all that has changed. Taking one day at a time allows us to stay in the present which is where we need to be right now.
Our past was not all rosy. We were running around from here to there, trying to keep up with activities and expectations. Our future is unknown. The world as we know it has changed. No one has any real idea when and how public life will resume. Many things will return to normal, many more will return but will look different. We just don’t know and spending too much time thinking about what we don’t know can bring out all the anxiety!
What we do know is what is going on right now. Here, in our homes. Taking this time to just be in THIS moment, can be an unexpected gift. While it is expected and good to feel grief over what has been lost, to get stuck there isn’t helpful. Spending time acknowledging some of the silver linings, can help move you past the grief and anxiety.
One of the things I’m hearing from families is that they are enjoying a slower pace of life. Time outside, extra time reading and playing games, regular meals together. There is incredible beauty in our world and in our families, that we often miss when we are so driven to do all the things. Be here. Be present. Acknowledge your sadness and worry, then set it aside. Notice the beauty and the calm. Embrace it. Soak it all up.
If you or other members of your family are struggling, ask for help. No one needs to do this alone. Call a friend. Reach out to a counselor or therapist. We are all in the same storm, but our “boats” are different. If your boat has a leak, or needs gas, ask for help. If we can all be brave, and look outside ourselves to help others stay afloat, we can trust that when we start to sink, someone will be there for us.