Dive Into a Resilient School Year: Proactive Mental Health Buffers for the Whole Family By: Anastasia Ristau, PhD, LP

Sep 05, 2018 by Anastasia Sullwold Ristau, PhD, LP

There it was, my fellow parents!  Did you relish in it as long as it lasted? I’m talking about that solid 30-45 minutes of pure satisfaction and sense of peace you felt after getting the kids off to their first few days of school. AH yes, here we go… stepping into the new school year, fresh and revitalized after the change of chaos that summer brings.  And then… without so much as skipping a beat, BAM, your mind shifts to the keen awareness of all that the school year brings.  For many families, the disorganized but hopefully joyful chaos of summer shifts nearly instantly with amped up scheduling sure to test even the finest of family calendar managers!  Here are a few tidbits I frequently suggest for families hoping to maintain some of that joy along the sometimes bumpy ride. If your goal is promoting a proactive, pre-planned buffer for everyone’s mental health well-being, following even a few of these suggestions will be helpful!

Increase your awareness of your family’s stress level, both kids and parents alike. If your parent gut-instinct is bugging you about something, listen to that. Work hard to avoid over-reacting, but do attend to it. Know the warning signs that something is up and zoom in together to address this as soon as possible, before stress grows out of hand. Some warning signs might include sudden consistent changes in behaviors (e.g., becoming aggressive or violent), sleeping patterns, eating patterns, play patterns, major changes in withdrawal or social isolation, major changes with mood such as crying spells that seem uncharacteristic or unusual in intensity, duration, or are without obvious cause, statements of hopelessness or anything indicating thoughts of harm to self or others. It’s important not to panic, but it’s also important to take these seriously and reach out for help from a mental health professional or medical provider if you are unsure where to start.  Understanding what our own signs of stress are helps us to express those feelings effectively so others can help us, and helps us recognize when we will benefit most from using healthy coping skills.

We all need stress. It’s important to know this, to own this, and to actually expect stress during certain times and situations.  Our job as parents is not to protect our kids from being stressed — to protect them from experiencing stress altogether would be a disaster!  Without it we would put ourselves in dangerous situations more often, or we would have a hard time motivating ourselves to do difficult things! I mean, for real, without stress would anyone really study for tests or prepare for a big presentation, would anyone wear seatbelts or look both ways before crossing the street? Not likely.  Stress helps motivate, encourage, prompt, remind, and do, especially when the going gets rough. Moving through and rising above stress in a healthy way produces grit.  Stress can be our friend, when coming at appropriate levels, when recognized accurately, and when we respond to this stress in helpful ways. Sometimes, kids need our help in developing a healthy relationship with stress.  Kids, even some teenagers, or those with developmental delays such as with Autism Spectrum Disorders, may need help first in identifying and accurately labeling their feelings before they can take the next best steps. For example, very often excited stress is confused for nervous stress. If not accurately interpreted, this can lead a person to avoid or shut down something that otherwise would have been delightfully enjoyable!  Other times, behavior challenges are misinterpreted as “bad behavior” when really those behaviors come from stress, anxiety, or something altogether different from the simply adult conclusion of a “bad” choice. In these cases, behaviors are punished rather than helping to better understand the source and finding an opportunity for growth and development.

So we’ve established that stress can be helpful for us. Even so, it is important to respect that stress is best at mild to moderate doses that come in bursts and small segments so that it does not overwhelm a person’s capacity to deal with it in a healthy, appropriate way and rise above stronger in the end.  Chronic, daily moderate to high stress is toxic on so many levels for both our mental and physical health.  So stay mindful of this. Here are a few ideas how busy families can moderate their daily dose of stress:

  • Declutter your schedule, decrease schedule demands, prioritize and then stick to it.
  • Consider setting family rules to limit number of sports or extracurricular activities per season. Believe me, I know this can be painful and anxiety provoking for parents! Your kid may want to try everything, and sure having the exposure holds value, but there is also great value to your kid learning to prioritize where they get the most emotional, physical, or social payoff and focus upon those.  You are not ruining their future nor causing irreparable damage by setting limits! Quite the opposite, actually! This is a common parent pitfall as it is highly counterintuitive.
  • Say no, sometimes. Try it, you might even like it!
  • Carve out down time for each family member and at times for the family altogether. Hearing the occasional “I’m bored” is, in my opinion, a challenging but necessary parenting win.
  • Build in screen/device free zones in your home for a major parenting triumph!

Scheduling time for play – inside and outside.

Making time for parent-child activities, connections, outside of devices and demands with sports, extracurriculars, and school

BUILD IN PROACTIVE HEALTHY COPING SKILLS EARLY AND OFTEN     Introduce and practice, together, a few basic coping skills that can help a person self-regulate in times of stress. Some examples include mindfulness based strategies, diaphragmatic breathing techniques, visualization, use of mental imagery, intentional self-talk, etc.  I would argue that these are skills most anyone can do and benefit from in one way or another.  I have had the pleasure in my years of clinical work of being the part of helping a wide range of kids including those who have challenges related to learning disorders, autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, mental health challenges, and major medical conditions, successfully learn and use these kinds of strategies in all kinds of stressful situations, day in and day out, with huge benefits.  I have a great, short video I captured of my 7 year old daughter explaining a sports example as to how she would suggest her brother could use a tool we coined “See it then be it”, a type of visualization coupled with deep breathing.

Learning to use healthy coping or self-regulation strategies is especially effective when families do this stuff together, as a team, on a regular basis, just making it normal and okay.  Practicing these skills early and often when not stressed in a game-like, fun way, helps to rewire instinctual responses so that later, when we are stressed or in the midst of chaos, we can lean on these skills more automatically.  Practicing early and often builds new habits and connects you to each other as a family.  Everyone in the family should be involved so that when times get stressful the healthy response is more natural.  The more we do something a certain way, the more automatic it becomes. This is true for unhelpful ways of dealing with stress (e.g., outbursts, shutting down, avoidance, unhealthy behaviors etc), but the great news is that this is also true for helpful ways of coping with stress.

Think of our actions as parents as providing an external support for our kids, tweens, and teenagers are struggling and working through their stressful situations.  Does a scaffolding on an old building do the actual work in reconstructing that building’s inner core? NOPE.  Neither, then, should we, parents, do the much harder, inner core work for our children.  As tortuous as it may be, it is critical that we resist the urge to consistently rescue our children from difficult, stressful, or challenging situations, feelings or emotions.  It is developmentally appropriate and expected that kids will fail/struggle sometimes – they need to learn from these experiences.  Shift your perspective to expect struggles and failures as well as to expect success in overcoming those struggles and failures. THIS is the time you would rather have them go through these struggles and failures, when you have them in our life on a daily basis and can have some influence over those thoughts, feelings, and actions.  Why do it for them and wait until they are no longer in your home for them to learn how to overcome these normal life challenges?  Now is the time for them to learn how to organize themselves, to manage their time, to communicate effectively with their teachers or peers in group assignments.  The long term impact especially in elementary and middle school is much smaller than later when they are in late high school or college.

Parents, let’s shift our focus away from the final outcome (e.g., grades, awards, being recognized as the top in a sport, etc). Instead, let’s focus on the journey in all of its glory of struggles and successes.  In doing so, we shift focus to the process of learning and the process of developing new skills, strengths, and talents. This has to do with something called a “Growth Mindset”. If you are not familiar, look it up… there are some great youtube videos, tedtalks, and scholarly articles/books out there on the value of a Growth Mindset.  This is fascinating stuff coming from years of solid research in the mental health and educational world.  When people face and overcome stressful, challenging, difficult situations they develop resiliency, they develop strength, and they develop grit — the ability to persevere when things are not easy, coming out stronger in the end.  Without the contrast of tough struggles, it is hard for a person to truly appreciate when things are going well.  The same certainly could be said about parenting… the toughest, most amazing struggle you’ll ever love with all of your every fiber and being.   Parent with purpose, parent with intention. Parent on!!

Breathing with you,
Dr. A



Anastasia Sullwold Ristau, PhD, LP is a  Licensed Psychologist and Clinical Supervisor of the PrairieCare After-School Intensive Outpatient Programs: Behavior Development Program and Healthy Emotions Program

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