The Not-So-Selfish Question Parents of a Sexually Abused Child Are Afraid to Ask

Your child is protected and receiving counseling. You are left with a big, old vacuum. What about me?

The unthinkable has happened. You’re numb, panicked, and crazed with anger all at the same time. You’re precious jewel has just told you that he or she has been sexually abused – worse yet – by someone you know, love, and trust.
The aftermath of such a tragedy can be a whirlwind of events, police, doctors, social workers, and therapists. The list of new professionals suddenly intruding upon the intimate details of your personal life is staggering. Of course, you cooperate. The safety, health, and welfare of your baby is at stake.
Then, the high tide recedes as the logistics are underway. Your child is protected and receiving counseling. You are left with a big, old vacuum.
What about me?
Please feel not an ounce of shame or weakness asking this question. In fact, it’s one of the single-most important observations you can make, so, go ahead, feel some pride in your self-awareness. You, and perhaps others in your family, are the secondary victims of sexual abuse.
Coping with your reactions to the challenges that now rest on your shoulders can feel overwhelming. You’re trying to keep everything together while, inside, you’re falling apart. You need help, too, especially if you were also a child victim of sexual abuse.
A better you will make a better life for your child.
Throughout the course of my career, I’ve treated many families who have experienced this and other traumas. Individual, group, or family therapy can offer indescribable support that will point you and your family on the road to recovery.
Below I’ve listed some common concerns that emerged among the parents whom I’ve worked with. If you’ve been in this unfortunate situation, they will hopefully provide some comfort and validation.
Remember:

Above all, it’s not your fault

Many parents think, “If I were a better parent, if we didn’t argue so much, if I were home more, if, if, if, if….”  Fill in the blank with your own “if.”  The sad fact is this: There is no sure-fire way to prevent sexual abuse. If there were, I wouldn’t need to write this article.  The “ifs” are a natural way to try to gain control over an awful situation.
Although rates of sexual abuse may reportedly be on the decline, Darkness to Light reports that as many as one in 10 children will be sexually abused by age 18. So, please remember three things:

1 | You are not psychic (at least, I assume you’re not) and could not have prevented this.

2 | A determined sex offender will abuse despite the obstacles in their way.

3 | Sex offenders are exceptionally adept at setting the stage so no one would ever suspect a thing.

Your grief is a big deal

You’ve had a huge shock. It’s perfectly natural for many confusing emotions to come tumbling out of nowhere. Anger at the offender, at the system, at yourself, even – cringe – at your child because you’re wishing they had told you sooner so you could’ve protected them better.
Your child has lost his innocence, and so have you. You’ve lost your sense of safety and your trust in those around you. Perhaps you’re struggling with the profound disappointment that someone you loved is not who you thought they were.
You may even be questioning your own judgment while simultaneously feeling saddened, guilty, confused, shamed, enraged, and yet hopeful, all at once. These feelings are a normal part of the process. Finding support through your own therapist can help you navigate this bumpy terrain.

This is an adjustment period

The old day-to-day normalcy may fade as routines and relationships likely become disrupted. But soon, you will settle into a “new normal.” Don’t rush it. Allow the process to take place naturally. There will be bumps as you and your child find your way. With patience and a comfortable new pattern, an even stronger relationship will emerge between you and your child.

You need education and support

You’re in a situation that you’ve never been in before, so don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t know what to do or say. You might, but it’s okay if you don’t. Bounce situations off the helping professionals in your life.
A therapist who is experienced with evidence-based practices for sexual abuse, such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy, would be ideal for you and your child. Your child will likely be learning many new things in treatment, perhaps about boundaries, assertiveness, and healthy relationships. You need to keep up! Active involvement in your healing and your child’s growth can result in a stronger and wiser family unit.

Seeking your own support models great self-care

Remaining involved and engaged in your child’s treatment process is not the same as getting your own needs met. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of seeking out your own individual therapist. Some areas offer groups for parents of sexually abused children. You’ll have a lot on your plate and, yes, this is a crazy-busy time in your life, which actually reinforces the need for professional assistance with stress management.
You’ll be teaching your child that it’s okay to ask for help when there is a problem. You’ll be teaching her that sexual abuse is not to be kept a secret. Some children are quite reluctant to get counseling due to a fear of talking about the “horrible thing,” but research shows that’s exactly what they need to do.
By getting your own treatment, you demonstrate the importance of talking about the hard stuff. Children are amazingly resilient. At times, for whatever reason, adults may have a bit more trouble bouncing back. Your own therapy can offer a private place to break down, out of your child’s sight.
If your own therapy isn’t feasible due to budget or schedule, books like “When Your Child Has Been Molested”, by Kathryn Brohl, with Joyce Case Potter, can be an invaluable resource.
Lastly, if you’re reading this article for a friend or just out of general interest, I’d like to thank you. Parents of sexually abused children are in a lonely position and often have a small or non-existent pool of support to reach out to. It shouldn’t be that way.
RAIIN estimates that every eight minutes, a report of sexual abuse is substantiated. Chances are you know more than one person who has walked this road. Maybe you, with this information in mind, can be the person to help that parent feel not so alone.

A Sexual Assault Pun is Not a Halloween Costume

I thought maybe we if we all contacted Spirit Halloween, they’d take this costume off their shelves next year:

All the #MeToo headlines in recent weeks have definitely caught my attention and sharpened my Sexual Assault-Dar. I thought maybe we if we all contacted Spirit Halloween, they’d take this costume off their shelves next year:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about Halloween. I don’t find a lot of things inappropriate. I took my kids to this pumpkin massacre scene earlier in the day, and we all had a good laugh at the one pumpkin lawn-mowing the other pumpkin, whose bloody orange guts were spilling out everywhere. We took selfies and high fived.

But my daughter’s almost 10, and while she’s beginning to notice that girls’ costumes tend to involve short skirts and bathing suits, how the hell am I supposed to explain the rapey gynecologist costume to her? In a couple years, she’ll figure out that her looks are where our culture wants her to put her focus. But we can draw the line at the light riff on sexual assault, can’t we?
It takes a lot to shield her from the headlines about Harvey Weinstein and the other men being exposed in this wave of revelations about past and current abuses. I somehow kept her from knowing about the recent Las Vegas shooting – but the next one may have to be confronted.
We want to preserve the innoncence of our childrens’ experience in this world as long as possible. We are here to be their rocks, to keep their impressionable brains developing on a vector unblemished by the trauma of shootings, natural disasters, and sexual predation.
She’s old enough to process that there is racism in this world. A proud understanding of Rosa Parks’ bravery could inspire her to be strong and stand up for what’s just, to treat her neighbors with sensitivity and respect.
She’s old enough to know that hurricanes are a reality, that people on islands which bore the brunt of the storm need our help. She understands that the oceans are warming and that scientists think our environmental impact is a part of the problem. She knows we had a hurricane here in New York when she was little, and we know we can always find ways to be safe if another one comes.
Somehow explaining that Dr. Howie Feltersnatch (how he felt her snatch) is a joke about a doctor who touches women’s private parts with a creepy grin feels like a conversation we don’t have to have.
Spirit Halloween, your seasonal pop-up shops with overpriced pink hairspray and employee only bathrooms bring us much joy. But you can do better than this.
Get this crap off your shelves!
Tell Spirit Halloween what you think via Twitter or email customer service here.

How Kids Can Cope With Stress in Our Unpredictable New Reality

This practice gives kids strategies for developing self-awareness, improving mental focus, handling emotions, and increasing kindness and empathy.

In the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, six of the largest school districts in the United States closed, and 1.7 million American students missed school. This figure doesn’t take into account school interruptions after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and elsewhere where officials have no clear timeline for school re-openings for over 350,000 students.
According to some experts, such school closings could have disastrous consequences the likes of which we’ve seen only after Hurricane Katrina. I worry about the students in Texas, Louisiana, Florid, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands who have been displaced by these recent storms, because they may experience the kind of stress my New Orleans students had to handle in 2005 and 2006. Officials on the ground are already reporting a mental health crisis in Puerto Rico. And, as if the hurricanes aren’t enough, scenes of assault weapons spraying bullets on a crowd in Las Vegas pop up in our children’s news feeds and cause more anxiety.
After Hurricane Katrina forced evacuations and devastated New Orleans, I returned home and volunteered to teach creative writing in a public school. My plan was to help children write stories to express their emotions and creative voice. I quickly discovered, however, that many of my students had high levels of anxiety and poor academic success. They had difficulty focusing in class, following my instruction, and sitting still to write. They also fought with each other on the playground. As I got to know them, I learned why.
Many of these children were growing up in poverty, and their families had limited resources to evacuate during the storm. Some had stayed in New Orleans and witnessed trauma. After Katrina, their families moved to other cities – often living in shelters – and my students had missed school. Like many displaced children, they exhibited depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders. Some also faced other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including abuse, neglect, exposure to unsafe environments, and a broken family structure.
Research has shown that children who experience stressful events at an early age may have behavior problems and below-average academic and literacy skills. They are also at increased risk for developing health problems as adults. The good news is that children often respond well to interventions, including classroom mindfulness activities. With a mindfulness program, teachers have reported improved classroom behavior of their students especially in the areas of paying attention, self-control, participation, and respect for others. As a long-time practitioner of mindfulness, I decided to teach my students mindful techniques at the start of each writing class.
Mindfulness is a method of paying attention – on purpose, with kindness and patience – to what’s going on inside and outside of you in each moment. This practice gives adults and children strategies for developing self-awareness and acceptance, improving mental focus, handling difficult emotions, and increasing kindness and empathy. In my writing class, I taught my students many of the mindfulness exercises I still use today as a way of preparing them for the day, and for writing. Here is a sample:

Mindful breathing

Feel your breath come into your nose or mouth, into your lungs, and into your tummy. Feel your lungs release each breath before you take another. Put all of your attention on the air going in and out. If you start thinking about something, shift your attention back to your breathing. This exercise helps you focus on where you are and what you are experiencing in your body in the moment.

Squeeze and release

After taking three mindful breaths, focus your attention on your feet. Squeeze all the muscles tight and then release. Move your attention up your body, squeezing and releasing all your muscle groups until your reach your head. End with three more mindful breaths. This exercise, too, brings your awareness to the physical sensations in your body. You can try it lying down to help you relax.

Mind bubbles

Try this one as a way to release the stressful thoughts that are bothering you. Think of your worries as bubbles that pop. Take three mindful breaths and imagine holding a bubble wand. Breathe in and notice your worry. Breathe out and blow your worry through the wand to form a bubble that floats away and pops. This is a way to see your thoughts as temporary and release them. Repeat the visualization until you feel ready to continue your day. This exercise may not take away immediate problems, but it gives you a tool to release troubling thoughts so you are better prepared to face your life.

Finding the pause

Breathe normally, and at the end of each breath, notice the short pause before you breathe in again. Relax a different part of your body during each pause. Continue as long as you wish, relaxing your whole body a little more with each pause. This exercise helps you handle your emotions and problems with more confidence.
I taught my students these or similar techniques, which we used before writing. In the absence of a controlled study, I can only report that I saw many changes in my students over the school year. At the start of my class, the majority of my students could not write a complete grammatical sentence much less a story with an intact narrative thread.
By the end, every student contributed at least one complete story to our classroom collection, which we printed and bound. They also performed on stage, many reading their writing aloud to a packed auditorium. They also improved in paying attention and controlling their behavior. We simply got along better by the end of the year, and my students were calmer, at least in our classroom.
For the teachers and school administrators who have been affected by the 2017 storms, I wish them courage as they face the challenges of returning to school. They too had to evacuate or shelter in place and may struggle to create a safe environment for their students who could be traumatized. I hope they can put interventions in place that allow for healing and growth during this tough time.
No matter how bleak or surreal our daily reality becomes, our kids don’t deserve to fall into a desensitized-yet-anxious funk we often feel, especially after a series of crises. We owe them a way to cope. Mindfulness is a helpful tool.
For more on mindfulnes, visit Barefoot Books. Whitney Stewart is the author of “Mindful Kids: 50 Activities for Kindness, Focus, and Calm“.
 

According to Study, This Personality Trait Might Bully-Proof Your Kid

Researchers have identified one key personality trait can mean the difference between bouncing back from bullying and being incapacitated by it.

Anyone who’s ever been bullied knows that it’s not an experience you soon forget. At  28 years old, I barely ever think about the awful few months I was bullied in the fifth grade. But when I do, I still feel a twinge of pain recalling how traumatic it was, and I hate to imagine my kids ever going through something similar.
All things considered, though, I overcame being bullied as a kid and blossomed in the years afterward. I recently came across a study that helps explain why that was possible.
Researchers at Florida Atlantic University and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire set out to discover why some youth victims of bullying recover from the ordeal while others are shattered by it. In their new study published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect, these researchers reveal that one key personality trait can mean the difference between bouncing back from bullying and being incapacitated by it.
That trait is resilience – the capacity to readily recover from adverse events or adjust to change.
Using a validated 10-item biopsychosocial scale, researchers looked at the relationship between the experience of bullying (including cyberbullying) and resilience. The scale contained mantras, such as: “Having to cope with stress makes me stronger” and “I can deal with whatever comes my way.” The scale was intended to evaluate resilience as a protective factor and healing force.
A Science Daily study suggests that possessing resilience can help prevent kids from being victimized by bullying and can help lessen the harmful effects of bullying when it does occur, either in-person or online. Bullying will always hurt, of course, and it should never be tolerated, but data from this study demonstrates how resilience can help kids, in a sense, choose whether or not to permit the pervasive damage it can cause.
Authors of the study, Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D. and Justin W. Patchin, Ph.D. hope that their study will show families, schools, and communities the value of raising resilient children in a day and age when finding effective solutions to bullying is more imperative than ever. The tragic consequences of bullying seem to be in the headlines constantly, and the Internet has created many more avenues through which it can happen.
“We want children to learn and develop the skills they need to deal with problems,” says Dr. Hinduja, as quoted in Science Daily, “and yet we rarely help them engage with those problems so that they can grow in their ability to solve them. Instead, we seek to constantly protect and insulate them – instead of bolstering their self-confidence, problem-solving ability, autonomy, and sense of purpose – which are all innate strengths.”
It’s important, they explain, for parents and other adults involved with children and adolescents to teach them strategies for coping with bullies, for ‘rising above’ the cruelty. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), other ways to foster resilience in kids and teens include helping them learn how to:

  • form connections
  • help other people
  • maintain a routine
  • take a mental break
  • practice self-care
  • create and work toward goals
  • develop a sense of perspective
  • develop a positive outlook
  • see the humor in life and be able to laugh at oneself
  • recognize past accomplishments and history of overcoming obstacles
  • and accept change as a part of life.

Raising compassionate kids and teaching them not to be bullies themselves is also extremely important, but that’s a whole separate post.
Continued efforts are certainly needed to tackle the issue of bullying from all angles. There are no easy answers. But this study does give me hope (and a much-needed sense of control) that by nurturing resilience in our kids, they can learn to survive and thrive at school in the face of adversity – far preferable to keeping them in a bubble.

Surviving the Common Cold: What the Research Says

While everyone has a cold treatment they swear by, scientific research has its own favorites. Here are a few therapies the data does (and doesn’t) support.

As soon as you touch the door handles in your child’s classroom, you can almost feel the germs latch on. Your partner mentions her secretary has the sniffles, and you immediately notice the back of your throat starting to scratch. Your cousin posts to Facebook his kids are just getting over a bad cold, and even though he lives across the country, you know it’s coming for you anyway. Getting sick is nearly impossible to avoid when you’re parenting youngsters with underdeveloped immune systems.

But at the very least, you can avoid ineffective cold remedies. While everyone has a cold treatment they swear by, scientific research has its own favorites. Here are a few therapies that the data does (and doesn’t) support.

Elderberry

Elderberry is the most recent trend in cold and flu remedies, but don’t overlook this newcomer. A small study of flu patients found that those who took three teaspoons of elderberry syrup four times a day for five days were symptom-free four days sooner than those who took a placebo. Another small study found that air travelers who took elderberry supplements were less likely to contract colds, and those who did had less severe cold symptoms.

Zinc

Zinc won’t stop a cold in its tracks, but it’s still one of your best bets. Research has shown that taking zinc within the first 24 hours of symptoms, and continuing through the length of the cold, can reduce the length of a cold by an average of one day. Sure, one day might not be much, but if it’s the day that you have to coach your kid’s basketball game or nail a big presentation at work, it might be worth it. 

Other studies have even found colds to be reduced by as much as 35 to 40 percent.The downside of zinc is a potential for bad taste and nausea. Be sure to take zinc on a full stomach.

Echinacea

Echinacea is often touted as a way to prevent colds but the jury is still out on this one. A study found that taking 900 mg of Echinacea a day did not reduce the likelihood of contracting colds or the severity of symptoms. Other studies, however, found the opposite. A meta-analysis from University of Connecticut claims that Echinacea can reduce the chance of contracting a cold by 58 percent, and reduce the duration by an average of 1.4 days. Echinacea is ineffective for children.

Nasal irrigation

Your sister-in-law swears by it. Your mom keeps calling you to ask if you’ve tried it yet. But it’s just so dang gross. Can you really shoot water up your nose to make the gunk come out, and is it even worth it?

Yes, yes it is. Researchers believe nasal irrigation, often referred to by the brand name “Neti Pot,” may help relieve symptoms of acute respiratory tract infections with minimal side effects. If you can get your child to do it, it’s effective for them also.

Over-the-counter medicine

For children, the dangers of over-the-counter medications likely outweigh the benefits. Several studies have found that antihistamines and decongestants are no more effective than placebos for treating coughs or promoting sleep in children, but are in the top 20 substances leading to death in children younger than five years of age.

For adults, cough medicines with dextromethopran modestly decrease cough severity and frequency compared to a placebo.

Honey

The easiest remedy to convince children to take might also be one of the best. Buckwheat honey is more effective than placebo for reducing coughs and improving sleep for children, but should not be used in children younger than one year due to the risk of botulism.

Vitamin C

Put down the glass of orange juice. If you are already sick with a cold, it’s too late for Vitamin C to do you much good. Research has found that taking 200 mg of Vitamin C before getting sick can help reduce the duration of cold symptoms by an average of one day. For most people, however, taking the vitamin did not reduce the likelihood of getting a cold.

Essential oils

Peppermint, eucalyptus, teatree – when it comes to cold and flu season, are these potions essential or another brand of snake oil?  Unfortunately, research on the effectiveness of essential oils remains pretty weak. Eucalyptus and peppermint oil, however, have long been used as decongestants. Neither should be used on children younger than two; in fact, peppermint oil can cause life-threatening breathing problems for infants.

If sleeping with Vicks VapoRub and socks on your feet sounds like a sweaty and sticky torture, feel free to skip this remedy. There is no evidence to suggest that it works. A study in the journal Pediatrics, however, notes that parents have found it effective in helping their children get a better night’s sleep when applied to the chest. However, camphor oil – a main ingredient in vapor rubs – can be toxic to children under two and should not be used on infants.

Sleep

“When you’re sick, rest is best, rest is best,” our friend Daniel Tiger loves to remind us. Of course, for a parent, resting is far harder than taking a vitamin supplement. But research shows that sleeping six hours or less a night can makes it four times more likely an adult will catch colds compared to those who slept seven hours per night. Those who regularly slept less than five hours of sleep had a nearly a fifty/fifty shot at catching a cold when exposed to a virus, compared to an one in six chance for those who slept seven or more hours a night.

Antibiotics

Quite simply, there is no way an antibiotic will help the common cold. Colds are viral infections, and antibiotics treat bacterial ones. Research backs this claim up. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also cautions that antibiotics are not needed for sinus infections caused by viruses.

If your favorite remedy didn’t make the list, don’t discount the placebo effect. Snuggling up with your favorite tea or your grandmother’s chicken noodle soup will do you good even if they don’t decrease cold symptoms by a statistically significant amount.

What Harry Potter Teaches Us About Mindfulness

Relate the strategies and techniques of mindfulness to the perennial favorite, “Harry Potter,” and you’ve got a whole new set of tools.

I’m a clinical psychologist who has worked extensively with children and young people. My patients come to me seeking help for prevalent mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression. I’m also a mum and a huge Harry Potter fan!

The struggle is real when it comes to explaining a concept like mindfulness to young children, and often to parents too. It may seem too abstract, too complicated, or too “hippy-dippy” to be effective in their lives with their very real and present problems – you know, the ones they came in to get actual, realistic help with? Uttering the words “meditation” or “mindfulness” is a quick way to see glazed-over kiddie eyes, and a flash of disappointment cross the parents’ faces while they mentally scroll the yellow pages for someone who is going to provide “an actual fix” for the presenting issue.

Perhaps part of the issue is the way we are communicating what mindfulness is, and the profession’s own difficulty in describing it. Another issue is that mindfulness has become such a trend in pop psychology (think coloring books) that it’s not deemed serious or academic enough to help in any real way.

I do think that as far as treatment plans go, mindfulness-related strategies hold the potential to help kids with a myriad of concerns, whether they be clinical presentations or simply as a way to live in a more positive, engaged way.

A simple way to explain mindfulness is to notice what’s happening right now. Notice what your body is doing. Notice what your mind is doing. Be present in the moment. It’s about paying attention in a specific way, on purpose.

This is not often a concept that reads well with young kids. But in re-reading Harry Potter for the umpteenth time (I’m not proud of the number), I began to notice some parallels between the Harry Potter stories and mindfulness strategies. I started to think about ways to explain mindfulness to kids using Harry Potter language (provided they’ve either read the books or watched the movies).

The following parts of the series do, I believe, teach us something about mindfulness strategies and techniques. There are so many strategies relating to mindfulness that it would be impossible to cover them all in one post, so I’m going to write about some of my favorites (and most effective, based on my own clinical population).

Contentment and gratitude

When Harry stumbles across an ornate, ancient mirror, the Mirror of Erised, on one of his nightly wanderings through Hogwarts, he sees an image of himself surrounded by both of his parents, smiling, happy, and most importantly, alive. For Harry, whose parents are both gone, this was a stunningly emotional moment. He tells his friend Ron to have a look and see his own family, but Ron sees himself as head boy and winning the Quiddich Cup. Confused, Harry comes to realize that the mirror reflects one’s deepest desires. Ron, who is constantly surrounded by his large family, deeply desires to stand out and achieve as his own person even more than his high-achieving brothers. Harry, who’s already famous, just wants his parents back.

Later, Professor Dumbledore confides in Harry that the most well-adjusted, content person would simply see an image of herself, as she is today, with no embellishments. What does this mean?

We spend the majority of our waking moments awash in thoughts of “What if” or “If only.” Regret, envy, and discontent follow us through our days, rendering us stuck and blind to the present moments that we are told to “cherish.” We’re not cherishing them, are we?

An important component of mindfulness is to be aware when our thoughts are going down these tracks, to stop and ask ourselves what are some things we are grateful for, to remind ourselves that the big and the small things matter. People find journaling a beneficial way to do this. Listing five things we are grateful for each day is a good place to start. Gratefulness leads to contentment when we see that our grass is just as green as the grass next door, we just have to water it! Think of thoughts as seeds, the ones we “water” (pay attention to) are the ones that grow. Water gratefulness!

Defusion techniques

Russ Harris, author of “The Happiness Trap,” talks about defusion as a way to detach or step back from our thoughts. The kids in Harry Potter learn to do this with the help of Professor Lupin and his Boggart, a dark, immortal, non-being who shape-shifts to take on the appearance of the darkest fear of whomever is closest to it.

As an example: Ron, Harry’s friend who is deathly afraid of spiders, gets confronted with the Boggart, which becomes a spider. His challenge is to picture the spider in a funny way, using humur as his weapon. He pictures it with roller-skates on and the Boggart changes into a clumsy object of fun. When Ron laughs, the fear is banished and the Boggart leaves him alone.

When our kids are learning to “defuse” from their thoughts, they can be taught to look at their fears from a distance. Their thoughts about their object of fear are not necessarily the truth, more a story that they are telling themselves. If they can look at the fear in another way (say wearing roller-skates), the story can change and their fear can shift. “The Happiness Trap” has some really good techniques for learning the skill of defusion. In the meantime, an effective question to ask is, “What are some other ways of looking at that?”

Mindfulness meditation

The Dementors are dark creatures who suck out your soul through your mouth. (Yes, this is a kid’s series, but when I write it like that it does seem a bit morbid.) In the Harry Potter series, Dementors bring about a sense of fear and hopelessness, much like the experience of someone going through anxiety or depression. After encountering a Dementor, one feels better by eating chocolate. I like this idea.

Practitioners who utilize mindfulness techniques teach us about “mindfulness meditation,” which focuses our whole attention on our sensory experiences. It may be leaving a piece of chocolate (yum!) or a raisin (less interesting but okay) in our mouths, and focusing our attention on that for a window of time, noting the taste, feeling, sensation, and so on. When our intrusive, worried “what-if” or hopeless “if-only” feelings come in (our Dementor thoughts), we are not to judge or pay attention to them (don’t water them!), but to let them pass us by, bringing our attention back to the piece of chocolate instead. People also do this by focusing on their breathing, but chocolate is yummier than air.

In starting to write this piece, I’m thinking of more and more examples of mindfulness in Harry Potter. I could go on all day! This is just a taste of the types of things mindfulness encompasses (besides coloring books!). It is really worth looking into, for both us parents and our kids. And Harry Potter provides a really good way to explain the concepts to them. Perhaps a good place to start is by reading a book about mindfulness (I recommend “The Happiness Trap” by Russ Harris) and then reading or watching (or re-reading or re-watching) Harry Potter with your kids. Mindfulness is truly a ground-breaking way to live in the moment and learn to let go of intrusive and unwanted thinking patterns.

As Dumbledore would say, “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times…if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

Top 10 'Must Haves' for First Time Dads

This list will offer some valuable insight into one of the most amazing and terrifying experiences of your entire life.

There was shit all over the walls of our one-bedroom New York City apartment. My two-week-old son managed to simultaneously pee all over me and poop on our crisp, white, living room walls.
Aside from being somewhat impressed, I immediately realized that I was an unprepared and overwhelmed first-time parent. If you’ve ever seen the State Farm commercial where the main character keeps repeating “I’m never… (insert random life event here)” – that is basically me.
Marriage and parenthood have been the best experiences of my life. Our son was born a year ago and, after countless of sleepless nights, ‘learning experiences,’ and unnecessary doctor visits, my wife and I have at last become familiar with the territory.
Admittedly, I assumed but did not know what to expect. Today’s your lucky day, though, because this list will offer some valuable insight into one of the most amazing and terrifying experiences of your entire life:

1 | Birthing classes

My wife was a marketing director prior to becoming a stay-at-home mom. Her ability to plan for the future keeps our little family in check and prepared. One of the most important things she did before our son’s arrival was to sign us up for a birthing class.
We were lucky enough to have an energetic instructor whose ability to combine Enrique Iglesias’s “Greatest Hits” with Lamaze breathing techniques kept us constantly entertained. You can only imagine the look on our faces as the yoga-pant wearing, granola eating, tenured nurse of 30 years straddled her living room coffee table illustrating how to squat and deliver a baby.
Not only did the classes bring us together in a comical and very informative way, but we were prepared for every step of the birth process.

2 | Photos

Leading up to the birth of our son, we basically relived our childhoods through pictures. Our families did not hesitate to share every photo of our youth that had ever been taken. Looking at our priceless memories made me realize how important it would be to create our own to share with our son someday.
Whether it’s a camera phone or a DSLR, just make sure that you capture all the moments you can. I captured my wife’s pregnancy and made a great photo book memento. I’m also compiling an album to share my son’s embarrassing photos when he brings his first significant other home to meet us.
Disclaimer: If your wife screams at you to get the camera out of her face while she is in labor, don’t be afraid to ask the nurse to take pictures instead. Your spouse may want to kill you then, but reliving the moment that your child came into the world is unreal.

3 | Prepared hospital bags

‘Essential’ doesn’t even begin to describe this one. Below is my recommended checklist when planning for a stay in a maternity ward. Of course, you’ll probably think of other things I may have missed.
Changes of clothes
Cell phones and chargers
Snacks
Pillow
Candy for the nurses
Medication (if applicable)
Anything you need to make the delivery room special for your wife (candles, pillows, pictures, etc.)
Toiletries
Safe car seat if you’re driving your baby home
Camera
For those driving to the hospital, I would also recommend looking into the parking situation and pricing.

4 | Scheduled date nights

It’s important to make time for your relationship. It’s hard not to feel bad leaving your little one behind, but it’s worse to forget about each other. A strong bond with your spouse will help during the stressful times. The first few weeks after childbirth can feel like your freedom is gone. It’s not gone, it’s just a change – a “new-normal.”
My mother-in-law actually kicked my wife and I out of our apartment to go on one date a week after our son arrived. Except for the tears during the appetizers, it was great.

5 | Dad-ready apparel

My son loves to be walked in his stroller, so a good pair of sneakers was key. Don’t forget you’re going to be carrying your child everywhere.
You’ll also spend a lot of time celebrating moments in your child’s life. Spruce up your wardrobe while you don’t feel bad about spending on yourself. Whether for a religious event or work, a well-tailored suit is always a must-have.

6 | Sense of humor

There will be a lot of serious moments to come. Stay light-hearted and enjoy this special time in your child’s life.
One of my favorite memories came after our son turned a week old. He was having trouble sleeping and woke us up almost every hour for a 48-hour period. We were mentally drained and feeling the physical effects of sleep deprivation. My buddy had given my son a large stuffed bear, so we decided it was time they were introduced. James’s expression was priceless, and the laughter gave us the ability to power through the pain.

7 | Baby gear

After gallivanting around the city at our own leisure for five years, we immediately started to feel caged in our small apartment. Within the first few weeks, my wife and I knew we had to get outside. Our son was born in July, so we were able to take advantage of the summer weather.
I highly suggest a convertible stroller with a snap-in car seat. It’s important to check the weight of the stroller and safety rating. At the end of the day, the stroller should be as comfortable for you as it is for your baby because it will be a constant staple in your life for awhile. Take the time to test-drive a few around the store to determine what works best for you.

8 | Defined responsibilities

My wife and I quickly assumed different roles taking care of our little guy. For us, this was a natural process because we both realized our specialties rather quickly and how they fit in with my work schedule. It’s absolutely crucial that you are there for each other.
If you haven’t done so already, learn to recognize your partner’s ‘breaking-points’ and be prepared to step in to allow for some much needed sleep or a chance to just step away for a minute to take a breath. The first month is a test of true endurance.

9 | A good doctor

This is a big one. During pregnancy, it’s paramount that you and your significant other find a pediatrician for your baby. Lots of pediatricians have scheduled meeting times or take appointments for interviews. I’d suggest meeting with a few different practices before selecting the best fit for your family.
Remember, you will spend quite a bit of time with your doctor in the first year of your baby’s life, so you need to feel comfortable and confident in their ability to take care of your child. Below are several items to think about when selecting a doctor:
What are the hours of the practice?
Does the practice have scheduled times for newborn visits?
Does the practice isolate the newborn and family from other patients when waiting for appointments? (This is important since your child’s immune system will be weak early on.)
Does the practice take your health insurance?
How long has the doctor been practicing?
What hospital is the doctor affiliated with? Will the doctor be visiting your child after birth in the hospital?
Are there other doctors in the practice, and are you comfortable/confident with them?
What are the doctor’s philosophical beliefs about child-raising (e.g. thoughts on breastfeeding or vaccinations), and do they align with yours?
Is the doctor specialized in any particular area, and does this align with any known needs for your child?
What is the on-call procedure at the practice?
Make sure to examine the cleanliness, wait time, and upkeep of the office to ensure they align with your standards.
How far is the office from where you live? Is the location of the office convenient/accessible in the event of an emergency?

10 | Patience

Let’s get real. While it’s a wonderful experience, having a child can be very stressful. When things get tough, take a breath and remember that these moments are fleeting. Don’t be afraid to ask your partner for help when you’ve reached your physical or mental limit.
I’m a strong believer that your child feeds off of and reacts to your energy, so you need to be confident and relaxed. If you have the support of family, don’t hesitate to ask for their assistance when you feel your patience running thin.
I hope this list helps as you begin your journey into fatherhood. When you think things are stressful, just remember, in 17 years your son or daughter will be asking for the keys to your car.
Please share your must-haves in the comment section below!

One Moment at a Time

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!
Giving up isn’t an option today. One mistake, one wrong decision, one moment of indulgence in self-pity will rip away everything and everyone who brings meaning and love to my life. To an outsider, my life may seem bleak: I live paycheck to (one week before) paycheck in a condo that is too small for my three children and me. It is not out of the norm for me to not know how I will put gas in my car or food on the table. My credit score is a whopping 450. I am divorced. I borrow money from my 70-year-old mother, who also helps me with laundry and other household chores. At 39, I am only at the beginning stages of my first career. I have no husband and I don’t go on vacation. I am scraping by one day at a time, but I am overwhelmed with gratitude.
No one wants to visit the depths of emotional and physical pain that I have. My story is as sad as they get. Every alcoholic mother cliché is true. I am a low-bottom drunk. My final years of drinking were spent chugging vodka straight out of the bottle just to calm the shakes and nausea. My final drink ended with me driving in a blackout at 10 a.m. after disappearing from my place of employment unannounced. My visits with my children were supervised by court order. They still loved me and I can’t comprehend how or why. They still had hope for me. They saw through the sour breath and the phony smile, and they knew the person I am today was hiding in there. They waited for me.
I was full of broken promises and empty apologies. I missed birthday parties, and I passed out in front of my children. Hangover after hangover, alcoholism told me I could drink today and not get drunk. Just a few to keep the shakes at bay, then I will stop. This is a disease that lies. This is a disease that takes over mind, body and spirit and grabs hold of families and innocent children. This disease held me so tightly, and I danced with it for so long, believing the lies and forgiving its betrayal.
I was unemployable, undependable, and (I thought) unlovable. Alcohol was my everything. My best friend and lover. My courage and fear. My entertainment and bedtime story. My motivation to live and desire to die. Alcohol came before my kids, relationships, health, and sanity. I wanted so badly to want to stop drinking, but I still longed for alcohol to run steadily through my veins every waking moment.
During my final months of drinking, I began to sense the end was near. I didn’t make sense of it at the time, but I grew so scared of myself. I would enter a package store, and as I left I would think, something terrible is going to happen tonight, and then wake the next day thanking God nothing terrible happened. This became the beginning of the end. The disease was dying. I no longer felt invincible. I no longer believed the lies of alcoholism.
I bought a gallon of vodka knowing I would drink the whole thing that night. It scared me. I was preparing for my final surrender. Surrender came on February 3, 2014. I did not want to die. I knew I would lose my oldest daughter forever. I saw it in her eyes, in the way she was beginning to pull away from me. She would not be fooled by this disease much longer. I prayed for help in my own desperate way, and God answered my prayers.
Detox. A six-month inpatient rehab an hour and half away from my kids. AA meetings. I learned to like some things about myself. I learned to do things sober. I relearned how to do everything sober. I danced sober, I laughed sober, I cried sober, and I felt things I had been numbing my entire adult life. I embraced a new way of life, and I made a commitment to God and to myself to stay sober at all costs, just for today.
I have caused pain to those I love that I cannot take away. I don’t do that today. My children waited for me, and I am going to make sure their wait was worth it. Today I don’t care how much money is in my bank account or what my credit score is. Today I am sober and God is my provider. I now live in acceptance, self-awareness, and gratitude, including gratitude for my darkest days because they made me who I am today.
Through dedication to God, to the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, and to self-love, I have accumulated 1,347 days sober, one moment at a time.

How an Anxiety Mascot Can Help You Manage Panic

When you’re in the middle of your anxiety, you cannot think calmly and rationally about all that you know about a topic. You need to DARE.

I published my first piece on Parent.co one year ago. The focus of that piece – and most pieces I’ve written over this past year – is how better research skills can make more capable, confident, and relaxed parents. I’ve written about why you shouldn’t panic about sending a baby to day care, why you shouldn’t be terrified of laundry pods, and why you can probably let your snoozing child stay in her (attended!) car seat.

I advocate doing strong and thorough research and making well-reasoned decisions based on that research, even if it acquires you a lot of internet trolls.

Except when it comes to driving.

I got rear-ended last spring. As accidents go, it was thoroughly unremarkable. Another driver reached for her cell phone and hit me. Thanks to good brakes, I didn’t hit the UPS truck in front of me. The other driver was uninsured, so the experience was expensive and frustrating, but I was thankful that no one was injured.

My son moved on months ago – really, mere minutes after the accident when the officers let him play with the siren – but I was terrified for the entire summer. When I’d get behind the wheel, even hours before then, my reptilian brain would take over and no amount of data on driving safety could convince me that either I or my child was safe. What if there’s heavy traffic and I can’t get over to the right side and I have to keep driving? What if we get hit again but this time I can’t stop fast enough? What if my son notices my panic and grows up as irrationally afraid of driving as I am? What if I get killed? What if he gets killed?

The what-ifs didn’t abate with driving, as every car coming up in my rear-view mirror was certainly about to hit me and every car turning into traffic was surely going to swerve into my son’s side of the car. Every time I’d gotten safely back to my garage, I would feel guilty for being so panicked by something that nobody else seemed to have trouble with.

With fall approaching, and along with it daily drives to preschool, I knew I needed a new approach. So instead of turning to the data on car safety or even the comparatively strong driving records of anxious drivers like me, I turned to psychology.

Anxious people are creative people

The most freeing concept in Barry McDonagh’s “DARE: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks” is that anxious people are not weak or feeble people. We’re creative people. The same creativity that lets us dream up countless hours of ambitious craft projects also grants us a unique knack for imagining worst-case scenarios.

The key to being a less-panicked person, McDonagh asserts, is being as creative in response to your anxiety as you are in summoning it.

When you’re in the middle of your anxiety (whether it manifests in the form of a panic attack or not), you cannot think calmly and rationally about all that you know about a topic. You can’t calm yourself down with reason, because you didn’t reason yourself into the situation. You need a phrase that’s both easy to remember and apply mid-panic. You need to DARE.

Defuse

The first step of the DARE strategy is the hardest. McDonagh asks readers to defuse their panic by answering each “what if” with “so what?”

What if there’s heavy traffic and I can’t get in the right lane? So what? I’ll merge over when I can and turn around at the next light.

What if we get rear-ended? So what? I can’t prevent what the driver behind me might do, but I can leave enough space in front of me so we don’t hit others. If we do get hit, well, maybe my son will get to play with the siren again, and I’ll have an excuse not to cook dinner.

Sometimes, my what-ifs seem too grim for flippant so-whats. I can joke about the chores I won’t have to finish or the facebook comments I’ll never have to read if I get injured in a car crash. I can’t joke about that happening to my son. However, I can ask myself if never leaving the house again is really living.

Allow

Once you’ve defused the situation, it’s time to allow. McDonagh argues that many of the strategies we use to cope with anxiety are designed to ignore or push away anxiety. For people who experience panic attacks, this strategy tends to backfire, as focusing on not having a panic attack only makes people more aware of the signs of an impending panic attack, which leads to panicking about panic.

McDonagh asserts that we can’t rid ourselves of anxiety, because anxiety is baked into the human condition. Our job is not to dismiss our anxiety. It’s to sit with it as more of a detached observer.

“Let this uninvited guest be welcome,” McDonagh advises. “Never get upset when anxiety shows up at your door. Smile and be the perfect host: invite it in, sit it down, and serve it tea.”

That invitation is a wonderful opportunity for anxious creatives. McDonagh encourages readers to visualize their anxiety:

If you’re a visual type, give the anxiety a mental image like a ridiculous cartoon character. Come up with a great nickname for it. Imagine it about a foot tall, telling you about all the terrible things that might happen. Give your new friend a comical squeaky voice like it has just inhaled a can of helium. It bursts through your front door no bigger than a small dog, squeaking profusely.

My anxiety mascot doesn’t have a name yet, but she’s a six-inch tall cartoonish mix between Cousin Itt and the McDonald’s fry kids. She wears black and white striped tights, a rotating collection of neon Chuck Taylors, has long purple hair in front of her eyes, and is prone to bursting into my office yelling “PANIC!!!!!”

McDonagh instructs us to be hospitable to our anxiety, to acknowledge it, and even invite it along with us. So now at 3:00 when I’m getting nervous about the preschool pickup run (and its proximity to the high school full of new and distracted drivers), I literally say, “Let’s go, Anxiety.” Then I picture my anxiety mascot hanging from the rear-view mirror.

Run toward

McDonagh’s third step is to run toward anxiety instead of away from it. The theory underlying this step is that the adrenaline produced by anxiety is not physiologically different from the adrenaline we experience when we’re excited. When we tell ourselves we’re excited by anxiety, then we will panic less about any physical sensations that accompany it. This advice may be especially helpful to those afraid of having panic attacks.

No amount of talking about being excited about driving is actually making me excited about driving. But I do find it helpful to be excited about what I’m driving toward: what my son is going to learn about trees, what I’m going to research about salmonella, and the gummy bear taste test we’re going to conduct after school.

Engage

The last step focuses on what to do after an anxiety-provoking event. When you engage, as McDonagh puts it, “you keep your anxious mind out of the way so that your nervous system can fully desensitize and relax back down.”

This step is relatively easy when you’re coming home with a car full of children. They’ll solve the engagement problem for you with homework help or requests for a ninth reading of “Captain Underpants.”

When I come home alone, I find it much harder to engage because the silence affords me an opportunity to think about all of the things that went wrong with the drive. I find it helps not to sit down. For 10 minutes, I run around clearing up from the morning, which helps me shake off my anxious feelings before sitting down with a clear head.

I don’t believe in the power of any single acronym to completely transform a life, but McDonagh’s book provides a great starting point for the creative among us who feel crippled by anxiety. Once you’ve created an anxiety mascot and invited it in, you’ll find it easier to try all sorts of things that you might not have been willing to do before – like clicking “submit” on a personal essay about your anxiety.

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The Exhausting Quest of Finding the Right Therapist (Yours is Out There)

The first time I met with a therapist, I thought I was the problem.

There’s the therapist office where I finally left after waiting two hours. Two hours after a two-month wait for an appointment. All after admitting I needed help, wrangling a babysitter, and gearing myself to unload piles and piles of barely concealed pain.

That was a great experience.

For fifteen years my neurologists prescribed me antidepressants. Technically I knew I probably could use some talk therapy too, but I had good support systems in place so the need wasn’t dire. I took a casual approach to looking for a counselor. Living in a small town meant that there weren’t a lot of options anyway.

The first time I met with a therapist, I thought I was the problem. I’d expected too much, from an office with room to walk in to some kind of interpersonal communication skills. If there is a pamphlet called “What Your First Visit to a Shrink Will Entail,” my copy got lost in the mail. I’m still waiting.

Instead there was a very uncomfortable square chair really close to The Guy’s desk. I sat in it, said a few things. Then listened. For 40 minutes. The Guy discussed his marital problems. The details have thankfully faded, but the gist is clear: His wife does not love him. He wonders what will happen when their oldest son leaves for college. She’s keeping up a charade for the kid. The therapist feels angry when he sees happy couples. It isn’t fair.

I do not know this man or his wife, but I very much know who she is and there are people we have in common. In fact, that’s why I chose this therapist. He is tangentially part of my life and has been recommended. I am horrified for this woman. Does she know that her husband talks about her? There is no way that this is the first or only time.

The troubles in my marriage and life are not fixed by this encounter. I’ve wasted not just an hour of my life, I’ve wasted my hope at getting help and a pile of goodwill and faith in the mental health professional community.

Next is the grandmotherly woman who is bland but not offensive. Our first visit is fine, I remind myself that relationships take time to build. I make another appointment. It isn’t for the next week, she has no openings. I’m not thrilled as I’m trying to make some life progress here and can tell I’m slipping into a depression, but I take the first available slot.

Two weeks later I arrive ready for some progress. We’re past the get-to-know-you part, I’m hoping Captain Counselor has a plan for our day.

She does.

Her plan is a packet of poorly photocopied documents out of a book from the 1980s. Copies of copies of copies, that sort of thing. We read through them together, word by word, page by page.

There’s no way to say this without sounding snobbish so I’ll just say it: I’m a good reader. In fact, up until recently, I was an English professor. If you want me to do some reading, that’s fine. Give me homework. Whatever this activity is, it’s not therapeutic. It’s not giving me anything. It’s not talking to me, questioning me, pushing me. It’s nothing.

Instead of getting angry, after about fifteen minutes I have a flash of peace. This isn’t my problem. Unlike the Bad Marriage therapist, I’m able to see that Captain Counselor isn’t a reflection on me. This doesn’t fix my psychological needs but it does help me avoid a cycle of blame.

When I walk out without making an appointment, the receptionist calls after me. She calls me at home, then Captain Counselor calls the next day. Am I sure I don’t want to make another appointment? I’m sure, thanks.

For women of color, research shows it’s even harder to find a therapist who can relate to the particular stresses that can come with living in our society. Living outside urban areas limits supply and the ongoing healthcare debates highlight how fragile any benefits are, even if you have insurance. Mental health coverage pre-Obamacare was less available and more expensive.

Finally, I try a video conference therapy session to counteract living in a rural small town. I’ve never internet dated so I’m a little unsure how it will go, but I’m super depressed at this moment in my life and not leaving the house seems amazing. I decide not to pretend – I don’t put on makeup or aim for good lighting. My hair…it’s realistic.

I close the door to my office to make sure the dog doesn’t get involved in the session. I’ve answered a hundred-question assessment previously, one of the better ones in my experience. We connect using a secure service rather than Skype, though at this point I don’t really care who knows how I feel. Steal my secrets, NSA, knock yourself out.

After getting over the feeling that I’m being interviewed for a job, the session goes well. Her nods and follow-up questions aren’t over the top or invasive, rather like an on-the-ball friend. She pushes a little. I have to think. I cry. It doesn’t derail things and she doesn’t make the pity face.

We plan to do it again. We’re similar in age and there’s a back and forth that feels like it might work. Virtual Counselor might be The Thing.