SLEEP/WAKE CYCLE AND EVIL IPHONES

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Over thousands of years, the human brain has evolved into an intricate and dynamic system that knows how to set its own internal clock. There’s a hormone, Melatonin, which is made by a small gland in the brain that works like the bodies natural “sleepy juice”. When we wake up in the morning (in fact it is the light passing over our retina that stops that Melatonin production) we become alert and ready to start the day as Melatonin production slows for the daytime. As the day wears on, our Melatonin production increases again around mid to late evening, making us tired and ready to hop into bed at night. The next morning, when the morning sun creeps into your bedroom, Melatonin production ceases and the wake/sleep cycle starts all over again.

Do you ever have trouble waking up and feeling energized in the winter months?  Many people report a low mood and sluggishness when the days get shorter and it has a lot to due with less sun light each day and an over-production of Melatonin.  Try throwing your curtains open when your alarm goes off, turn on lots of lights in your home, get outside each morning, even if it is only to grab a coffee.  Research shows that social cues such as a brief conversation with your local barista can help to kickstart your wake/sleep cycle too.

Now that you are a Melatonin expert, there is one big problem to address –the use of back lit screens, like iphones and computers trick our cave man brain into thinking that we are looking at the sun (light passing over the retina) thus reducing the bodies natural “sleepy juice” production.  It’s a simple formula: not enough sleepy juice at bedtime = not being tired when your head hits the pillow.  With the pervasive use of iphones and ipads as household basics, the increase in reported sleep disruption has skyrocketed!! Instead of spending the before-bedtime hours reflecting on the day, households are plugging into devices and stimulating a tired brain.

Over the past 10 years, there have been more sleeping disorders reported than any other time in history! Frequently youth share honestly in therapy that they stay up at night, texting friends and watching utube clips because they can’t sleep. Well here’s the catch, watching a back light screen is the WORST remedy for insomnia; it only makes the problem worse because it turns off your brains natural sleepy juice production. See the negative cycle? Add to that, the impulsivity of teens and their inability to self-monitor and you have the perfect recipe for sleep problems. My recommendation: take all electronics, especially those with internet access out of the bedroom at night. (hint: buy yourself ear plugs for when your teenager throws an epic tantrum at the new rule).

Chronic sleep disruption can lead to an increase in depression, anxiety, poor coping skills and trouble learning. These serious symptoms have been observed by parents, teachers and professionals alike, so set a family rule to promote good mental health and positive life skills –UNPLUG 2 HOURS BEFORE BEDTIME.

Happy sleeping…zzzzz

Inspiringly,

XX Tasha

SELF-HARM: THE GOOD GIRL’S WAY TO GET HIGH

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Ever wonder what self harm is, and why we’re hearing so much about it these days?

Self-harm is a term referring to a wide range of behaviors that individuals engage in for the purpose of intentionally causing harm to themselves; most commonly, making cuts in on the inside of the arms or legs with a sharp blade, such as a razor (because of this, self harm is often simply referred to as “cutting.”) It might be hard to understand why anyone would want to intentionally hurt themselves, but research shows that some people may self harm and have no awareness of what they are doing, called “dissociation”. One things is for sure, at the root of it, is deep emotional pain. Nowadays, an estimated 1 in 10 people in their teens and early twenties use self-harm as a coping strategy to deal with stress and anxiety. Even more shocking, the ratio of female to male is 3:1, with girls being at far greater risk to engage this behaviour than boys. In Leonard Sax’s book Girls on the Edge (2010), Sax writes that if you find a boy who cuts himself, he will most likely be the outcast or the loner, but you will find girls who cut themselves among almost every school-going demographic, including the “popular girls,” the star students, and the athletes.

Self-harm works to provide rapid but temporary relief from distressing symptoms such as mounting anxiety, the numbing of feelings, racing thoughts, and rapidly fluctuating emotions. Because the brain is equipped to handle physical injury by releasing a flood of tranquilizing endorphins, a person engaging in self-harm will experience a calming sensation which provides rapid relief from both the physical and emotional pain. The secondary hit? An elevated mood and energizing effect, not unlike a hit of cocaine. The good girl has just found a way to settle her system and feel alive! In my therapy practice, I see many beautiful, high-achieving, athletic girls, who are kind to their friends, well-liked by teachers, and “perfect” by most parents’ standards—but they suffer incredible emotional pain or numbness. These “good girls” are the cutters of today. But the brain patterns of emotional avoidance get built up long before the first cut. These girls learn to push down their real feelings, often to protect those they love, they feel emotions more strongly than others [Refer to Blog: Super Feelers} or because they believe they cannot show flaws.

It’s important to understand that self-harm is not necessarily a prerequisite to suicide, but it is an indicator that the young person is struggling; they need empathy and support.

Advice to Parents, Teachers and Coaches:

If you know someone who is self-harming, you are undoubtedly worried about their safety. There is a lot of stigma around this behaviour, and you’ll want to help without making things worse. A word of advice: do not scold or shame the individual who has engaged in self harm. Instead, tell them you are simply concerned about them. Give them your ears and eyes, respond in a calm manner, and listen to what they have been holding in. You are not going to be able to fix the problem, but your loving presence, ability to listen without judgement, and validation of their feelings and struggles, is the best strategy, hands down. In our desire for our kids to be happy, we sometimes mistakenly send the message to our kids that we can’t handle them when they are mad, sad, or scared. If you can remain calm in the moment, you send the message that you can handle their big emotions and they will be more likely to share their pain with you. We want the teens whose lives we touch to know that we are a safe place for them to find relief.

If You Are Self Harming:

Self-harm may be your way of dealing with unpleasant feelings and difficult circumstances. Know that there is no shame in wanting to find relief from your emotional pain. The problem is that this coping strategy requires hurting yourself, and the instant relief can become a preoccupation. can become an addiction, and become more frequent and invasive with time –even addictive. I have seen many young people stop self-harming once they learn healthier ways to tolerate their big emotions. The truth is that we can learn to regulate our system through relationship, as well; we build the capacity to calm our body and mind by sharing our inner thoughts and feelings with others. Some people do find other ways to work through their pain on their own, through journaling, painting, writing poems, listening to music or spending time outside. What works for each person is unique to them, and may be stumbled upon by experimenting with different options. Self-harm can be an enticing behavior to the person who cuts but I have seen the resilience of many young people, who have walked away from this behavior and developed hundreds of other, healthierways to soothe their system. The first step is to break the silence. Ask for help.

Looking for resources? Call Alberta Health Link, dial 811, to speak to a nurse, 24/7 about the support options available in your community. You can also see your family doctor, talk to a trusted parent, teacher or friend, access your school Guidance Counsellor, or reach out to a therapist.

Inspiringly,

XX Tasha

SUPER-FEELER

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The other day, a Dad asked, at what age do you see eating disorders starting nowadays and what can I do to prevent this illness from being part of my family. With Canadian statistics showing that one in three girls will engage in self-harm, eating disorder, depression and/or anxiety in her teen years, it’s well worth reading on.

 Often parents, in particular Moms, get the blame when teens develop an eating disorder, but there is a personality style that lays the foundations for these this type of mental health problem. There is a genetic variable, the Super-feeler and/or early stress in childhood that is the foundational culprit in the development of eating disorders and other internalizing disorders, such as self-harm, OCD, depression and anxiety. Genetics, societal values, peer pressure, media, life stressors, bullying and coping style are all contributing factors that help create the perfect storm.  As a parent, you can look for signs that your child is a super-feeler from preschool age and help him/her to develop skills to self-regulate and navigate their rich emotional world with success.

So what makes a super-feeler unique:

  • These individuals are the emotional-sponges of the house.  They experience emotions very intensely –their own and those of others. These are the children who are the “emotional barometer” of the family and pick up on the stress in the environment.  They are the girls who grow into the caretakers of others, but at a huge cost to knowing their true inner self.
  • Emotion avoidance is the key strategy used by these individuals.   As they experience feelings so deeply, they often jump into the role of rescuing others to protect themselves from feeling their own pain.
  • Unfortunately, in taking this stance of avoiding their true emotions, these individuals lack the ability to fully express and have their emotional needs met.  Often they find themselves in a state to being overwhelmed much of the time.  This is where the skills of emotional intelligence and how to self-regulation emotions needs to be taught, so unhealthy behaviours do not accidently get wired together and practiced.
  • As a parent, it starts with being able to tolerate big emotions yourself and allowing space to “see” and “hear” and “get” your daughter when she is feeling the hard emotions, such as fear, anger and sadness. This means things can get pretty messy and ugly at times.  You as a parent need to grow big shoulders and tolerate these moments so your little person knows that she can come to you with anything and you will listen unconditionally.

Some signs you have a super-feeler:

  • Your daughter worries about your feelings and those of her friends more than herself
  • Your child internalizes her hard emotions, but complains of chronic somatic symptoms such as a sore stomach on school days or headaches often
  • Your super-feeler may become more upset than others in the family when a parent or teacher raises their voice
  • Your daughter is very in-tune with your emotional state and perceived threat in the environment
  • Your daughter may dismiss suggestions that she feels scared, angry or sad, instead quietly avoiding these overwhelming emotions
  • Sound familiar? (Original source: Juno House handout)

A great website on the role of parents in the recovery of an eating disorder https://emotionfocusedfamilytherapy.org

A great book on growing the social/emotional world of your children~ Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, by John Gottman

As a personal rant to conclude, I think the idyllic pursuit of raising or being “the perfect girl” needs to be shattered by parents, teachers and media. It’s not attainable and it most certainly does not support the development of an integrated, healthy brain.  My advice to this Dad, allow things to be messy and encourage your daughter to speak up about her sometimes yucky inner emotional world.  Be there to applaud her along the way and help her get in touch with her inner bitch if necessary!

If there is a topic you’d like to learn more about please send me your suggestions and while you’re at it, sign up for my bi-monthly Blog.  I’d love to stay connected.

Inspiringly,

XX Tasha

INSTRUMENTAL VS. EMOTION-FOCUSED PARENTING

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I have the brain-stretching privilege of being mentored by a great Therapist, Lois Sapsford.  While discussing the challenge of parenting with her the other day, she taught me the important distinction between two different approaches to parenting: Instrumental Parenting vs. Emotional Coaching. I thought my Blog readers could benefit from my teachers enlightening wisdom.

Too often, parents focus their energy and intention on growing great kids through providing all the things, lessons and opportunities that could be imagined, but miss an essential target in the busy schedule: being emotion-focused is at the root of the role as Mom or Dad.

Instrumental parents love their kids deeply without a question and whole-heartedly want the best for their kids, so please don’t take offence if this article seems to be describing yourself.  These are the parents that make sure their kids have healthy snacks after a hockey game, a safe home, every athletic activity, music lesson and extra-curricular activity one could imagine; it seems like every need is met.  These parents will dutifully drive their kids back and forth to the arena without complaint, saying “It’s just part of being a good parent”. There is nothing these parents wouldn’t do, advocate for or find a way to buy, to make their kids’ lives more full and happy.

But the mistake is made if as a parents you do not balance your instrumental parenting -The “Doing Stuff”- with teaching your children about their emotions and attending to the emotions as they come up -The “Being With Stuff”.  We want to teach our kids that it is safe to come to us with their big emotions, in particular their fear, anger and sadness.  We need to show our kids, through example, that we have big shoulders and can handle their often loud and messy inner world.  This is our job as parents!  We don’t want our kids to accidentally learn that they need to check in with our emotional barometer before they feel OK to really share what’s going on for them or to simply push down their not-so-pleasant emotions because they know we will dismiss their feelings and minimize what they say they feel. “Don’t cry, we can fix this problem.” “Don’t feel angry.”

If you didn’t have the experience of your own emotions being “seen” and “heard” when you were a child, you may need to do some learning in this department as an adult.  If your big emotions were not tolerated as a child or you learned that certain emotions were to be feared or stifled, you might unconsciously send this same message to your kids.  For example, if anger was an unpredictable, scary emotion in your family of origin, you may fear this emotion when it bubbles up in yourself.  At an early age, you learned it was not safe, so as a Mom, anger expression by your daughter takes you to a scary place.  As a way to cope, you simply do not tolerate this emotion in your home; you shut it down and in doing so, you unconsciously send a message to your daughter that “not-so-good” emotions are scary and she needs to find a way to push those feelings down”…This is a big mistake! (We need to engage with the emotion, MAKE IT BIGGER, so our kids don’t learn to push it down).

In my therapy practice, I meet loving parents all the time who have Instrumental Parenting down pat, but need support to learn to be an Emotional Coach to their own kids.  The great news is, everyone can learn the 5 Steps to being an Emotion Coach and once the skill is fine-tuned, your relationship with your son or daughter will be closer and more bonded than ever.  My next Blog will describe these 5 Steps in detail.

Our world seems to put a lot of focus on the instrumental parenting approach, but as a Registered Psychologist, I am advocating for a tip of the scale in the other direction, one that includes teaching kids about their emotions, the accompanying body sensations and the associated

need.  All the research shows that parents who use this approach, raise children with stronger academic records, better social emotional skills and stronger mental health.  So the take home message is simple…tolerate your child’s/teen’s emotions, attend to them in the moment and accept what they feel.  This is all part of growing a beautiful, healthy brain.

Homework: watch Lois Sapsford speaking on growing a Healthy Teen Brain