We Need To Talk About Miscarriage

So previously I posted about a talk called “We need to talk about miscarriage” which I gave on Thursday 8th October at 7pm in partnership with Speak On as part of their series “We need to talk about mental health” which focuses on a range of mental health issues people are struggling with during the covid-19 pandemic. Baby loss awareness week runs from 9th – 15th October and this year in particular I wanted to contribute to the efforts to raise awareness of the mental health impact of miscarriage, and share some ideas on how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Compassion Focused Therapy could help reduce distress relating to pregnancy or baby loss and related to trying to manage emotions around pregnancy after loss.

If you would like to hear the talk, you can watch it on YouTube using this link –

Below is a more general link to the other talks on mental health awareness which are being organised by Speak On over the next week –

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/speak-on-30579274956

Building Healthy Relationships with Children After Pregnancy Loss

There can be particular challenges for parents in building healthy relationships with children born after a miscarriage or stillbirth. Parents who experience traumatic birth, post-natal depression or anxiety might also find the process more challenging. Anyone who experienced mental health problems before they got pregnant or since having children might also find it harder. When you think about it, that’s rather a lot of us – particularly during covid-19, when we know parent and child mental health problems are rising. I thought it might be helpful to talk about a few evidence based ways to boost your relationship with your child and increase their chance of developing a secure attachment style since we know secure attachment is associated with better long-term mental health, better educational and occupational success and more rewarding social relationships with others.

Dandelions vs Orchids

It might be helpful to consider whether your child is more like a dandelion or an orchid. Dandelions are able to flourish in rubbish weather without any particular care or support. Orchids are very sensitive to their environment and need particular carefully controlled conditions in order to thrive. Around 85% of children are like dandelions, with around 15% like orchids. The orchids can be particularly receptive to thriving under optimal conditions, but also particularly negatively affected by living arrangements or care that doesn’t match what they need. So for example, an orchid child may thrive in a well matched nursery placement or with a childminder they bond with, but might become anxious or disruptive in a care setting that doesn’t suit them. During covid-19, a dandelion might adapt readily to the new normal. An orchid might either thrive if aspects of it suit their needs (e.g. a shy child might benefit from smaller groups at school or nursery) or struggle emotionally with change, unpredictability or restrictions that limit their opportunity to see friends or go to preferred activities. If you can work out a way to adjust your orchid child’s environment to match their needs they could move closer towards thriving.

Baby Carriers

Research shows that children carried in baby carriers are more likely to show a secure attachment style later than children transported in a different way (Ainsfield, Capser, Nozyce & Cunningham, 1990). Baby carriers are very useful to me as a second time mum, so I was pleased to read about that study recently. I like that I can put my baby in a carrier and take my 3 year old to climb a hill, and that I can have my hands free to hoist her off a climbing frame if she gets into a pickle.

Emotion Coaching

Emotion coaching is very useful with young children to scaffold emotion regulation. There are five main steps:

  1. Awareness of emotions in both yourself as a parent and in your child

2. Seeing emotions as a chance for learning and closeness with your child

3. Validating your child’s feelings

4. Labelling your child’s feelings for them

5. Problem solving with your child and setting limits on behaviour

Interestingly, a Randomised Controlled Trial (gold standard in psychology research), found that a meta- emotion based parenting intervention was found to be just as effective as a behavioural intervention for reducing child behavioural problems (Duncombe et al, 2016).

Catch the positive emotions

Research has shown that when parents are depressed, they are more likely to pick up on negative emotions in their children. For the child, this means they might learn not to express positive feelings and to show negative feelings more often. If this sounds familiar, it might be helpful to try to deliberately watch out for moments your child is interested in something, curious, excited or happy and aim to comment on those moments. If you show interest in these feelings, your child will (hopefully!) express them more, which is likely to boost both your and their mood as well as your relationship.

Noticing your own biases

I’m aware that I’m more hyper-vigilant than other parents to the possibility of either of my children getting hurt. This isn’t unusual for parents who have experience of miscarriage or stillbirth – after all, with that experience comes the knowledge that loss and harm are possible. There is also the possibility that children can pick up on their parent’s anxiety and learn to be anxious about getting hurt themselves, and consider the world as an unsafe place. However, my daughter is a climbing monkey, very adventurous and more than happy to engage in positive risk taking. I benefited in her early years from baby classes and toddler groups where I observed that other parents were happy to chat over a cup of tea while their toddler climbed the furniture and bumped their head – and noticed that the head bump wasn’t in fact a catastrophe. I also observed that toddlers shrug off head bumps and bruises pretty easily as long as the parent stays calm and offers comfort if wanted. It takes a village to raise a child, and we can all benefit from other parents as companions on our parenting journey. I’m probably more hyper-vigilant with my son, who was conceived after a miscarriage at 14 weeks. I haven’t been able to have the same experience of taking him to groups as a mobile baby, and feel a gap for positive role models of parental risk taking – other than my husband that is, who is extremely comfortable with that role. As such, my baby has adapted by becoming a daddy’s boy who loves playing with daddy – and has sustained some – non-catastrophic – bumps.

Self-compassion for mum guilt

As a person, I struggle to tolerate guilt and usually try to act to redress the balance. However, as a mum of two it’s tricky to avoid mum guilt in that way. My husband works long hours and during covid-19 I’ve been on maternity leave so childcare has largely been my 24/7 role. Without anyone to delegate to or share care with its impossible for either child to get much 1:1 time. When breastfeeding it’s tricky to save my daughter from all foreseeable skinned knees and head bumps. My son meanwhile can’t get a peaceful feed. I find it helps to notice and name mum guilt related thoughts and feelings. Then, I can choose how to respond. Sometimes it helps to separate what I can do something about from what I can’t. For example, I noticed I was feeling frustrated about the length of time it took my 3 year old to come to the table to have her tea, and that I was finding that this led to her not finishing her tea before I needed to take my baby for a bath. I noticed I felt guilty that this tended to mean she wasn’t offered any fruit or yogurt after her main course, because my husband resumed work after finishing his own food and didn’t offer her these either. To deal with that, I chose to set firmer limits on coming to the table on time and on clearing the table before bath time. I chose to put the fruit in the living room where my husband was working so she could still access it with supervision. On the other hand, it’s trickier to find enough opportunities for 1:1 time for my daughter while caring for a very active one year old who doesn’t like naps. As such, I use my creative problem solving skills to notice and use all opportunities I do get, and choose to hold the left over mum guilt about that lightly. During covid-19 when regular contact with friends is harder, it’s probably more important than ever for our well-being as parents to practice self-care. So when I can, I choose to be kind to myself. For example, I’m a better parent with coffee, homemade cookies to dunk in the coffee and a walk in the woods after to burn off that energy and make more – so I try to carve out time for that, even on rainy days.

Resources:

If you’re reading this as a professional, I recommend Lisa Coyne and Koa Whittingham’s book “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: the clinician’s guide for supporting parents” for more reading on this topic.

If you’re reading this as a parent, I recommend “The compassionate mind approach to post-natal depression” by Michelle Cree

Celebrating your baby’s 1st birthday during covid-19

In ordinary times, people might celebrate with having family and friends round, perhaps having a full scale party. Some people might even hire a hall or combine the occasion with a naming ceremony. While restrictions due to covid-19 are easing in the UK generally at the time of writing, there are still restrictions in place around larger gatherings and local lock-downs in some areas. So re-framing expectations can be a helpful approach – if we can’t throw a party, how can we mark the occasion?

Smaller gatherings

While we may not have the option to have a big party, we can still have a few family and/or friends over, depending on what the local rules are. We can also choose to get creative with the extra flexibility a smaller group might offer for activities. We chose to go on a 1st birthday hill walk followed by a staycation.

Photo keepsakes

This might be a scrapbook, photobook, portrait for the wall, coffee mug for returning to work after maternity leave or – for us – a clock for your baby’s nursery.

Time capsules

We’ve been keeping a time capsule during covid-19 with a record of our lives during this time. We have kept birthday cards, photos, home education projects and worksheets for my daughter, paintings, stickers..

Poetry

I was introduced to the idea of using poetry to mark children’s birthdays at a parent and toddler group at our local Rudolf Steiner School. I really like the idea generally, and with more time to be creative at home now seemed the perfect time to try it. I took the advice not to fuse too tightly with poetry rules and allow the words that mattered to come to the fore. I initially liked the idea of rhyming but combining that with an alphabet structure got too restrictive.

Here’s what I came up with ..

A is for Adorable entropy and alarming charm

B is for Biting boobs, burps and head bumps, beaches and baba babbles,

C is for Car seat stand offs and covid-19, complaints, cruising, coos and cold tea cuddles,

D is for Destroying and destruction as Daddy’s little boy

E is for Eating money, grass and steak pie

F is for Fun with family and friends, first smiles and steps on sea and sand

G is for Giggles and guinea pigs, Growls and grabs, garden games and granny’s new potatoes with the Grand old Duke of York

H is for Hair pulling, hugs and head shaking with Humpty Dumpty

I is for Ice-cream and ice cube painting

J is for Jumping for joy

K is for Kicking first balls, human and otherwise

L is for Love, laughter and lockdowns

M is for Mischief, mayhem, movement, music and magic
N is for No sleep, no “free time”, no adult social life, not minding

O is for Octopus bath toys and envying the mummy octopus her limbs
P is for Peekaboo in the Pentlands, page turning and tearing

Q is for the Quickest year of my life with moments in slow motion

R is for Rages over 5 second delays for feeds, rhymes and running down slopes

S is for Squirrels stealing our strawberries causing frustration  

T is for Ten night feed nights cutting ten teeth, and for two handed walking with human pull along toys

U is for Unbelievable cuteness

V is for Vrooming the car round the kitchen
W is for Widging wiggles wanders and wonders, and for weeing on faces, including one’s own
X is for Xylophones and Xray free zones
Y is for Yoghurts and yummy specks from the floor, and for sibling Yin and Yang
Z is for Zebras, zoos, zoom and zzz (well, hopefully sometime soon?!)

Reflection

I’ve been reflecting on the similarities and differences of having my daughter as a baby in ordinary times and my son as a baby during covid-19. My daughter and I went to a lot of baby classes and groups as well as playdates. We were able to go to groups that were multi-cultural and meet families from a variety of backgrounds who took a diverse range of approaches to parenting. I enjoyed hearing about how families were influenced differently by their own backgrounds and experiences, and it helped me appreciate that while there are typical parenting patterns in Scotland that are well known and reinforced by statutory agencies, these are not always evidence based or right for everyone. For example, it is typical in Scotland for babies to sleep in cots and the NHS advice would be to do that. However, in many other countries co-sleeping is considered normal and encouraged. Both my children have quickly demonstrated to me that while cots may be advocated as the safest sleeping solution for all, they are a liability in cots. They would both roll around constantly, bang their heads and wake themselves up every half hour. They also love climbing. So for me, cots lead to no sleep and bruised heads. From baby groups with a more diverse group of mums I learned that co-sleeping could be a valid option, following guidelines on how to do it safely (no duvet, no pillow, no alcohol). By co-sleeping up to the age of 6 months I got enough sleep to function as a good enough parent which I wouldn’t have had if I persisted with the cot – so for us, co-sleeping was the best and safest fit with our needs.

With covid-19, my son enjoyed groups and playdates for his first six months, but his second six months have been without groups and his social contact generally has been much reduced due to the risks and restrictions. I’m very aware I’m lucky to be a second time mum during covid-19 and I worry about first time mums who might not get the opportunity to go to groups and new mum meet ups. A likely consequence of losing out on groups is that parents will largely meet more with other parents similar to themselves, which will reduce exposure to different solutions and experiences that might help solve parenting challenges like sleeping, weaning and toilet training – for each of these the local average is not what has worked for my children. I worry that as a society we will get more egocentric and WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic). My profession (clinical psychology) lacks diversity (too many WEIRD people in it) and is actively working on ideas to change that (see Twitter). We know that people can suffer ‘us and them’ and ‘in group vs. out group’ thinking biases and that these are unhelpful when our aim might be to connect and relate to others better. If we want our children to learn values around diversity, tolerance and compassion it will be trickier to build the foundations living in segregation. More simply though, I miss sharing the joy of my child with others. I used to enjoy the moments in music classes where one of my children would show their infectious giggle and others would giggle too. I also enjoyed watching the subtle changes every week in what each child could do. During covid-19 I’m aware of relying on myself, my own family and my own resources more as a parent. I’m aware I’m more privileged than many in having those resources, since I have a supportive family and two psychology degrees as well as a permanent job to return to after maternity leave. I feel that through my blog I can act on my value of contributing to a community to offer something to the communal pool of parenting wisdom that is increasingly driven online – it does still take a village to raise a child, even during covid-19. I’ve also joined Instagram for the first time during covid-19, and have enjoyed tapping into a more diverse range of parenting ideas there. However, I continue to miss the human connection of day to day real life relationships. Values and sadness are often two sides of the same coin – where there is a feeling to notice, it’s always worth considering if there’s a value underneath.

For any parent, a child’s birthday is a good milestone to pause for reflection. For me, some other questions I’ve been pondering are –

What memories have we made as a family this year?

Which of these do I want to hold close?

Which would I rather let go?

Given that our minds like to hang onto negative memories to protect us from repeating them, and that not being willing to have memories leads us to think of them even more, how can I accept the memories of events I’d rather had gone differently? And how can I strengthen the links with the memories that mattered most to me so I have a better chance of remembering them?

Am I happy with our direction of travel as a family? Are there any adjustments I need to make to ensure we are moving towards our shared values? How have we been taking care of ourselves as a family this year? How well are these structures meeting our needs as individuals?

What progress have we made this year as a family?

How has having a second baby changed our relationships with each other?

What little things about my son at this age have I noticed recently? What early signs can I see of the toddler he’s becoming?

What do I hope for us in the future?

Outdoor Metaphors to do with kids

Metaphors are a big part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. For children and young people, they need to be concrete and clearly linked to their lives to be accessible. For very young children, they may need to be made or acted out so they can literally experience the metaphor. We’ve been having fun with metaphors recently so I thought I’d share some of our favourites which may have wider appeal. When you consider how many metaphors the average fairy tale or Disney film contains, the power of the metaphor for engaging children in talking about their feelings becomes clear. Inside Out and Frozen are both packed with metaphors about coping with feelings – and I’ll admit I watched both before having my own children as an excuse.

Boats

As we move into the uncertainty and change of the return to nursery, school, social lives and workplaces for many of us, both families and the individuals that make them will diverge on the right path through for them. While wherever we live there are likely some government rules, people may have different views on how strictly they follow these with some people choosing to abstain from visiting places that are technically permitted while others are keen to max out their allowance of what is now permitted and still others may be sceptical about the need to even follow any rules. Some may find it too hard or just feel safe with socialising more. There’s huge potential for conflicts and arguments, with a side order of psychological distress. A couple of favourite boat quotes come to mind. One very apt one is “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul” by Ivan Joseph and another “We may sail our own path but we can sail side by side”. Our own values can be a compass as we try to navigate uncertain seas with no port vaccine in sight yet and crashing waves of other’s views in a high wind of doubt. For me, I choose to value family and showing compassion for both my family and other’s families by continuing to make choices that fit with safety and health. I also choose to try to respect other people’s right to make their own choices based on their own values. My daughter and I painted and decorated the boat pictured while sharing these ideas along with our latest Q & A on coronavirus.

Roses

Like most families, we’ve had our moments during lockdown and beyond when there have been tantrums, frustration, tears and impatience. But we’ve also had more moments of love, joy and laughter. My daughter and I were talking in the garden about how our family members are like roses – beautiful people with thorny spikes. We talked about how all people do things we like and don’t like, and when you love someone you are open to the idea of accepting all of it, not just the preferred parts.

Waves on the beach

Like most people but especially 3 year olds, my daughter has strong emotions. We’ve talked about how big feelings are like waves – they can surge and knock over the windsurfers but the surfers can get back up and carry on – just like we can carry on with our lives while big feelings come and go. For a young child, this might mean accepting some tantrums and meltdowns are inevitable. If both parent and child can let go of the blame and shame game that can show up with tantrums, we can channel our energy instead into picking up the pieces when the waves pass and dealing with the needs underneath the feelings (hunger? thirst? need for more outdoor play? need for 1:1 time? need for a screen break?).

Boomerang on the beach

My husband and daughter love throwing our boomerang on the beach, watching it arc through the sky and running after it. Often it’s tricky to tell how or where it will land as it depends on the wind speed and direction. We’ve talked about how random acts of kindness are similar – you don’t always know who it will land with or how they’ll receive it, but you can enjoy the process and hope for the best. Writing blog posts is like that for me – I don’t know who will read them or what they’ll make of my writing. I enjoy the journey of it and my intention is to share both my professional perspective as a Clinical Psychologist and my personal take on how ACT applies in my family life while I’m on maternity leave during Covid-19 for anyone who’s interested and might want to try it with their family.

Crossing the Bog

There are of course lots of ways to cross a bog, the challenge being to avoid sinking in and getting wet feet. My husband jumped over it, I walked round it and my daughter stepped on the grassy islands through it to get to the other side. The same is true for most problems – people choose different solutions based on their own strengths, weaknesses and preferences even in the same situation. Sometimes we fuse with our own solution though which can blind us to the possibility that other options might suit us – or others – better. This often applies in parent and toddler groups – different solutions suit different families when it comes to feeding babies, getting everyone a decent night’s sleep and responding to meltdowns among other challenges. With these, it can also be worth considering that if your existing solution isn’t working, it might be time to defuse from it and try something new. With your children, it can also help to remember that they might experience the same problem you did as a child, but find a different solution. For example, I solved the problem of being scared of falling off big climbing frames by not going very high up. My daughter at 3 is already happy to feel the fear and do it anyway, and to climb 20 feet up over my head. I constantly need to remind myself to hold my thought that she might fall lightly and have some faith in her.

Accepting your path has poo on it

When you go hill walking, this literally comes up all the time. It also comes up in ordinary life. Often families can fall into traps or bad habits, especially if we’re operating on auto pilot. Similarly, if we’re not looking where we’re going, it’s too easy to step in the poo on the hill. If we practice using our noticing skills, we can choose better how to move through in both situations. Another way I’ve used this metaphor is to talk about distress tolerance. If we stopped walking and turned around as soon as we saw poo, it’d be a short and uninspiring walk minus some beautiful views and good times. Similarly, if we bail on social activities whenever someone says something we don’t like, stop working on a puzzle because it’s hard or stop working on weaning or toilet training because of the mess, we’d end up with a life that would be harder and poorer with less of what we value in it. If we can keep going and tolerate the poo being there without walking right in it, life can get richer and more rewarding.

The cloud with the silver lining

During lockdown in the garden we often saw the sun disappear behind a cloud, leaving a glow around the edges. We talked about how this was a bit like how our relationships with friends and family were during lockdown – and some relationships still are that way. Our friends and family are still around, even when we can’t see them, and if we tune into it, the warmth is still there for those relationships. At some point, the sun will come out from behind the clouds and we will see our loved ones again. Similarly I like this line from the musical “Les miserables” – “Even the darkest day will end and the sun will rise”.

Resources

The big book of ACT metaphors by Jill Stoddart, Niloofar Afari and Steven Hayes

Here’s a description of metaphors that would often be used in therapy, some of which are accessible for children and young people. The beach ball and passengers on the bus are two of my particular favourites – https://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/metaphors.htm

ACT Auntie has some great video clip doodles about using metaphors to teach skills for coping with feelings on YouTube, like this one –

Coping compassionately with pet bereavements

We were very sad to lose our guinea pig Fudge recently. I’m a believer in trying to salvage some good from pain, so in Fudge’s memory I wanted to write about supporting children – and particularly ourselves as parents – to cope with the loss of a pet.

Child development and grief

Our guinea pig Harley as a baby

Depending on the age of your child when your pet dies, they will have different needs. They may be sad, not sad, or just sad that you’re sad. They might have questions about death. They might need routine and reassurance more than usual, and be upset if grieving for a pet disrupts their normal activities. It’s also possible for their needs to clash with your needs.

My son is currently 11 months old and keen to be kept close at the moment due to the increased pace of social life for us as a family as we’ve moved from lockdown to preparing to go back to work for me. He’s very sensitive to any shifts in my emotions, and even subtle changes can unsettle him. When I cried over Fudge, so did he. I found it helped to hold him facing outwards so he was less exposed to my face expressions.

My daughter is 3 years old and very curious about pretty much everything – we’re constantly getting why, what, where and how questions. She’s interested in my feelings but less directly upset by them. So no tears from her, but LOTS of questions about death – “Why did he die? What happened? How long do guinea pigs normally live for? The hair hasn’t died – why not? can I still stroke him? What do we do with Fudge now? Why do we bury him? When can we get a new guinea pig? Will you die? Will I die someday? Will the things in the world still be here after we’re gone? “. She also asked the same questions on repeat and to both me and my husband separately in order to check she had the facts right. Actually, that’s still an ongoing process. I’ve got less sensitive to it now and I understand the need for the questions, but on the day Fudge died I needed to take a lot of deep breaths and practice being patient. We take the approach of being honest, factually accurate and as simple as possible for answering 3 year old questions for a couple of reasons – my husband is a scientist and that’s how he answers all questions, it’s developmentally appropriate and it’s easy to keep the story straight when repeats are requested.

This article has more information on what is typical for babies, toddlers and preschoolers in terms of grief and also more ideas of how best to support them –

https://www.kidshealth.org.nz/bereavement-reactions-children-young-people-age-group

Compassion

Stroking or cuddling a pet is a great way to tune into compassion

Because love and loss go hand in hand, loss hurts as much as we loved the person (or, in this case, pet) we lost. What can help heal us is love and compassion. So I was particularly mindful in the weeks after we lost Fudge of bringing more compassion into our family life and also being more self-compassionate. For me, that means we’ve been doing more baking, gardening, walking and painting than usual as I find these activities soothing myself and my children also enjoy them. I’ve also allowed myself more downtime where I’ve had a choice – so choosing a bubble bath once the children are in bed rather than tidying my usually chaotic living room. I’ve tried to spot bubbling up conflicts before they erupt and head them off with kindness, and to be patient with irritations. I’m not claiming to have always been successful, but having a commitment to the intention and returning to it has been helpful as a guide.

Connection

I’ve written about relational frame theory in my “Introduction to ACT” page. The theory for anyone not familiar with it is that as we learn language, we also learn to link one idea with another, even if the link is symbolic rather than literal. This can be insightful when we’re dealing with our feelings, including loss. For me, any time I have a bereavement, whether of a pet or a human, the loss brings up the memories of other losses. My Dad died 11 years ago but when I was growing up he used to breed guinea pigs – Fudge was the last descendent of the guinea pigs he bred when he was alive. I’ve had more guinea pig associated Dad memories in my thoughts over the last week or two. I’ve found myself having more conversations with my daughter about who her Granda was and sharing these memories with her. Together we painted two gnomes – one to keep in our garden where Fudge is buried, and one to go beside my Dad’s grave. In that way, we can feel connected and I can feel I’ve acted on my values in symbolically including my Dad in our lives still.

Noticing and letting go

It is helpful to notice what your mind offers when making meaning of a loss as some of your thoughts might be helpful and some not. I noticed the thought of “uh-oh, losing a guinea pig before meant I was also about to lose a pregnancy – so what’s going to go wrong this time? .. Oh no wait, I’m not actually pregnant this time so that can’t happen again!” Our minds are often working on overdrive to protect us, and if we feel low can go into negative spirals. It’s helpful to stand back and observe this happen if it does and choose whether or not to engage with the thought. My mind on the other hand also offered me lots of happy memories of guinea pig moments. I chose to engage with those thoughts instead, which led me to take a trip through my photo albums and enjoy the memories.

Parent Anger Management

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Apologies in advance as this is a long one – feel free to skim the headings, take what you like and leave the rest. We had an experience of anger management ourselves as a family last week with the tricky combination of my daughter’s typical 3-year-old boundary pushing, connection seeking and risk taking behaviours and my sometimes fiery tempered husband’s ‘in the zone: do not disturb’ headspace working from home on the living room sofa. Contributing factors could include breastfeeding my baby limiting my ability to give my daughter the undivided 1:1 attention she was seeking, rainy weather giving us all cabin fever and the cumulative pressure cooker effect of the whole family being together 24/7 for the past four months. I’ve decided to write about this topic because it got me thinking about how many other families with less coping resources and more stressors pressing on them than ours might have been experiencing and maybe struggling with anger during covid 19.

I’m also aware with my professional hat on of the barriers parents might have in seeking help for coping safely with anger. First, there’s stigma – the fear of being judged as a parent for not managing well enough, the old fashioned idea that people should wash their dirty laundry in private and not involve outsiders. There’s also the fear of social work involvement, child protection and children being taken into care if the anger problem is more serious. For those brave enough to seek help despite the stigma there may be the challenge from the system of where to ask. CAMHS may suggest parents seek help from Adult Mental Health services but then unless the GP mentions anxiety or depression in the referral, the referral might be rejected on the grounds that anger is not in itself a mental health problem. However – parents regularly expressing uncontrolled anger may lead to chronic and enduring mental health problems for children, particularly if this spills into emotional or physical abuse. For those who don’t meet mental health service criteria, they may try self-referral to social work services, or concerned nursery or teaching staff might make a referral. However, depending on the local threshold, the anger management problem may not be significant enough to access input and the stress while waiting for assessment may put strain on the family relationships. Locally there may be counselling available but what exactly is on offer for free may be variable. During Covid-19 where counselling services have been increasingly delivered online, that may help or hinder help seeking for anger management depending on people’s preferences. Ultimately if the anger issue is more serious, the pros of seeking help – and if necessary seeking someone to help find help like a GP – outweigh these barriers. For those who may be willing to read online but not access formal help though, I thought sharing what I know about anger as a professional and a parent could do some good.

Traffic light system

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It can help to manage anger at home using a traffic light system

Green = everyone is calm, relaxed or happy – this is a good time to consider pro-active strategies to keep it that way

Amber = at least one family member is showing signs of irritation or frustration which could escalate or lead to others being impacted if no action is taken. Preventative strategies are now needed.

Red = at least one family member is about to or actually has lost their temper and has started to verbally or physically express their anger – action is needed now to de-escalate, contain emotions and limit the damage

Depending on the age of your children, it might be helpful to teach them the traffic light system for reporting feelings and ask them how they’re doing from time to time. It might also help to check in with your partner if you have one about how they’re feeling. Since covid-19, life has included a lot of change, to the point it may seem life has been turned upside down with the carpet pulled from under our feet – and we don’t know when we’ll have that carpet back where it was again either. So even the most emotionally stable among us likely has some amber moments, and even if you’re feeling green, it can feel good to know someone cares enough to check in.

Pro-active

Even if you don’t particularly identify with feeling angry at this point in your life and nobody else in your home does either, it can still be helpful to consider some pro-active strategies to keep you all safe and well. Taking a car maintainance analogy, this is a bit like checking your tyre pressures and oil level before going on a long journey.

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

Eating well, staying hydrated, sleeping enough and exercising regularly can all help keep your family healthy mentally and physically. As temperatures rise during the summer, it’s worth considering that over-heating can trigger frustration and irritability so water bottles, paddling pools and desk fans can all help too. As covid-19 looks set to be with us a while longer, it’s helpful to continue to balance physical and mental health risks for your family too. If the risk from going out can be minimised, family wellbeing is likely to benefit from regular time out and about. If you find yourselves angry during a local lockdown period however, burning off steam on an exercise bike or using a punchbag may still help.

Education

Perhaps not all parents are aware of the impact on children that losing our temper can have. Lucy Reynolds, a Paediatrician, conducted a review of the evidence regarding physical punishment of children. The review found strong and consistent evidence from 98 studies that physical punishment damages children’s wellbeing and carries the risk of escalation into physical abuse. It also highlights evidence that physical punishment increases aggression, anti-social behaviour, depression and anxiety in children, which may continue into their adult lives. The link below will give you more information if you’re interested in learning more.

https://www.togetherscotland.org.uk/news-and-events/news/2015/11/equally-protected-a-review-of-the-evidence-on-the-physical-punishment-of-children/

Mindfulness

If you practice mindfulness regularly you will get more skilled at noticing your feelings and thoughts. If you regularly practice mindfulness with those you live with, you’ll also get more skilled at tuning into theirs. Mindfulness might help you notice little things that bother you or triggers, and help give you a calmer headspace to step back and consider how you want to respond when these triggers present themselves in your day to day life. Mindfulness might also help you notice traps. It can be helpful to discuss what you notice regarding triggers and traps with your partner (if you have one), when the kids aren’t around and to decide together how you want to respond based on your parenting values. If you have a plan when you’re calm, you’ll be better prepared when the triggers show up to respond in a way you choose rather than to just act out your feelings and regret it later.

If you want to learn more about mindfulness, check out the mindfulness page on this website for some signposts to start with.

Noticing old stories

Another benefit of mindfulness is it might help you notice some of the old stories you carry from your own experience of being parented. Mindfulness can also help you step back from these and look at them through adult eyes and choose whether to still buy into the story – or decide that it once was helpful (or not?), but may not be something you want to bring into parenting your own child. When it comes to regulating our children’s emotions, this is much easier if we had positive experiences of our parents regulating ours. For those who didn’t we can feel anxious, bewildered and overwhelmed when our children show big emotions. We may not be comfortable with the feeling of vulnerability that comes with those feelings, and be unwilling to see ourselves or be seen by others as weak. It can be helpful to notice if there are any old stories at play here. For example, the “she can’t get away with that” story or the “I need to scare her so she doesn’t do that again” story or the “I won’t be shown up” story. When we can name it as an old story, we can get some distance from it which can empower us to choose whether to buy into it or not. Sometimes old stories were once useful for us, perhaps to keep us safe or protect us. However, old stories that were helpful when we were children who couldn’t choose our circumstances may be less helpful to us as adults if they clash with our parenting values or don’t suit our current situation.

Anger can be like an iceberg – so what’s underneath?

Photo by Jean-Christophe Andru00e9 on Pexels.com

Sometimes we feel angry because it’s easier than acknowledging a more vulnerable or messier feeling underneath which we’re not willing to have. Perhaps we’re unwilling to be anxious or depressed, and defend ourselves from feeling that way by showing anger. Maybe we also struggle to acknowledge our children feel anxious or sad and get angry with them for showing their vulnerability too. Or, maybe we use alcohol or drugs to drown our wobbly feelings, and act them out as anger when our inhibitions get worn away. When we avoid feelings, our lives get messy. As parents, if we avoid acknowledging our feelings we also avoid managing them. If we don’t manage our anger, our relationships with our children and with ourselves get damaged. Are you willing to acknowledge your child’s feelings and your own in the service of having a healthy relationship with your child? If you can, you’re in a much more empowered position.

We know that post-natal depression is more common now due to the social isolation that new mums might experience due to covid-19. For example, some mums have laboured without birth partners and experienced traumatic birth without the support of those close to them. Many women have not been able to have face to face meetings with health visitors to discuss how they are feeling in themselves. It hasn’t been possible to go to face to face baby classes or baby and toddler groups, so those without an existing support network will have found it harder to make new mum friends. Anger can be part of post-natal depression – it’s important to say that help is available for post-natal depression, but it might take more courage to bring the topic up over the phone. For others, cabin fever induced by shielding, the frustration of trying to work at home while juggling child care and feeling that neither role is going well, or pre-existing mental health problems like anxiety or depression might be fueling anger. For some it could be that the legitimate avoidance of going out due to covid-19 lockdown has made it now scary to leave the house at all, leading to panic attacks. If you can deal with what’s underneath the anger, the anger iceberg may melt away.

Healthy Reading

The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Managing Your Anger by Russell Kolts– A book based on compassion-focused therapy on how to bring compassion to the pain of anger and feeling threatened.

Depending on what is underneath your anger, some of these resources based on cognitive behavioural therapy might be relevant – https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/Looking-After-Yourself

Healthy viewing

Prevention

Consider what you need most yourself when you’re angry

When I’m angry, the two things I crave most are connection and compassion. I want to feel heard, understood, validated and cared about. I don’t want to be silenced or walked away from, so it’s interesting that angry children are often sent to time out – often what they might really crave is time in. That said, self-imposed time out as an adult can be invaluable to give yourself enough breathing space to regulate your own emotions and prevent yourself saying or doing something you might regret and be unable to take back. While you are having time out, you can still try to respond to yourself in a compassionate way, giving yourself credit for walking away and engaging in something you find soothing – whether that means listening to angry music with your headphones on, going out to yell in the garden or venting to a friend on the phone, going for a run round the streets or having a cuppa.

Mediating between family members who have a disgreement can help them see each other’s perspective. It can help to name feelings for children, and to voice your own to them. For example, “I’m noticing the thought that..”, “I want…”, “I need…”. It can also help to name the barrier to getting what you want or need. For example, “I’m noticing that I’m feeling frustrated because I want us all to go for a walk to the beach together but it’s taking a lot longer for us all to get ready than I’d like. Can I help you get your shoes on so we could go?”. “I” messages can be more helpful than “you” messages – for example “I’m feeling annoyed” rather than “you’re annoying”. It can also be helpful if someone is angry to say things like “I hear you”, “you’ve got a point”, “can you tell me more about that?” “What can I do?” “Can I help you?” “Can you help me understand?” rather than things like “shush!”, “shut up!” or “go away!”. If the latter feel more tempting, it might help to take a few deep breaths or try placing your hand over your heart to feel it beating, and reminding yourself you can still be there for you and your family before choosing how to respond.

De-escalation

However wonderful a parent you are or aspire to be, it’s likely that at some point from birth to the age of 18 someone in your home will lose their temper and express their anger. So even if you don’t think it could ever happen in your home, it may be worth considering what you’d do if it did. The aim with managing anger is to reduce how often anger is expressed in a harmful way and to limit the damage caused when it does happen like that.

My daughter and I decided to mindfully paint the flower pot in the picture above during my baby son’s nap. She focussed carefully on painting within the lines to colour the flowers and stems. Then, she practiced using her noticing skills to avoid getting the background blue colour on the flowers. Her concentration skills have been improving with the extra mindfulness opportunities we’ve found with home educating during COVID and she did really well – however, my baby son then woke up, and she was frustrated and disappointed I had to go to him.

While I was changing my baby’s nappy, she somehow got hold of a water spray to “clean”. She then decided to use it to spray the electric plug sockets. I then heard conflict erupt as my husband noticed what she was up to.

Time out

How you use time out will depend on which family members of what age are feeling angry. If siblings are fighting, separate them. If an adult and child are clashing, the adult in conflict may need to remove themselves to a different room and let a calm adult take over for a while. It might help to avoid “the blame game” as we all get angry sometimes and we can all say and do the wrong thing, particularly in the heat of the moment. Sometimes you might be the angry one, and sometimes you might be the calm one. We all have our own triggers and hot spots too, so it can be helpful to respect each other’s windows of tolerance and limits. For us on this occasion, my husband removed himself to another room and as the calm one, I stayed with the children.

Regulate and contain

If children have experienced anger from a parent, they may feel angry, hurt, sad, scared, shocked or overwhelmed. They may want you to witness their upset before you will be able to contain it. They may want a hug. They may want you just to sit quietly with them for a while. They may need a snack or a drink. They may need you to walk or run with them to let off steam. They may find jokes and humour helpful to defuse feelings. Distraction may be helpful later, as long as first they have felt heard, understood and validated. It will be helpful to reassure the child they are safe and loved. It will be helpful to avoid strong statements of blame or criticism, as for children if you criticise the other parent you are also criticising a part of themselves. It is helpful to make a distinction between who people are vs. what they do – i.e. we love you, we don’t love it when you name call/yell/kick/hit/bite.

As part of regulating feelings, we finished painting the flower pot – sometimes I might have been tempted to paint to the edges myself, but that day I didn’t. I thought it would be helpful to allow the flower pot to remain slightly imperfect, to match the reality that as containers for our children’s feelings and behaviours, we are all imperfect parents. I want us to be humble and honest enough to acknowledge that, to ourselves and to our children. If we can accept ourselves as we really are, it gives us a chance to keep doing better. It also models self-acceptance to our children who will likely have plenty experience of losing their tempers and making mistakes too as they grow up.

Repair

Clarify what happened

To work out where to go from an angry incident, it helps to build up an accurate picture of what happened that encapsulates everyone’s perspectives. Adults and children do not always see things the same way. For example, my daughter was not too bothered about her Daddy’s angry words, but she was outraged that he sprayed water in her face. I on the other hand was more concerned with the words. Meanwhile, his perspective was that he had saved her life by separating her from the water spray as he was terrified she or he would get an electric shock.

Debrief thoughts and feelings

It can be helpful to assist a child to identify, name and vocalise what they felt and thought about an emotionally intense experience. My daughter was able to identify that she had been looking for connection from spraying the socket, and that from her perspective negative attention was as desirable as positive attention. She found it trickier to appreciate her Dad’s perspective and also to understand the safety issues regarding water and electrics, as she had no previous knowledge or experience of those.

Restorative conversations

After timeout, my husband was able to apologise to our daughter for losing his temper and overreacting. We will all mess up as parents with our children, on repeat. In paralell, they will also mess up on repeat. It is hard work and toxic for our wellbeing to hold onto grudges, and trying instead to hear the other person out with compassion and respect can help build bridges and maintain connections. Repairing ruptures in our relationships can also help model conflict resolution to our children, teaching resilience for when they need these skills in nursery, at school and on the playground.

Problem solving – how to prevent it happening again?

There are a few steps to problem solving, the first being to clearly describe the problem. The next step is to consider options for resolving it. Then, we can weigh the pros and cons of different options. Then, we pick the best solution to try. Then, we try it out. Afterwards, we evaluate our success and consider whether we need to try again. In our problem solving discussion we identified there were risks to manage regarding our daughter’s access to water around electrical appliances and agreed that water spray like cleaning sprays would be kept in a high cupboard out of her reach, and that she would only have access to water under close adult supervision. We also identified that she was having difficulty understanding what we we were explaining about the risks. Our daughter is very sophisticated in her use of vocabulary which can make it easy to forget that she is only 3, and emotionally and psycho-socially she still has a lot to learn – particularly about risk assessment. Often children will try to experiment with play to explore risk taking, and it can be helpful to provide education if they hit on something new they haven’t learned about yet. and that we needed to provide some education about electrical safety that was developmentally appropriate and accessible for her – thanks YouTube! Another time, we might have tried a book. Pictures can help younger children understand more than words alone.

Logical consequences

A point of agreement for us was that it would probably be unhelpful for there to be no consequences for spraying a plug socket with water. One natural consequence of it was that my husband got angry, and another was that the doorbell was out of action for a day (sorry Sainsburys delivery man!). For me, because there had been anger already, further consequences would have felt too harsh. However, otherwise I would have used logical consequences such as removing waterplay and bath toys for the day.

Adult conversations – boundaries and house rules for adults too

There will be times as parents when it is helpful to talk through adult concerns separately from children. It is not helpful for children to witness their parents arguing unproductively, although hearing parents constructively work through a problem would be useful if both adults can do so calmly and in a developmentally appropriate way for the child. For us, it was helpful to have a refresher chat on boundaries for anger and to agree that if my husband felt that way again, he would remove himself to another room as soon as he noticed and I would immediately take over with the children. We also agreed on the need to balance mental and physical health regarding covid-19. For us since the risks have reduced and my husband continues to work from home, we agreed it would be helpful for myself and the children to get out and about more during the day so he could have peace to work and we could avoid cabin fever.

Using play to explore experiences

For young children, they will often try to make sense of their experiences through play. The following day I noticed my daughter using words her Daddy had used towards her in play with her baby brother. I reflected this back to her and it gave us another opportunity to talk it over. Depending on the experience, play can also be a helpful way to resolve feelings by ending the scenario differently. For example, my daughter has a doctor bear who “was struggling to look after her patient” that day. I was able to express some empathy for the bear’s struggle and problem solve how the bear could manage better.

Compassion

The next day, my daughter and I mindfully baked a chocolate brownie for us to enjoy as a family. We both find the process of baking soothing and comforting. I’ll admit we did have to defuse from some critical words from my husband along the lines of “you need to learn how to cook properly!” as it was a bit squidgy in the middle (my idea of a good brownie). However, even by his exacting standards it got an 8/10 and an “adequate” rating once he ate it. It can be helpful to allow constructive criticism from someone who loves us while holding it lightly, as critics often come from a caring place of trying to protect, shape and improve us. However, it is not helpful to fuse with and hold tightly to these critical comments as that can lead to resentment and bitterness. Rather, as I was eating my – delicious! – brownie I was voicing my enjoyment out loud, while telling my husband I was letting the critical words bounce off me like waves. Pleasingly, said words stopped once he got a mouthful of brownie. I also noted that when we ate a shop bought cake later that week his comment was “it’s not as good as your cake, though it is cooked”.

Domestic Violence and Abuse

Anger can affect families in different ways. For some families, arguments are rare and avoided carefully. For others, they are normal but not upsetting or intense. For some, they might be occasional but big blow ups when they do happen. When considering what is acceptable, opinions might vary. However, if in your home someone is regularly expressing uncontrolled anger, you might be feeling unsafe, or worried about how to keep your children safe.

It wouldn’t be right to write about anger without acknowledging the reality that the prevalence of domestic violence and abuse has escalated during covid-19 for all the reasons I’ve written about above. I’m also aware someone living with abuse could find this article and it could be their (your?) chance to find an exit route. There are a few really important things to say. Firstly, the perpetrator of abuse holds responsibility for their actions. If someone has verbally, emotionally or physically hurt you at home – it’s not your fault. Whatever you’ve said or done, you deserve to be safe and treated with respect. If someone at home has hurt your child – it’s not your child’s fault. Children will push buttons, boundaries and limits and they need to be able to do this safely – it’s not ok to hurt them as punishment. It’s not ok to allow anyone else to hurt them as punishment either – however much you love that other person. Children can’t protect themselves from violence and abuse – that’s an adult job, and we are all responsible for that. Sometimes taking responsibility can mean noticing we are struggling and asking another adult for help. Emotional abuse leaves the biggest mental health scars of any form of abuse – so it’s important to watch how we talk to our children and how any other adults at home or involved in their care talk to them. We know that domestic violence affects people from all walks of life and can be perpetrated against men, not just women – but it is most commonly women who are on the receiving end of abuse, and it becomes more likely in families under high stress and pressure. If you’re feeling uncomfortable after reading this and concerned about yourself, your partner, your children or anyone else -help is available.

If you or your child is ever in a situation where you feel either of you is at risk of physical harm, you can contact the police for support to defuse the situation and keep everyone safe. The link below takes you to the Police Scotland page on domestic abuse.

https://www.scotland.police.uk/keep-safe/dom-abuse/

Womens Aid offer support to women and children affected by domestic abuse. They run a program called the Cedar Project for children who have experienced domestic violence and with my professional hat on I’ve referred many families there for support, as the feedback I’ve heard is very positive. Womens Aid also have information and advice on staying safe during Covid-19 on their website for anyone experiencing domestic abuse and also for concerned friends and family.

Home

Another source of support may be from Refuge, the national domestic abuse helpline. They have a helpful section on what domestic abuse is, your rights and options and support available. They also have a section on how to support someone you care about who you are worried may be experiencing domestic abuse.

https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/

It is possible to self-refer your family for social work support if you feel that would help. The referral pathway in each area will be different as will the nature of the support on offer. If you look up your local council online though, you can find out more. If you are unsure, your GP or any professional involved with your children will be able to help you. Again with my professional hat on I am aware of plenty families who have found social work referral has unlocked much needed help and support options they couldn’t access otherwise.

You could also contact the NSPCC for advice if you are concerned about your own child, or another child you know. They offer a helpline and can help talk you through concerns and options.

https://www.nspcc.org.uk/keeping-children-safe/our-services/nspcc-helpline

It can be difficult to raise the topic of domestic abuse with friends and family, but pre-covid we know that 1 in 3 women were affected at some point in their lives. So if that number is rising, it’s time to talk and you will find you’re not alone. If you still have doubts about seeking help but feel unsafe at home – what value would be served by staying quiet? And by speaking up? What is most important for you about that? How can you move towards what is most important for you? What would be your first step? Go gently with yourself.

If you’re feeling uncomfortable about how you manage your own anger after reading this, do you feel willing to seek some help in the service of being the best parent you can be to your child? For self-help, I hope some of the links I’ve signposted to are useful. For professional help, a chat with your GP or any professional you trust who works with your child will hopefully help you work out the way forward. Go gently with yourself.

ACTively coping with connection seeking behaviours, meltdowns and separation anxiety in the “new normal”

I’ve been reflecting this week on what it’s like through a child’s eyes to come out of lockdown and into a new world of shifting rules and expectations, change and uncertainty. I’ve also been thinking about how this affects both parent and child attachment styles and what all this means for big emotions, meltdowns (both parent and child) and crucially, how do we respond to this emotional cocktail? Now to unpack more about what I mean ..

The “new normal” through a childs eyes

My 3 year old daughter had until recently gone for over three months without playing with any children other than her baby brother. She’s had both her parents at home with her 24/7. She’s been expected to adjust to daddy working from home for the rest of the year. She’s had to learn that when daddy is ‘in the zone’ he is not open to use as a climbing frame. She’s had to adjust to a whole new home schooling routine as she now hasn’t been in nursery for a year, since she stopped for my maternity leave. For us, there have been highlights, low lights, a lot of love and laughter. We’ve enjoyed the extra bonding time as a family of four while I’ve been on maternity leave, and it’s been especially good for my husband bonding with my baby son. From my perspective this has gone almost too well, since I am no longer the unchallenged favourite caregiver. Rather, he’s a daddy’s boy – quite a feat for a breast-fed baby. The challenges though are that both my children have missed socialising and I’m anticipating that both will struggle with separation anxiety when they will soon be faced with the prospect of starting nursery when I return to work.

Attachment Theory and Covid-19

We all have our own usual attachment style as adults for how we relate to others. For the lucky 40 % we are mainly secure and this style is linked to better outcomes in education, employment and relationships. For about half of us we have a mainly insecure style. We might feel generally anxious in our relationships, clinging and hanging on tight, fearing abandonment. Or, we might feel avoidant and dismissive, preferring to keep others at arms length literally and emotionally. The remainder might have a disorganised style with no clear sense of ourselves or our needs in relationships, struggling to get our needs met, reacting and drifting from moment to moment.

Our children will also develop their own attachment style from birth. If we are secure ourselves, we may be able to respond in a consistently warm and attuned way to our babies, teaching them that we can be trusted to meet their needs for warmth, food and shelter and that the world is a safe place where most people are basically good. If we are insecure ourselves, it will be a lot harder for us to do this for our babies without support.

It’s also possible for our attachment system to become more insecure under stress. Even those of us who are normally secure may find ourselves either more clingy or more dismissive of people close to us under stress. When we consider that the pandemic is generally agreed to have been stressful for parents, that probably also means there are more parents with temporarily less secure attachment styles than usual. Additionally, for some families – like mine – lockdown has been a sort of cosy albeit anti-social cocoon and the challenges of resuming nursery, school and going out of the house to work will bring attachment challenges like separation anxiety – particularly for babies like my son who are unpracticed at the art of being cared for by anyone other than mummy or daddy. And if our own attachment styles are more anxious or avoidant than usual, what does that mean for our children’s? Yep, they’re likely going to be more anxious or avoidant too. And how might we expect to see that in their behaviour? Young children often show us they are experiencing big emotions through their behaviour – so we see more tantrums and meltdowns. We might also notice ourselves finding them more irritating or annoying than usual. They may do more boundary pushing behaviours to push our buttons to reel us back into a response to them in a sort of attachment dance.

So, how can we helpfully respond?

It helps if you can practice noticing your own feelings and thoughts and maintaining your awareness of how you’re responding to your child. For example, my daughter will sometimes say ‘I just like to get dressed really slowly’ because she is aware I’ve said I feel frustrated if this means I need to chase her brother round her bedroom while he tries to eat her books for half an hour before I can get a glass of water first thing in the morning. She says it to engage me emotionally to elicit parenting – to pull me into doing something about it. She wants to feel cared for, held in mind and attuned to, and my frustration is a price worth paying to her. When I hold in mind that she needs to feel attuned to, it’s easier for me to respond with patience and kindness to all of us – I’ve learned to take that glass of water in with me and that if I can get her dressed 1:1 she goes much faster.

It also helps if you can notice when you need support to contain and regulate your own feelings. This might mean talking to your partner or friend, going for a run, painting, baking or gardening. It might mean carving out fifteen minutes to have a coffee on your own in the morning before the children get up or leaving them with someone else for an evening to clear your head. What’s really important is to own your feelings and needs and accept offers of help to look after those needs if you can. It’s really tricky to contain our kids unless we are contained ourselves first.

Compassion and kindness for both ourselves and others are powerful tools. If we can be compassionate with ourselves it will be a great example for our children to follow, and if we can empathize with the need for love under the tantrum it’s easier to respond with kindness and warmth.

Practical tips to de-escalate a meltdown

Cuddles – probably this is the de-escalation equivalent of “have you tried putting it off and on again yet?” when your IT equipment at work won’t work and you need to phone the helpdesk. I would probably ask “Do you need a hug?” and I find that 9 times out of 10 the answer will be “yes!”, and if I’ve offered early enough, the meltdown would be averted.

Naming emotions – I started doing this when my daughter was a baby, although the process has got more interactive as she’s got older. For example “I can see you’re angry your brother took the toy, but it’s not OK to whack him over the head with it.” or “I know you’re feeling sad that we need to leave the play park now, I think it’s because you’ve missed it for the last 3 months and you’ve had so much fun today. Sad feelings are there to help us notice what we love. We can come back soon”. If you can name your child’s emotions, they will feel heard, understood and validated. They will also learn to name their own with practice, and say “I’m angry” before hitting out, and learn to use safe ways to release big feelings without getting themselves in trouble. I also name my own feelings to model emotional awareness and that I can own and contain my own emotions. For example I explained I was very sad when our pet guinea pig died, which gave us an opportunity to talk about death and loss.

Co-regulation of big emotions – Most of us do this naturally with babies – we hold a crying baby close to our chest so they can hear our heart beating and rock, walk or bounce with them, gradually slowing down as they believe we can keep them safe. You can do a similar process with an older child. Start by meeting your now-older child where they’re at. If they’re angry or upset, you could go for a run and shout in the garden together, jump on a trampoline or do star jumps. You might aim to gradually slow your movements, your talking speed and voice volume and breathing down to model calming down and to encourage them to do the same.

Know when to stop talking – language understanding reduces for young children when they are upset as does any logic or reasoning ability they might have in fledgling capacity. It’s unlikely negotiating, arguing, pleading or yelling will work so it’ll probably be a better use of your energy to model taking a few deep breaths and perhaps some gentle stretches. If you can model staying calm but present while they show big feelings, they will learn you can tolerate and contain their feelings – and hopefully the meltdown will then stop more quickly.

Distraction – what are you going on to do next or later on that they like? what colours, numbers or shapes are around you that they might find interesting for a second? It only needs to be interesting enough to break the momentum for a moment.

Grounding techniques and dropping anchor – for us, this means watering the plants together in the garden with a watering can. For someone else, it might be walking or cycling round the block. A classic is looking for and naming what you can see, hear, touch, taste and smell around you.

Defuse from unhelpful thoughts that trap you – for example, my daughter recently had a fairly loud protest in our front garden about not wanting to come into the house after going for a walk on the grounds that the house was too hot and she was hungry. I noticed that most of my neighbours were also out in their front gardens and decided to defuse from the thought that they may be watching and evaluating my parenting. I then decided on the reframe that this was my opportunity to demonstrate practicing what I preach, and reminded myself they had likely all worn similar shoes to me at some point, if not walked in my shoes exactly.

Quick functional analysis – in other words, play detective. Are they hungry, in pain, thirsty, ill or tired? Are they in need of more or less stimulation? Do they have unmet needs for intellectual stimulation, company or time outdoors to play? How are you feeling – could they be picking up on you feeling anxious or cranky? Are they worried, scared or angry about anything obvious? Could this be about their attachment needs? Would a hug help?

Practical tips for combating separation anxiety

Recognise and make room for your own feelings – your own attachment responses will be involved as well as your child’s. Do you have any worries about the caregiver you plan on leaving your child with? Are there any topics or questions you want to check out with them before you leave your child there? What will you do after you drop your child off? Can you make space in your plan to do something self-compassionate?

Allow for the possibility that it may be trickier for a baby to settle into a nursery or childminder after lockdown than it would normally, and that normally it still wouldn’t be easy. Discuss whether a longer, gentler and/or more flexible process than normal might be helpful with your childcare provider. Allow that both yourself and your child will experience anxiety about the process. Try to let your feelings and theirs be there, accepting that they will come and go. Most babies will settle into childcare in a few weeks, and it tends to get easier as you go on – the first couple of times will probably be the roughest. If you can acknowledge both of your feelings and your own thoughts, it will become more do-able to problem solve what you need to do to help both of you through this.

Show your child that you are comfortable with the care provider you have chosen to leave them with and confident it will be OK. It may be helpful to put a brave face on for your child’s benefit, smile and say goodbye and – if they can understand – tell them when you will be back so they know you’ve gone and will return for them.

Build up gradually – for example, with a baby who has no experience of being cared for by anyone else it may be helpful to introduce short experiences of being left with a family member or friend (or more than one family member or friend), prior to leaving them at a nursery. It will likely be helpful to start with something like half an hour while you go for a walk and build up to a couple of hours if you can. It may also help to read books about starting nursery with a child old enough to understand. If you can, go for visits to the nursery or childminder with the child before they actually start attending. Gradually build up the visits so your child’s confidence grows without overwhelming them with anxiety. If your child seems particularly distressed at any point, offer empathy to both the child and the care provider if you can, and try to problem solve together – it might be helpful to repeat a step before moving on to the next step on your plan, or to consider a smaller step onwards than the one you had planned.

Routines are often important for babies and young children. It might help to talk through with your care provider what your child’s current routines are for eating, sleep and play and to consider how similar or different these are from what the care provider’s routines would be like. Is it possible for the care provider to include your routines in your child’s day? If not, are there steps you can do at home to prepare them for the care provider’s routines? For example, where does your baby sleep at home, and where will they sleep at nursery? My son has been used to sleeping in a baby carrier, a buggy and a bed depending on what fits in, but I’ve been trying to include more naps in bed to increase his chance of sleeping easily in the toddler bunk beds his nursery-to-be offer. For a baby, it may also be helpful to consider their milk feeding routine and weaning progress and how the nursery or childminder could help support those.

Leave your child with a comfort object like a pacifier or comfort blanket if they have one. When my daughter first started nursery she took a cardigan with her that smelled like me, and she slept with it in her buggy until she was 2.

When your child is around, speak positively about the care provider. If you have concerns about how it’s going or need to vent, try to talk to other adults about it when your child is out of earshot – it’s amazing how much their little ears can pick up and store to fret over later. It is also likely be helpful to talk directly with the care provider about any concerns or teething problems, as if you can work as a team your child will benefit.

A quote to leave you with by Basel Van Der Kolk – “The parent-child connection is the most powerful mental health intervention known to mankind”.

Resources:

https://contextualscience.org/resources_for_helping_children

Selective Eating – A Parent Survival Guide

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Toddlers more often encounter new food than we do as adults

Most of us as parents will likely deal with some level of selective eating at some point. If you bring the subject up at a toddler group, at least someone will relate to the challenge and have some advice from experience. There are lots of opinions and ideas around on the subject from ‘just put it on the plate and say eat it or starve’ to preparing a tailored meal for each family member. I don’t want to undermine what works for anyone here, but just to share a little of my parenting experience of baby to toddler led weaning and some ideas from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy which have suited that approach. I’ve also included some more general tried and tested strategies from my experience working in CAMHS. My hope is to take some of the stress out of the process if you’re a parent tearing your hair out because your little one won’t eat any vegetables other than the tomato sauce on their Peppa pig pasta shapes.

Baby led weaning

If you’re not familiar with the idea of baby led weaning and want to know more, I’d recommend Gill Rapley’s book “Baby led weaning: helping your baby to love good food”. What attracted me to the approach was the idea of building a positive relationship with healthy food, babies learning to eat to appetite rather than to please parents, trusting that the research says children do tend to balance their intake when they are left to do so and can usually be trusted not to starve themselves and generally dropping the battleground that family mealtimes can become. I also liked the simplicity of it – just keep serving ordinary healthy family foods that we eat ourselves at mealtimes minus the added salt and sugar, cutting food into finger shapes to reduce choking risk. I also valued the chance to attend a free baby first aid course at my local library and would not advise anyone to start baby led weaning without doing one first – I’ve noticed baby first aid classes are available on Zoom in case anyone reading this is looking to attend one during covid-19. The gains for my children so far include that their height and weight are both roughly in balance and within the average range for their age (both are within the 50th to 75th percentiles). They both enjoy healthy food – albeit their preferences are very different. My 10 month old son loves steak pie, carrots and sweet potatoes, while my 3 year old daughter prefers gnocchi in a blended sauce of tomotoes, kale, carrots and courgettes with salmon on the side. Both can become annoyed if anyone dares interfere with their food, but otherwise are happy eaters. My son is an efficient eating machine who could already get away without the bib, my daughter loves playing with her food. They both have fine motor skills ahead of their chronological ages which I attribute to baby led weaning. I’ll admit my sons excellent pincer grip does have its downside when he picks up specks of fluff from the carpet to eat and my daughter’s hand strength is an issue when she points out gleefully she has just learned to undo her car seat on the M90. Overall though, I’ve been happy with the approach. And yet? My daughter has still recently passed through the selective eating phase common to lots of other children her age – during that phase she announced she does not like meat, but I’m happy to accept that so haven’t labelled it as an issue – nor have I suggested she label herself as vegetarian as she enjoys fish and does occasionally like a sausage or two. She also went off traditionally served boiled vegetables like broccoli and carrots – but she continued to eat just about any vegetable blended in sauce, smoothie or soup. We even had hidden veg in breakfast cereal (Thanks Kelloggs, other brands are available..). So having watched my daughter come in and out of relatively more selective eating phases I can understand how parents might become trapped in a conflict zone, and thought some ideas from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy might help if that’s you. There’s more general information on each of the ACT processes on the homepage if you need more resources to help you.

Is it time to drop the mealtime struggle?

Visualise yourself and your child at opposite sides of the dinner table. Imagine they are refusing to eat a food on their plate that you value them eating. Why is it important to you that they eat it? What tactics have you tried or are you tempted to try – pleading, begging, insisting, bribing? Have any of these tactics worked? Are there any costs of trying these tactics – to you, to your child, to your relationship? How do you think the battle to get your child to eat what you want them to will affect your child’s longer term relationship with food? Did you have any selective eating challenges yourself as a child? How did your parents respond? How did that affect you with food as a child? and as an adult?

Parenting Values

It might be helpful to first generally review your parenting values – what sort of parent do you want to be? Where are you at now – how closely do your parenting actions match up to your ideal? When you consider your child’s selective eating and your parenting values together, how could you respond to your child’s selective eating in a way that fits with your parenting values?

Mindfulness

If you want to take the pressure off food, mindful eating with your child could be worth a try – you might want to let them choose which food to eat mindfully to reduce the chance they feel pressured. To illustrate though, I’ll talk about mindful strawberry eating. So, first you could go out in the garden to pick some, or to a fruit farm, or just to a shop. When choosing which fruit to pick, you could notice the colours, shapes, sizes and textures and which you are both drawn to choose. When you’re ready to eat, first notice the colours and patterns on the outside of the fruit and the leaves. Notice how heavy or light it feels in your hand, and whether it feels rough or smooth to the touch. Smell the strawberry and notice the delicate scent. Take a small bite and notice whether it tastes sweet or tart. Notice whether it feels squishy or moist in your mouth as you eat the rest. A variation could be to buy strawberries from different countries at the supermarket and do a blind taste test to each take a turn at guessing where the strawberries came from.

Acceptance

Are you happy with your child’s height and weight? If they are growing consistently along their percentile line or you otherwise have no cause for concern with their growth, are you willing to accept that your child eats a smaller range of foods than you’d ideally like but is still likely getting enough of what they need? Are there any other concerns as a result of selective eating such as constipation which might come up if they don’t eat vegetables? (Note – if there are concerns about your child’s growth or about constipation, you might want to ask your GP or Health Visitor for advice).

It’s helpful to separate out what you can and can’t change sometimes – for example, you can do something about constipation by using hidden veg strategies – whereas force feeding your child chunks of carrots is likely to backfire in future refusal to eat other vegetables too.

Committed Action

Some “work around” strategies I’ve found to balance out my children’s diets without adding conflict to mealtimes.

Use a nutribullet to blend vegetables into smoothies, soups and sauces. You can also add almond or pea powder for protein if that’s a concern.

Use a plate with compartments to keep food separate if that’s a source of angst.

Consider a vitamin supplement to plug any temporary gaps.

Some people like the idea of divided responsibility – you decide what, where and when while they decide whether to eat the food you serve and how much.

Experiment to find out whether they prefer fruit and vegetables raw vs cooked and hot vs cold. For example, my 3 year old would happily munch on raw carrot sticks at a time when she wouldn’t eat cooked carrot slices on a plate.

Messy play – any messy play really, but especially with food. For example, make Oobleck or strawberry scented playdough, or just splash around some spaghetti hoops or custard. My 3 year old had a breakthrough moment after painting broccoli with gravy and decided to try eating it, and remembered then that she actually quite liked it really.

Logic and education

I’ve found this has been my best kept secret weapon. My 3 year old has been very interested recently in learning about all things science. Conveniently she has also been interested in learning which foods have protein, energy, fibre and vitamins and interested too in why her body needs those nutrients. In turn, she has then been more motivated to eat non-preferred foods that have nutrients she needs. Any parent who has a veg-avoiding toddler may have also encountered constipation and also perhaps tears in the bathroom. If that sounds familiar, it may help to ask your child whether they dislike eating the vegetable in question or dislike the toilet trouble more – if the toilet trouble is worse, would they be willing to try the vegetable? For us, education and logic has been our game changer – we now have a broccoli, squash, sweet potato, sweetcorn, carrot, courgette and pepper chunk eater once again, with less need for the trusty nutribullet.

Use their interests as motivation

This may mean using a reward chart with Hey Duggee, Bing or Peppa Pig, getting them a plate with Elsa and Anna on it, or making an Olaf face with mashed potato and adding pea eyes and a carrot nose. Or, it may be tracking down episodes or books to read of the favourite character trying new foods (Peppa Pig’s brother George and Bing are both obliging here).

Gentle ways to desensitise a selective eater

These are probably only needed if a health professional like your GP or Health Visitor is also concerned about your child’s selective eating. Ideas include –

Try graded exposure – e.g. step 1. they see you eat it without comment (i.e. no “yum yum”, step 2. you serve it in a bowl on the table with no pressure for them to have any, step 3. you encourage them to put a little of the new food on their plate with no pressure to try, 4. Encourage them to sniff the new food, 5. Encourage them to lick it, 6. Encourage them to bite into it, 7. Encourage them to chew it. Every time they agree to try a new step, give them loads of praise for bravery and some form of reward like a sticker. It is important to avoid pressure at any stage and to accept they are not ready if you want to avoid anxiety on their part or risk this backfiring as an approach and adding stress to you. Depending on the age and stage of your toddler, a reward chart might be a bit too complicated, but with a pre-schooler this might be worth a try as a place to collect the stickers.

Strategies to deal with slow eating

  1. Acceptance The first option is just to decide not to label slow eating as a problem and embrace the upside – plenty time for adult conversation over mealtimes, plenty time to enjoy your own food peacefully if you also like to take your time. You might also choose to accept slow eating for now as some other aspect of eating is a bigger priority for you to change – for example, you might choose to let them eat at their own pace if you are more keen that they broaden or generally increase their food intake.

2. If it is a problem for you or your family though – perhaps because you find your other children won’t wait and get restless, your child gets upset if they are left behind at the table, or you have scheduled activities to get to like nursery, school or work then-a reward chart for eating meals at the same time as the rest of the family might help motivate a pre-schooler. My 3 year old loves simple sticker reward charts – Twinkl has some good free ones you can download for age 3-5. If you do use a reward chart, aim to only pick one behaviour to reward at a time and stay positive when you talk about it (e.g. they still get the sticker for eating at the same time as everyone else even if they don’t finish all the food on their plate/ only eat the bread/ throw food on the floor/ happen to copy Daddy swearing during lunch).

Resources

https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/best-hidden-veg-recipes-kids

https://www.childfeedingguide.co.uk/

https://www.lllgbbooks.co.uk/store/p86/MyChildWontEat.html

https://www.yourfeedingteam.com/blog/

https://www.twinkl.co.uk/resources/curriculum-for-excellence (for age 3-5 reward chart templates)

ACT, Grief and Pregnancy Loss

Often when we think of grief, we think of the loss of a loved one, a friend or family member. Those of us unlucky enough to experience miscarriage also experience the loss of a loved one we never got to meet. Those of us who experience stillbirth experience the loss of a baby that never got the chance to grow up. This week the local media covered a horrific tragic accident where a 91-year-old lady drove her car onto the pavement, killing a 3-year-old child and injuring a mother. I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child in that way, my mind blocks it to protect me when I think about it. I was on the exact spot the accident happened with my own child a few days before the accident – there but for the grace of god go I. I have felt as though a cloud has been hovering over me since hearing the news and noticed worry that I may know the child since they were the same age as my daughter. My thoughts then moved on to acknowledging that whether I personally know the child is irrelevant – a mother is still without her child tonight. My experience with grieving is that the pain of loss is there to show us what we value. I have been feeling vicariously sad this week because of my love for my own children. Rather than wallow in grief, I have also learned that my sad and angry feelings can become a springboard for acting on my values, which was the sentiment behind writing this blog. I will be forever in Steven Hayes’ debt for writing “Get out of your mind and into your life”. I read the book when I was grieving the loss of my dad which happened during my clinical training, and if I hadn’t I’m not sure I would have found a way to both move forward with the grief and complete my training while doing so. My husband celebrates his 40th birthday this month and that day will also be the 11th anniversary of my dad’s death. Later in the year, the anniversary of when I first met my husband also marks the anniversary of my first miscarriage. Love and loss go hand in hand.

During Covid-19, we have been unable to attend a family funeral due to restrictions in place and I know lots of other families will have been in the same position. Funerals offer a ritual to mark the loss even for those of us who are not religious or seeking comfort from religion, and I feel for those who will have been denied that opportunity. Funerals are also an opportunity to support loved ones and connect which is key to actively coping with grief. There have also been many more people experiencing other kinds of losses during Covid-19 – the loss of the chance to experience an ending of primary school, the loss of the chance to finish high school, the loss of the chance to sit final exams in an exam hall at Uni, the loss of a long planned for wedding day, miscarriage or baby loss in isolation too. There are also other times in our lives we might experience a grief reaction, for example when told we have a chronic condition like dementia, or that our loved one does, or as a parent when we learn that our child will develop with a difference, like autism or a learning difficulty. Having set the scene, I thought I should move on to some ideas about how we can cope with grief and loss.        

Elizabeth Kubler Ross five stage model

  • Denial (avoidance, confusion, shock, fear)
  • Anger (frustration, irritation, anxiety)
  • Bargaining (searching for meaning, seeking connection, drive to share experience)
  • Depression (overwhelmed, helpless)
  • Acceptance (exploring options, planning for the future, moving on)

It is helpful to note these are not stages you go through in order, and it is common to go back and forth and cycle through them. It is also helpful to know it can take ten years to reach Acceptance – and that’s within the normal range, not a sign there’s anything the matter. If you’re currently in denial about a loss you’re probably not reading this now. If you’re currently working through anger, you might have noticed some typos in my work and be finding them annoying – if so, please do tell me as I also hate typos but because I’m permanently sleep deprived I’m less good at detecting them just now. If you’re bargaining, you might be reading this in an effort to make sense of your loss like I was when I first learned about ACT. If you’re looking for meaning, the diagram at the top of the page – the pregnancy loss Grieftrix – might be particularly helpful (see below for more on that). If you’re working through depression, you may find there are too many words on the page for you to process now – it’s OK to take your time. If you’re at Acceptance you may be like me in that you’ve spent a lot of time in the other stages before getting to this one, and you may have had to work through some very dark days. Wherever you are in your head, I hope you can allow yourself to just be where you’re at for a moment – however you are feeling is OK if you are grieving.     

Factors that link to complex grief reactions

  • Being female
  • Being older
  • An unexpected or violent death
  • Death of a child

It is interesting to note that if you have experienced a miscarriage or a still birth, your experience likely covers 2-3 of these common risk factors, yet the NHS doesn’t currently offer specialist services for women who experience traumatic grief reactions after miscarriage other than going through Adult Mental Health Services where research indicates that women report the practitioners there don’t always have specialist understanding relevant to baby loss (see Miscarriage page for more on that).

The Pregnancy Loss Grieftrix

Sorry if you’re at the anger stage and finding repetition of content annoying, but I had the thought that it might also be annoying to have to refer back to the top and went with the lesser of the evils. I wanted to explain more about how to use this image to make sense of your own pregnancy loss, if that’s something you need to do.

First, look at the lower right quadrant. If you’ve lost a baby, what name did you give? I know during pregnancy all mine have had nicknames. The lost ones over the rainbow are baby Kauai, baby Rainbow and baby Serendipity. What were your pregnancy hopes and dreams?

Next, look at the lower left quadrant In your grief, what thoughts and feelings come up for you when you think about your lost pregnancy? Some of mine were regret, fear, guilt and anger. I also remember struggling with birth announcements and the need to maintain a coping front.

Then, look at the top left quadrant. What do you tend to do whenever the difficult thoughts and feelings come up – avoid talking about pregnancy, babies and/or miscarriage? avoid people who might bring these topics up? avoid trying to get pregnant again? distract yourself? throw yourself into work or exercise? comfort eat? seek solace in wine? All normal, all with long term costs if you keep them going though. What are the benefits vs costs to you of continuing to avoid your feelings and thoughts?

Next, reflect some more about your pregnancy hopes and dreams, perhaps also the qualities you had hoped to develop as a mum and the love you have to offer a child. Then, look at the top right quadrant. If you’re ready to consider an alternative to avoiding painful feelings and thoughts, how can you connect your pregnancy hopes, dreams, the qualities you hoped to develop as a mum and the love you have to give with living a life you value? Who could you connect with today to share this with – who else do you know who has experienced miscarriage or stillbirth? Would connecting with a counsellor be helpful, either through a charity like SANDS or through a referral from your GP to Adult Mental Health Services? Are you someone who wants to get involved in baby loss awareness campaigning on social media? Who do you already have in your life now you can share your capacity for love with – your partner, your friends, your family, other children?

Lastly, look at the heart in the middle – that’s you – you’re big enough to contain all your thoughts and feelings, and complicated enough to need a range of coping strategies at different points in time as you work through this. You’re also worthy enough of compassion and care, not least from yourself. It’s OK if right now you need to just be where you are – just know that there may be a chink of hope ready to filter through the cracks when you’re ready.

Ten Tips on Surviving Grief

If you are still reading this far, you might be particularly interested in how ACT might apply in coping with grief, so here are some introductory thoughts inspired by Russ Harris’s writing –

  1. Allow your feelings and thoughts to be there. This might include being open to shock, anger, despair, hopelessness, emptiness or loneliness. Whatever you feel, make some room in your life to let yourself have it. While you do that, make time to rest and cut back on demands on you if you can.

2. Accept that there will be times of feeling overwhelmed, especially in the early days. It might help to think of this as standing in giant tidal waves which might knock you over, but you will still be there when the wave passes. You may want to remind yourself of the saying “This too shall pass”.

3. Learn some mindful noticing skills to anchor you when the waves hit – for example, practice noticing what you can see, hear, feel, taste and touch when you are calm – when you are overwhelmed, it becomes easier to call the noticing skills to mind with practice.

4. Values – What really matters to you and how can you get more of that into your life? What small step could you take towards that starting today?

5. A powerful question to ponder – Suppose you could choose – 1. You never have to have these painful feelings ever again – but it means you never get to love or care about anyone or anything again either. 2. You get to love and care about all sorts of people and things – but when you lose what you care about, you will feel intense pain. Which option would you choose? While acknowledging your loss and allowing your feelings about it, keep an awareness of what you still have in your life that you value, particularly considering relationships.

6. Develop self-compassion – this takes real courage to allow ourselves to be vulnerable but is such a powerful tool when we’re grieving. If you find it tricky to do this, that’s normal – but what would you say to a friend going through what you are?

7. Watch out for unhelpful stories or life rules you’ve told yourself for a long time or society may even have told you which are now unhelpful. For example, “My life is worth nothing if I can’t have children” or “I’ll never heal from this” or “it’s all my fault”.

8. Find meaning and positive energy to move forward from within your pain. Your grief – perhaps about your miscarriage – tells you two very important things: a) you’re living, and b) you have a lot of love to give. Tune into that and connect with your values to keep going with life, doing the things that matter to you. And take your feelings of loss and memories of your pregnancy with you, carrying them as gently and carefully as if they were a kitten in your arms.

9. Consider how you can grow as a person from this experience. What is there to learn about forgiveness, compassion, letting go, acceptance? How might your own experience benefit others that you care about? It’s amazing how many more women have miscarriages than there are women who openly discuss their experiences. There are great opportunities to support and empower one another here.

10. Consider a grief ritual to mark the loss of a pregnancy, regardless of how soon it ended. You are marking the loss of hopes and dreams, even if it ended early. For example, light candles, write a poem or journal, bake a cake, make a memory box or scrapbook.

ACT and grief resources

The link below takes you to a powerful blog post written by Russ Harris after his son was diagnosed with autism on the grief reaction he experienced and how ACT helped him cope

https://contextualscience.org/blog/act_grief

The link below takes you to a YouTube clip illustrating the “Grieftrix” which is an ACT way of understanding grief. It’s fairly straightforward and accessible if you’re reading this as someone keen to make meaning from their experience, although the clip is aimed at ACT therapists.

The link below takes you to a video on YouTube from a series of videos by Tom Lavin on using ACT to deal with a range of difficulties – this one is on the topic of grief. He talks about how grief is often underneath mental health difficulties, and that to deal with the mental health difficulty we need to feel what we don’t want to in order to feel the grief. He also talks about how love is key to the meaning in life, and that people we love die – so since love and loss are inextricable, we can either have both or neither. He talks about how saying “yes” to living a meaningful life, we also need to say “yes” to being willing to experience the pain of loss.      

Last but not least, if you are grieving it may be of value to seek therapy at this time in your life. If that’s where you’re at, your GP can refer you to a mental health service if that is appropriate. If you’ve experienced baby loss, SANDS offer specialist counselling. Alternatively you might want to try the BABCP or the Association of Contextual Behavioural Science website to search for a therapist trained in either CBT or ACT.  Do also feel free to take a look at the Further Help page if you need more resources.  

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ACTifying our way out of lockdown

We’ve all been living in lockdown for about 3 months now in Scotland. We’re now on a phased plan out towards a ‘new normal’ and it’s a good time to reflect on who we want to be in the process – with our values, our family and friends, our education or work and in our community. We have a lot of choice despite what it might feel like if you read too many news articles so I thought I’d share some ACT themed reflections.

Noticing the struggles then letting them go

Since we’re all human, all of us will struggle with some aspect of coming out of lockdown at some point. The hope is that the virus is suppressed but until we have a vaccine, life as we know it will stay a bit different. We might find we have different views on how closely to follow government guidelines from our family and friends and find ourselves in conflict. We will all have our own mountain to climb, each with its own unique challenges and sunny seasons. Some of us will feel more anxiety about leaving our cocoons – some of us never really stayed cocooned anyway or only had broken cocoons. Some of us have vulnerable family members to shield whereas others will perceive their household as healthy and safe. Some of us have secure jobs and others are unemployed. Some of us will be able to juggle the uncertainty of the new childcare arrangements for nursery and school, others won’t. Some will have busy social lives to reclaim after enforced loneliness while others will be confronted by legitimately avoided but now grown bigger social anxiety lurking in wait. Some children will have missed the chance to finish primary or high school with their class and be facing unprepared and unprecedented transitions onto their next steps. Some children will be grateful to escape to the place of safety that school might be from a chaotic home life. The point is, everyone’s path and priorities will be unique to them and include both highlights and lowlights. It helps if you can notice yourself struggling with something, because noticing gives you choice about how to respond. You can choose to keep struggling, or to let go.

Accepting what you can’t change

There have been a lot of losses and sacrifices for everyone during lockdown, ourselves as a family included. We’ve missed attending a family funeral, had my husband’s inaugural lecture to celebrate his promotion to Professor postponed and won’t be able to celebrate his 40th birthday as planned in the Norwegian mountains either. My children haven’t been able to play with other children for months, and my daughter’s start to pre-school nursery is delayed. My maternity leave has been a lot less sociable than planned and my son won’t get the chance to go to any baby classes in the way my daughter did. I’m aware of feeling sad and frustrated about these losses but have chosen not to focus on them as I value keeping my family safe and healthy more.

Committing to doing what works

We’ve followed the government guidelines so far and all stayed well, so will keep doing the same. We’ve also benefited as a family from my husband working from home so we’re planning to continue that for the rest of the year too. Working from home with two little people certainly has its challenges but we’ve been able to work it out. It would have been A LOT trickier if I wasn’t on maternity leave or if my husband’s sense of humour or ability to tune us out was less well developed. I’m enjoying watching my son turn into a daddy’s boy with the extra bonding time. I’ve also been enjoying learning about web design, blogging and mental health campaigning so will aim to keep those going in post lockdown life, although I’ll admit I still prefer seeing people face to face and am looking forward to reclaiming some form of non-virtual social life.

Mindfulness

Regular mindful activities have helped me stay attuned to my children and help my daughter particularly in learning to regulate her emotions so I’ll be committing to maintain that practice as we leave lockdown.

Compassion

It can be hard to take a compassionate stance all the time and I sometimes catch myself talking in frustration about other people acting in ways that I see as unsafe for others – for example, flocking to the beaches in Brighton and covering the Meadows in Edinburgh in litter. I do try to catch judgemental thoughts as they start though and partly from the selfish angle that I’ve noticed they make me feel more frustrated if I engage with them so I do try to let them go. I haven’t walked in the shoes of other people so I don’t have the experience to judge their choices. We’re all human and will all make mistakes on our way into a new normal. I want to be someone who tries to let live and forgive rather than carry resentment or grudges.

Thoughts on how to move forward

Try to notice the little things that bring happiness – they come and go, but the more present you can be in the moment the more you’ll catch.

Try noticing what you have that you’re grateful for in your life – write notes on your phone or in a notepad if it helps.

Try to find something kind to do for someone else every day – if you have children, get them involved too.

Allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling when you notice you are – feelings aren’t the problem it’s struggling with them that traps us.

If you notice you’re struggling with a feeling you don’t want, remember you have choices about how to respond – what do you want to do?

If you notice your mind criticising, judging or arguing ask yourself ‘how important is it?’ or ‘will engaging with this thought make my life better?’ or ‘is acting on this thought going to get me anything of value?’

Consider your parenting and life priorities as we navigate out of lockdown – what matters and what can you let go for a while?

What have you missed during lockdown – did anything surprise you?

Is there anything positive that has happened for you during lockdown that you might not have got to have otherwise? How could you keep that going?

What do you want your children to remember about this time in their lives? Young children might remember how you made them feel more than the details of what you did. What can you do to make those memories?

Resource links

https://contextualscience.org/resources_for_helping_children

Useful if you’re looking for resources to support children with worries or anxiety about leaving lockdown

https://contextualscience.org/act_for_the_public

Useful if you’re feeling anxious or worried yourself

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Blogs about being a new mum and everything baby!

MiscarriageACT

Using ACT and CFT to survive miscarriage and baby loss

#365DaysOfCompassion

Blogs written for and by the #365DaysOfCompassion community

Sarah Ockwell-Smith

Childcare Author and Parenting Expert

We need to talk about Children's Mental Health

Reflections from a Consultant Clinical Psychologist

Psychology magpie

Psychology in everyday places

Thoughts on Life and Love

Mandy Kloppers ------Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist-------Therapy in Guildford, Surrey.UK

Life as a Garden

Exploring how we can live our lives with purpose and joy.

Sana Psychological Calgary

Getting Unstuck from Problem Relationships, Behaviours, Feelings, and More

The Online Therapist

Dr Nicholas Jenner's Mental Health Blog

Psychology of Mindfulness

Mindfulness Coach~Certified in Mindfulness by Center of Excellence/ Psychology, Mindfulness, Positivism, Self-Worth, Self-Acceptance, Compassion, and Support are key to a good life.

Author Joanne Reed

This is Your Quest - Your Mission to Find Happiness