Parenting · Pregnancy and Postpartum

Wanting to be a better parent

Every caregiver can appreciate the desire to be a better parent for their kids. We can also appreciate how this goal seems unachievable when we are snapping at our little ones after the third tantrum of the morning. The desire to be a better parent comes from good intentions; we want these tiny humans to develop into healthy adults. For those parents who are overwhelmed, fearful of screwing things up, close to burn out, or just feeling generally lost, I hope this post offers you some guidance and comfort.

Accept that perfection is impossible:

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The perfectionist part of me hates this title. But this is a message that I tell myself as often as I tell my clients. In order to be a better parent, we have to get rid of this notion for perfection. We are not going to be perfect, and truthfully, we don’t have to be perfect.

There was incredible research done by child development expert, Dr. Ed Tronick, in the 1980s. He and his team showed the impact of attuning to our children. Meaning, when your child reaches out, is distressed, or needs attention, how do you respond? When it comes to secure attachment, we want to ensure our children are safe, soothed, and seen.

However, Dr. Tronick emphasizes that it is impossible to be attuned all the time. We are going to be busy, and have other responsibilities that pull our attention away. We cannot always respond when our toddler wants us to play or when our teen wants to talk. In fact, in his research, Dr. Tronick found that even the “best parents” were only attuned to their kids 30% of the time. Furthermore, this 30% is enough to raise secure and healthy children.

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This number always floors me. While our perfectionist parts may want us to excel, it’s important to recognize that, our relationship to our kids can remain healthy and strong irrespective of making mistakes. This doesn’t mean that we’re being jerks the remaining 70% of the time. However, when our kid asks to play, and we’re busy putting away laundry or making supper, we cannot meet our child’s current needs. This is considered misattunement. I hope the guilt reduces when you hear that these moments of misconnection are not harmful. Your kids will be just fine, and will continue to have a secure relationship with you, despite these moments of being unavailable.

Own your mistakes.

This 30% guideline can also be helpful when we have moments of anger, frustration, irritation, or any other difficult emotion towards our child. This is normal! You are going to screw up. I am going to screw up. It sucks. Anger is a normal emotion for humans. However, anger can either stay in our heads as unpleasant thoughts or come out in some form of regretful behaviour. If the latter occurs, it’s essential we address it.

One of my favourite skills to address these regretful moments is a therapeutic apology. This term comes from Emotion-Focused Family Therapy. A therapeutic apology is a deeper acknowledgement when we have made a mistake. It involves validation, and taking the time to voice what these events must have been like for our kids. Therapeutic apologies also offers the commitment for change, and a promise for a better relationship.

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You may dread bringing up the past once the conflict is over. It may feel messy to stir up a wound that is starting to recover. However, we don’t know the impact that these moments have had on our kids. Following divorce, domestic violence, substance use, and any other mental health stressors, our kids are affected. Despite their denials, dismissals, or refusal to talk about things, kids are influenced by these events. While we may not want to bring up the past, a therapeutic apology supports kids in letting go of any burden or weight they carry because of these events. Being a better parent involves taking the time to acknowledge our past mistakes. These meaningful acts help us repair relationship ruptures, and creates safety in the home to admit our mistakes.

Role Modeling

Our children look to us for guidance. The manners in which we handle difficult situations shapes the ways our children manage their world. Gone are the days when we proclaim, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Role modeling can seem daunting, but truthfully, it’s an opportunity. Don’t get me wrong, you are going to screw up (again, read the sections above!) However, you can strategically plan how you will role model. What can you take the time to show your children? If your child experiences anxiety, how can you role model staying calm? If your child struggles with negative self-talk, how can you role model self-compassion? I like to ask parents to think of what behaviours they would to see increased in their child. Then we create an action plan of how these parents can showcase this specific behaviour to their children.

Talk about the good and the bad

I find that it’s helpful to talk to our kids about when we are having good days and bad days. We want to explain things to them in child-friendly ways versus rehashing all the nitty-gritty details. However, it’s important for kids to know that stressors happen to everyone. We can share that we had a difficult encounter with our boss, and explain how we intend to carry forward. We can also normalize that some problems are not easily solvable, and that it can take time to consider options.

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Many of us are raised in an emotional-avoidant culture. We don’t talk about difficult topics, and instead focus on happiness, sunshine, and rainbows. This doesn’t help our youth. They will face hardships as they grow up. Learning that hardships happen for others can help our kids realize they are not alone. It can give them a framework to compare and assess their own troubles. It will also provide our children with more coping strategies and problem solving if they encounter similar situations.

Plan for Melt Downs

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The hardest part of being a parent to a young kid is the meltdowns. They happen, and it’s awful… especially when it’s in public. It’s important to take a moment and reflect what is being triggered in you during these moments. Are you frustrated that they’re not listening? Are you stressed because others are watching you? Maybe there’s a sense of helplessness in not knowing what to do. In taking the time to consider what parts get activated for you, you are better able to support your system. You are able to spend time with this triggered part, understand it’s fears, it’s protective intents, and build trust within your system (these are skills from internal family systems therapy).

Once you are feeling less triggered, you have more space to be a better parent. You’re able to stay present and attuned. This can mean holding your child and supporting them co-regulate. It may involve sitting down with them and asking for clarity in why they are feeling so intensely. And, in some cases, it may mean setting some limits about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

Setting Limits

Setting limits can be tough, and the best way to lose this game is through inconsistency. Take some time to consider what typically sets off your child. Or, just as importantly, what behaviours drive you bonkers?

I encourage having a conversation with kids about rules and expectations. While this may or may not stop the behaviour, it also gives the chance for kids to share feedback and problem solve how they want to handle these moments. It’s important that you and your kids are aware of what is inappropriate behaviours, and what will be the consequence (e.g. removal of privilege). Once these ground rules are established, it’s essential that we follow through.

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Because it is important to carry out the established consequences, it helps to only pick a handful of behaviours you’d like to reduce. If you try and change too many things, it’s easy to lose track. So, pick your battles. What behaviours are most important for you to reduce? For example, in our household, we have set consequences when it comes to being physically aggressive.

I would highly recommend setting a consequence for a short period of time (e.g. for young kids, no longer than an hour; for school age kids, a maximum of a day; and for teens, no longer than a few days). When your child has broken curfew, or taken the car without permission, I get that you want to ground them for a month. However, this gives our children zero chance to redeem themselves. It also means you have to carry out the set punishment. Can you imagine following through on a consequence of no TV for two weeks? You will lose it as much as your kid. With older teens, rather than learning from the consequence, they are just focused on being angry at their stubborn parents.

Shaping behaviours through praise and attention

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When you think of all the behaviours and skills you’d like to see in your kid, what’s most important? Let’s say that you’re noticing your daughter has a pattern of getting angry and slamming doors after arguments about curfew. You can remove a privilege whenever the door is slammed, but how do you reinforce what she is meant to do instead?

We’ve already discussed role modelling appropriate behaviours. Beyond this, it’s important to recognize whenever your child is doing well. This means paying attention to times when your daughter speaks calmly, walks away to take some space, and when she does home before curfew. When these occurrences happen, how do you reinforce them? While we can use rewards to help increase behaviours we want to see (e.g. extra dessert for every time you tidy up your room), praise and positive attention are equally effective.

As a forewarning, your teen will still scoff and roll her eyes when you praise her for talking calmly. However, on a daily basis, your child is bombarded with negative attention. Whether it is due to these arguments, social pressures, poor grades, or feedback from teachers, she is aware of her flaws. Positive attention is pivotal. We seek approval. When you can express this approval in a genuine manner, your child will slowly respond.

Make play a priority

We all have busy lives, and we cannot invest 10 hours to minecraft, even though our kid may beg. However, being intentional about setting aside some times for being with our kids is important. Spending time that doing activities that your child enjoys (and that you can tolerate) will allow some space for this relationship to heal. We can seek out quality time in various ways. This can involve chatting during a car ride home, watching a favourite show with them, playing video games, or inciting them with a promise of Starbucks if they would be willing to hang out.

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Your kids will not always be enthusiastic about this type of attention. But we do not grow close to people who we barely talk to or see. It’s important that we carve out these opportunities, even though it may feel like pulling teeth with your teenager.

As always, the consistency matters. You can be clear to your kid about your intentions. It’s okay to say, “I miss you, and wish we were closer. Can we go for ice cream?” It’s helpful to let them know, after supper is when we get to hang out as a family and play cards. Having this consistency helps them recognize you mean it when you say you want to spend time. Especially for older kids, if there have been a lot of conflict, they’ll feel cautious in trusting you. As with any other relationship, rebuilding this trust takes time and patience.

Know that you are doing your best

Depression, anxiety, trauma, or any other form of mental health can affect the way you would like to parent. Daily life stressors, like a busy work schedule, demands from other children, or financial constraints, can affect the way you’d like to parent. We cannot always control these variables. However, the security and positive bond you have with your child is incredibly healing.

This post offers general strategies, and every person comes with their own history and unique set of needs. For support related to your own family and parenting, please contact me for a free consult. Stay tuned for further parenting supports via an Emotion-Focused Family Therapy workshop for advanced caregiving.

All the best,

Kasi

Mental Health

What causes mental health struggles?

When new clients come in for counselling, many present with resentment and anger for experiencing mental health struggles. Following any emotional upheaval, we search for clarity. We want to understand what causes mental health difficulties, and we want the fastest solution to make it all feel better. Since mental health impacts the whole family, caregivers and parents are also brought into this practice of self-blame. Caregivers are often overwhelmed with frustration or guilt, and are keen to discover how they could have done “better”.

Finding a reason for what causes mental health struggles is a logical first step. We want clarity. We want an answer to help explain why we are doing what we are doing. Unfortunately, the truth behind what influences mental health struggles is complicated.

An Emotion-Focused Family Therapy Lens

What causes mental health issues? Kasi Shan Therapy, EFFT, Emotion-Focused Family Therapy.

Emotion-Focused Family Therapy provides a comprehensive framework that explains what factors influence mental health struggles. As you go through this framework, please bear in mind that you may experience several of these factors while also feeling at peace with your mental health. Alternatively, you may only experience one or two components, and struggle a lot. This is because there is no single equation that tells us which factors have to be involved for mental health struggles to show up. We are all unique. Therefore, our resiliency and vulnerability varies.

Genetics:

What causes mental health issues? Kasi Shan Therapy, EFFT, Emotion-Focused Family Therapy.

It is rare that a single gene causes mental health issues; however, our DNA does have some influence on our emotional well-being. Research has confirmed that there are genetic similarities to various mental health issues. For example, the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium found that individuals who have a diagnosis of autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression or ADHD share certain DNA variations. The Consortium also presented research finding 30 positions in the DNA sequence that increase the risk of developing bipolar disorder. They have found 108 fixed positions on a chromosome for schizophrenia. So what does genetics mean for those who are struggling with mental health? It reinforces that this is one (unchangeable) factor that plays a role in increasing your vulnerability.

While our genetic codes are permanent structures, epigenetics is the ways in which our environment can influence how our genes are read. At any given point in time, our genes are turned “on and off” based on environmental factors. Difficult situations, like living through a war or a pandemic, can influence the ways in which our genes are read. There has to be the right combination of environmental stressors and genetic reading for a mental health disorder to form. What’s wonderful about epigentics is that, while we cannot change our genetic code, we can influence our environment so that we are less vulnerable.

Emotional Avoidance

When it comes to unpleasant emotions, a natural response is to avoid sitting with these distressing feelings. After all, who enjoys feeling sad or anxious? While we often try and push these emotions aside, in most situations, they come bursting out of the dam in the least convenient moments.

What causes mental health issues? Kasi Shan Therapy, EFFT, Emotion-Focused Family Therapy.
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One significant factor that causes mental health struggles is our ability to process emotions. By avoiding our emotions, we tend to face more consequences in the long-term. For example, if you experience bullying at school, you may decide to avoid school all together. This works well in the short-term. However, how long can you keep this strategy going? If you do avoid school for months, what are the new consequences that you have in missing so many classes?

We emotionally avoid by using distractions and coping strategies. These strategies are often effective as quick-fixes, but rarely work to address the actual wound and sometimes create more problems. Common coping strategies include: exercising to work off anxiety, excessive drinking to avoid feeling sad, lashing out in anger when stressed, or emotionally eating to deal with loneliness

What causes mental health issues? Kasi Shan Therapy, EFFT, Emotion-Focused Family Therapy.
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To stop relying on short-term solutions, we have to work at a safe pace to process and talk about our feelings. For example, we have to acknowledge our distress about being bullied, work through the anxiety of returning back to school, and talk with our parents and teachers about a safety plan. We can seek out therapy to learn how to to slow down our emotions, and work through the intensity of these feelings. Once these emotions no longer feel as overwhelming, there is less need to use coping strategies. We feel more empowered to address the emotion if it comes up again in the future.

The “Superfeeler” temperament

What causes mental health issues? Kasi Shan Therapy, EFFT, Emotion-Focused Family Therapy.

EFFT recognizes that 25% of the population has the “superfeeler” temperament. Consider a scenario where you are wearing a hearing aid that is turned up far too high. This hearing aid will pick up on nuances that others do not notice. Small noises can become highly distressing. This individual will likely be more reactive to noises, and feel overwhelmed by the amount of auditory input.

Similarly, superfeelers are like these highly-sensitive hearing aids. These individuals feel emotions intensely. They quickly pick up on others’ emotional cues and often experience the other person’s distress (e.g. think about a baby who automatically starts to cry when she/he sees another child crying). Like sensitive hearing aids, superfeelers are quicker to respond to emotions. Unfortunately, this can mean small events or arguments are seen as highly threatening.

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Because other people are not wearing these sensitive hearing aids, they are not picking up on the threats or cues that a superfeeler is noticing. While a superfeeler may feel upset about an event, their loved ones do not understand why this superfeeler is reacting so intensely to something that seems mundane. This can often lead to invalidation. Think back to a time when someone dismissed your feelings or called you over-sensitive. While this moment may still sting, this type of experience is common for a superfeeler.

There is a significant level of fatigue in having a superfeeler temperament. Because superfeelers are so attuned to emotions, they experience difficult feelings like shame, anger, or guilt that much more intensely than others. Understandably, there is a strong desire to lower the intensity of these feelings in any way or form. A lot of people with this type of temperament will cope by distracting themselves, avoiding situations, becoming quick to anger, feeling hopeless, numbing emotions, or sticking rigid rules in order to control an environment.

Social and Cultural Influences

What causes mental health issues? Kasi Shan Therapy, EFFT, Emotion-Focused Family Therapy.

What do you see in the media? How do your favourite celebrities and influencers act? What are the cultural expectations of “appropriate behaviours”? Social and cultural influences can play a pivotal role in making us feel more vulnerable. There is pressure to be a certain weight or look a certain way. There is the “right way” to express our emotions. More often than not, emotional avoidance is glorified. There is an insinuation that being independent is best, and that it is weak to need others for our emotional stability. Society and culture gives us inconsistent messages about our emotions, our appearance, and our behaviours. The “rule book” changes with time, and it’s a continuous race of trying to catch up. Mental health issues can rise in trying to meet these demands and feeling as if we are falling short.

Life stressors

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The most unique factor that causes mental health is life stressors. Life stressors can vary for each individual. It can include events such as bereavement, workplace stress, divorce, bullying, breakups, large transitions (e.g. moving, deployment), injury or illness. Our resiliency factors influence our ability to manage these events. Meaning, if our environment is secure and supportive (e.g. stable home, strong friendships, access to medicine and help), we are better able to recover or work through these stressors.

Life stressors becomes a concern when we feel ill-equipped to handle all of the demands that come with this stressful experience. We feel a sense of fatigue because our body is perpetually in a state of fight or flight. These are challenging events for us; therefore, it can be difficult to create safety and balance in light of these stressors.

Hormones

Whether it’s puberty, pregnancy, lactation, or menopause, we know that hormonal shifts can create vulnerabilities for our mood and mental health. Hormones act as communicators between various organs and glands in the body. We are always producing hormones to regulate our system. However, when our production levels are affected, our entire system responds.

Here are some ways that hormones may be influencing your mental health. When your insulin level is affected, there is a higher likelihood of poor concentration, fatigue, anxiety and panic. Oxytocin is connected with our sense of pleasure, belonging, and joy. When this hormone is imbalanced, people struggle with more symptoms of depression and sadness. Cortisol and adrenaline are both considered “stress hormones”. They are activated and produced by our body whenever we are in a stressful situation. Low levels of these stress hormones often shows up in individuals who are depressed and exhibit signs of emotional shut down. Alternatively, high levels of cortisol and adrenaline can lead to an individual feeling more irritable and panicky.

Family Environment

A lot of caregivers blame themselves for their children’s mental health. If the above sections do not convince you that there are a multitude of factors involved in mental health, please let me say it plainly. Caregivers are not at fault. You are one piece of the puzzle, and while your influence is important, you are not the cause of your loved one’s mental health.

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Family environment can play an important role in shaping mental health issues. Consider the family rules about emotions and behaviours. What is seen as acceptable in your family? Some families are expressive, and accepting of a wide range of emotions. On the other hand, some families are incredibly uncomfortable with displays of affection, tears and tantrums, or “unhappy” feelings. In the situation of the latter, we become vulnerable to emotional avoidance. We may shut down, or keep our feelings bottled up in order to fit the family norms.

Parents and caregivers are usually the first form of attachment for an infant. Depending on how parents attend to their baby’s needs (be it avoidant, anxious or comforting), the child will pick up on these cues. If parents frequently hover or fret, their baby learns that he or she is not safe in the world and requires extra protection. This child may then present with anxious tendencies as he or she grows up. On the other hand, children of avoidant parents may learn that their emotions are not important and that relationships are not safe places to be vulnerable.

There is no simple cure

For what can never have a single cause. 

-Aldous huxley

I get what causes mental health issues. What do I do about it?

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There are many ways to support the above needs. We know that attachment can change over time. If you find a secure and loving friendship where there is safety to express freely, you are more likely to start accepting your emotions. With help from friends, family or professionals, we can work on problem solving skills and gain support to address life stressors. We can learn to empathise with the superfeelers in our lives. Our healthcare providers can help us with hormonal changes to find better balance in our internal system. We can work on regulating our emotions using skills like emotional coaching and validation to shift us out of emotional avoidance. Mental health does not have to be a life sentence, but it does require some patience and effort. If you are struggling, please reach out.

If you are interested in Emotion-Focused Family therapy, please stay tuned for my Advanced Caregiving workshop. This two-day workshop is for caregivers (parents, spouses, grandparents, friends) to learn techniques to help their loved ones living with mental health struggles.

Take care,

Kasi