Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Talking to Your Child About Tragedy

Talking To Your Child About Tragedy

Posted by Ali Goldfield, M.A., Therapy Stew (, on Saturday, September 21st 2013   

Ali is a psychotherapist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships. She provides assessment and treatment services to children, families and adults in her private practice.

It’s always difficult as a parent to know how much to share with your child and how much to shield them from the tragedies that happen in the world around them. While it may seem like a good idea, at times, to try and protect them from all the bad things, depending on their age, it’s not always possible. Children pick up information from other kids at school, from the television and from social media. Talking to your child about a tragedy can help her understand what’s happened and actually help them begin to process the events and feel a bit safer.

It’s a personal decision whether or not to talk to your kids or not. It also depends on their age, their level of maturity and how closely they are affected by the tragedy. Every parent knows best for their own child. If you’re struggling with how to start, here are some ways to help:

Let Your Child Be The Guide

Find out what questions or concerns your child might have. Let your child’s answers guide your discussion. Let your child know that you will always be there to listen and to answer them. Try to make your child feel comfortable asking questions and discussing what happened but don’t force your child to talk if they aren’t ready.

Tell The Truth – In Moderation

When talking to your child about a tragedy, tell the truth. You can focus on the basics but it’s not necessary to share all the unnecessary and gory details. Try no to exaggerate or speculate about what happened and avoid dwelling on the magnitude of the tragedy. Listen closely to your child for any misinformation, misconceptions or underlying fears. Take time to provide accurate information. Share your own thoughts and remind your child that you’re there for him. Your child’s age will play a major role in how he or she processes information about a tragedy.

Talk to Them at Their Level

Talk in a way that’s appropriate to their age and level of understanding. But don’t overload the child with too much information. Elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that the daily structures of their lives will not change. Middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school.  They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. High school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence and threats to safety in schools, community and society.  They may share concrete suggestions about how to prevent tragedies in society. They will also be more committed to doing something to help the victims and affected communities.

Be Ready to Have More Than One Conversation

Some information can be very confusing and hard to accept so asking the same question over and over may be a way for your child to find reassurance. Try to be consistent and reassuring, but don’t make unrealistic promises that nothing bad could ever happen.

Acknowledge and support your child’s concerns

Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy occurs.  Let children talk about their feelings and help put them into perspective.  Even anger is okay, but children may need help and patience from adults to assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately. Let your child know that all his feelings, reactions and questions relating to the tragedy are important.

Limit Media Exposure

Don’t allow young children to repeatedly see or hear coverage of a tragedy. Even if your young child appears to be engrossed in play, he or she is likely aware of what you’re watching or listening to — and might become confused or upset. Older children might want to learn more about a tragedy by reading or watching TV. However, constant exposure to coverage of a tragedy can heighten anxiety.

Monitor your own stress level

Don’t ignore your own feelings of anxiety, grief, and anger. Talking to friends, family members or mental health counselors can help. It is okay to let your children know that you are sad, but that you believe things will get better. You will be better able to support your children if you can express your own emotions in a productive manner. Get appropriate sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Kids learn from watching the grown-ups in their lives and want to know how you respond to events.

We have all awoken to disasters before, whether natural, manmade, accidental and terrorist-induced and it’s inevitable that we will wake to them again in the future. What you say to your kids and how you say it will change as they get older but the one thing that shouldn’t change is your validation of your child’s feelings and the fact that you will always love them and do your best to keep them safe.

Read more about our Child, Adolescent & Family Psychology Service & our Trauma Psychology & PTSD Treatment Service.

Stress and the Brain

Stress and the Brain

By: Ali Goldfield, M.A.

Ali is a psychotherapist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships. She provides assessment and treatment services to children, families and adults in her private practice.

We all have stress in our daily lives. So much so that we often think nothing of running from place to place, eating on the go, and juggling work and family life. You have probably already heard that stress can wreak havoc with our immune systems, our sleep patterns and our ability to enjoy the things we used to, but did you know that stress can actually affect the size of your brain?

Researchers know that trauma can significantly affect brain structure but one study done by researchers at Yale University now shows that everyday stressors, like a divorce, job loss, the death of a loved one or a serious illness can also affect our brain in the same way that one traumatic event can. These cumulative stressors, it seems, can lead to shrinkage in our brains, reducing the volume of grey matter and lowering our ability to further cope with adversity and may even lead to self-destructive behaviours such as addiction, overeating and depression.

Past studies have shown that the stress response involves a brain region known as the amygdala, which sends out signals alerting us to any kind of threat. This results in the release of hormones, including cortisol, which prepare us for the flight or fight response to fend off the threat. Prolonged exposure to cortisol can cause brain neurons to shrink and it also interferes with their ability to send and receive information efficiently. This is just another piece of the puzzle in how prolonged stress can impair our ability to think and act in creative, flexible and healthy ways.

And it’s not only about stress shrinking our brains. In another study from Yale University, researchers compared the genetic makeup of donated brain tissue from deceased humans with and without major depression. Scientists found that only the depressed patients’ brain tissues showed activation of a particular genetic transcription factor, or “switch” that basically stops the genes from communicating. This lack of communication leads to a loss of brain mass in the prefrontal cortex. The scientists hypothesized that in the depressed patients’ brain, prolonged stress exposure led to disruption of brain systems. The depressed brains appeared to have more limited and fragmented information processing abilities. This finding may explain the pattern of repetitive negative thinking that depressed people exhibit. It's as if their brains get stuck in a negative groove of self-criticism and pessimism. They are unable to envision more positive outcomes or more compassionate interpretations of their actions.

While the evidence is not conclusive, it makes a pretty good argument that stress and mental health issues that lead to stress do kill off our brain cells through the damaging effects of cortisol and through the disruption of the genes that facilitate neuronal connections. This shrinkage affects our cognitive abilities, our focus and our ability to concentrate. Since much in our lives is beyond our control, how can we prevent this type of cumulative stress from affecting our ability to deal with what life throws at us?

The most important thing to remember is that the brain is plastic, meaning that there are ways to reverse the negative impact of stress on the brain. With the right tools and techniques, like meditation, exercise, proper diet (think Omega-3s), yoga and by maintaining strong social and emotional relationships, we can, in fact, counterbalance the damaging effects of stress and stop our brains from shrinking.

Read more about our Anxiety, Stress & Obsessive-Compulsive Treatment Service.

Easing Your Child’s Back-to-School Worries

Easing Your Child’s Back-to-School Worries

Originally posted by Ali Goldfield, M.A. on TherapyStew ( August 2013

Ali is a psychotherapist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships. She provides assessment and treatment services to children, families and adults in her private practice.

Lots of kids (and parents) have mixed feelings about the start of the school year. It can be really exciting getting ready for school: getting school supplies, new clothes and looking forward to seeing their friends. However, it can also cause a lot of anxiety for many kids, whether they’re starting a new school or not. Taking the time to talk through their anxieties and fears is the few weeks before school starts could make all the difference. Finding out what they’re nervous about – whether it’s meeting the new teacher, making new friends or finding the bathroom when needed, it’s all important to them.

Try the following tips to further ease back to school anxiety.

Make a Plan

If your child is starting a new school, a tour around the campus can be a simple way to ease the first-day jitters. Make sure they know where their classroom is, their locker and especially the bathroom. If you get a class list before school starts, arrange a get together with one of the kids in the class before school starts — first-day jitters are less jittery if there’s a familiar face in class. Teaching anxious middle-schoolers how to use their lock, talk about whether they will be buying lunches or brown bagging it, even sending your child’s teacher an email introducing yourself and your child can help.

Remind Your Child of the Fun They Had Last Year

Point out the positive aspects of starting school: It will be fun. They will see old friends and meet new ones. Try to refresh their memory about previous years, when they may have returned home after the first day with high spirits because they had a good time,

Address the Anxiety at Home.

Talking about the different things that are causing them some worries and even role play out some of the potentially stressful scenarios your child may encounter at a new school — making friends, encountering older kids and encounters with strangers — may help ease their fears.

Get Back Into Routine

Anxious kids can feel soothed by a familiar routine. Prepare kids for a new routine by organizing your house in a back-to-school way. Get their school supplies ready, talk about what they want for lunch on the first day, help them decide what to wear on the first day. If possible, start the back-to-school routine a week or two before school starts. Make sure your back-to-school routine includes plenty of sleep and help your child get back on track with an earlier bedtime and wake-up time.

Read more about our Child, Adolescent & Family Psychology Service.

What is Mindfulness?

What is Mindfulness?
By Tatijana Busic, PhD. Candidate

Welcome to our blog on mindfulness. This is the first in a series of upcoming blogs in which we'll introduce you to the concept of mindfulness and talk about the incredible benefits of this simple, yet, powerful way of living!

In this first blog, we'll define mindfulness and talk about some important distinctions between mindfulness and meditation. In our second blog, we'll explore the psychological and physical benefits of a simple mindfulness practice in everyday life. In our third blog, we'll talk about how mindfulness can be used to enrich and deepen your relationships at home, school and work. Finally, we'll tie things up by introducing you to some very basic tools and strategies that you can start practicing, as well as, share some helpful resources. So let's begin!

To start, lets talk about what mindfulness actually is. Some folks may think of mindfulness as meditation, and this can be scary! Rightly so! We might imagine spiritual gurus spending years of their life practicing and honing the powerful skill of meditation. Although these two concepts are closely related, there are some important differences.

Similarities: The beginning stages of learning mindfulness and meditation are virtually identical. We are learning how to do two very important tasks - How to consciously relax and how to consciously direct our attentional processes. Essentially, we're learning how to relax our bodies and control where and how our mind wanders. 

Differences: Basically, meditation stems from Buddhist philosophy and spiritualties that derive from ancient monastic traditions. Learning how to meditate involves learning the values, beliefs and traditions that are embedded within various traditions. Mindfulness, on the other hand, emerged from the discipline of psychology, scientific research and modern day language and culture. Learning to be mindful, doesn't necessarily involve learning the practice or values of monastic traditions. In many ways, mindfulness is far more applicable to our complex, modern society and therefore, a lot easier and faster to learn.

Some other differences include:
In meditation we sit still - In mindfulness we can be engaged in any task
Meditation takes time - Mindfulness can be switched on at any time
In meditation we focus inward on the body - Mindfulness involves thoughts, feelings, actions and any state of mind!

So what is Mindfulness, exactly?
Mindfulness has become a key focus in psychological and educational research and practice since the 1980's. Our busy, modern-day lifestyles have steered our minds and bodies toward a constant state of frenzy. We're always doing - multi-tasking, multi-thinking and multi-moving!

It's like the autopilot switch in our brain has been turned on permanently. At times this kind of intensity is great! We need it to get a job done while under high pressure. However, when chronically activated, over time, our brains and our bodies become hungry for, addicted to constant stimulation. We may find it hard to switch off or we may become uncomfortable when things are quiet. At other times, we may miss the beauty that surrounds us. Have you ever been on vacation or even just walking through an autumn kissed park and found yourself worrying about other things? Things you have no control over in that moment? Have you found yourself unable to take-in the serenity?  Notice it, feel it and reap the rewards from it?

Put simply, mindfulness is about slowing down our stimulus-bound attentional processes and taking the time to consciously, with self awareness, choose what we pay attention to vs. automatically responding to whatever is going on around us.
Like any skill, learning how to live a more mindful life, takes time and practice - about 100-200 repetitions or three months to consolidate this new and wonderful practice in your brain, your mind and your body.

In the next blog, we'll talk about the physical and psychological benefits of mindfulness. And explain how and why this practice can help alleviate psychological issues such as anxiety and depression.  How it helps us sleep better, feel better and see our selves and the world around us in a different and healthier way.