ParentTip

Rituals for Connection

Photo by  Kimzy Nanney  on  Unsplash

I have been thinking a lot lately about busyness and paying attention.  As summer transitions towards fall, a lot of families are adjusting to new schedules and a more stressed, less relaxed attitude.  I think people generally know that it is good to pay attention to your partner and/or kids (for a more detailed look at paying attention in romantic relationships, google “Gottman bids”) but it gets harder as stress and busyness increase.  Paying attention sounds simple but isn’t easy. So this post is about one tip for making paying attention easier with a few suggestions for how to get the most out of it. 

The tip: Make a ritual out of paying attention and connecting.

Ritual is not a common word these days but I use it because one of its definitions is “an act or series of acts done in a particular situation and in the same way each time” (Merriam-Webster). I think of a ritual as like a conscious habit with a specific goal and find that to be a very useful concept.  Willpower is like a muscle in that you can strengthen it over time and in that, when you use it, it is weaker for a while and takes time to recover its strength. Rituals are a way to reduce over time the willpower needed for a specific task as it becomes the automatic option. As much as possible, we want to make paying attention to and connecting with our loved ones something that isn’t dependent on how many hard decisions we have already made that day.

The details (this applies to kids as well, just replace “work” with “school” and “partner” with “kid”):

Come up with a time before or after work to regularly connect with your partner about their day. If the time is before work, ask about what they are looking forward to about the day and what they are nervous about. If it is after work, ask about highlights and lowlights of their day. Listen and reply with empathy or shared excitement. Bonus points if you remember what they say and ask follow-up questions later.  For the less verbose partners it might be helpful to ask more specific questions like: “Are there one or two things your looking forward to at work today?” or “Who was particularly annoying today?” It’s that simple. Do this for a few weeks and you will have a built-in point of connection with your partner without having to use your willpower to make it happen.

Connection & Empathy Before Problem Solving

Photo by  Josh Calabrese  on  Unsplash

One of the most important things that happens in family or relationship counseling is growth in, and practice of, adopting the perspective of another person.  Perspective taking is a versatile life skill that is helpful in everything from interviewing for a job to staying out of trouble in school. The better a person is at perspective taking, the more fully they can put themselves in another person’s shoes and the more effectively they can interact with that person.  Since no one lives in isolation, improving interactions with others is an investment that pays dividends all the time.

These benefits are even more significant in the relationships where we interact most frequently and often most abrasively: our family.  Let’s look at a common situation in families and how effective perspective taking can help.

Someone in your family is upset about something outside the family.  

Often our first response (especially with kids) is to dive into problem solving mode and try to fix things. This is a mistake because there are almost always at least three different problems and it is most effective (and strengthens your relationship the most) to address the other two problems before tackling the most obvious one.  

  1. The first problem is that the family member feels alone.  Being upset is isolating and studies have shown that simply removing aloneness can help improve someone’s outlook (click here for an example of one of these studies).  Perspective taking helps us understand what someone is experiencing and communicate that we are there for them.

  2. The second problem is that the family member is hurting.  No matter what feeling we express when we are upset, it springs from pain.  This could be physical pain but is most often relational. It also could be based on something the person is anticipating rather than something that has already happened. When we provide comfort, the pain goes away more quickly and becomes more bearable.  Perspective taking allows us to identify the pain and provide comfort more effectively. What I’ve outlined in these two steps could also be called empathy. To learn more about empathy, check out this blog post by one of our directors.

  3. Once the first two problems are addressed, you can help your loved one with their problem solving but after the first two problems are addressed, they are often able to solve their problem themselves.

Following the steps outlined above can often lead to significant improvements in family and couple relationships. Perspective taking can also be extremely helpful, and much harder, during conflict. 

If you would like help applying perspective taking in your relationships, I encourage you to reach out to a therapist.



Beating the Back to School Blues

Photo by  moren hsu  on  Unsplash

Photo by moren hsu on Unsplash

Are you dreading going back to school? Trust me, I’m well acquainted with this feeling. From elementary school all the way up through college, it’s a feeling that doesn’t (and probably won’t) go away. Because with the end of summer comes a specific type of grief that comes from the loss of the glorious freedom of endless days with no obligations. And let me assure you that this is a valid loss that is important to grieve. The changing of seasons is always bittersweet, so give yourself space to feel all the feelings, and also know you’re not alone in feeling them. Here’s some helpful tips to soothe those back to school blues, and hopefully set you up for a successful and fulfilling new school year. 

  1. Marie Kondo Yourself: If you haven’t heard of the KonMari Method, then take a moment and look it up- trust me, it’s worth a quick google to find out how a woman’s name turned into a verb. The basis of this method is to rid your life of clutter, or things that no longer serve you. While it could be helpful to use this method for your bedroom or your school supplies, I mostly mean this in a metaphoric sense. Before going back to school, take a look at all of your habits, your routines, your relationships, your coping skills. Take a deep loving deep breath and lay them all on the table in front of you. Now slowly pick up each one and ask yourself- Does this serve me? Does this bring me joy? Is this in line with what I value? If the answer is yes, great- place it in the metaphoric “keep” pile, if it’s a no- say “thank you, next” and send it on its way. 

  1. Set Your Intentions: Grab a notebook, a few post-it notes, or open your notes app. You’ll need something to jot down your thoughts, and a way to keep your notes visible throughout the year. Ask yourself, “What do I want to get out of this school year? How do I want this school year to feel? In what ways do I want to grow this school year?” Capture your thoughts and set your intentions. Maybe it’s just one word, maybe it’s a list of things, whatever your intentions are, make sure that they are realistic and they are in line with what you value. Tape them on your mirror, save them as your phone lock screen, place them anywhere that you can be frequently reminded of these intentions. 

  1. Gratitude Gratitude Gratitude: It may seem like nothing about a new school year is good, and that there is no possible room for gratitude, but I’m a firm believer that there is always something worth being grateful for in every situation. Maybe you get to see a friend you missed over the summer, maybe you get to wear some new shoes, maybe you get to practice a sport and see your teammates again? However tiny it may be, I invite you to find one thing that you can cultivate gratitude towards during this new school year. Research has proven time and time again that gratitude helps us decrease stress hormones, sleep better at night, improve self esteem, and even can increase our physical health. 

ParentTip: Division of Responsibility (Or How to Do Less So Your Kid Does More)

Photo by  Toa Heftiba  on  Unsplash

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

I was having this conversation with a parent the other day about how our role changes pretty much continuously as our kids develop, and how much we have to shift the division of responsibility as they grow up. If you think about it like a big, messy pie, our share of responsibility goes from the whole dang thing as caregivers to infants to a big thick slice in the middle school years to a thin and very delicate sliver as our teens get ready to launch. The way we adapt to the shifts in the division of responsibility can influence how our kids develop the skills needed for living independently, how much we experience power struggles in our relationships with our kids, and how prepared we are for the inevitable letting go that occurs inch by inch as our kids get older.

Like development in general, changing the division of responsibility is not a linear process. It can ebb and flow along with each child's unique ability to manage increasing responsibility, and as they experience the inevitable mistakes, backslides and missteps that mark the process. How we adapt the division of responsibility is also dependent on our own willingness and ability to step back, let go, and create space for our kids to try new things that they will have to mess up a little along the way. This can be uncomfortable, anxiety-provoking, confusing and scary for parents. It also means that we're constantly having to reassess our own readiness and our kid's readiness for taking over a larger piece of the pie. 

In early childhood, we can get in a routine of "doing for" our kids in big and small ways, and it can be tough to know when the right time is to give them a little more autonomy. How much do we manage *for* our kids and how much do we manage *with* our kids? How do we get comfortable with all the discomfort this messy process uncovers? Part of what makes this so challenging is that there's no way to change up the division of responsibility without experiencing some failures and some heartaches. This is the hardest work of parenting, learning how to manage our own fears and pain as we give our kids room to skin their knees, experience loss, and get their hearts broken along the way.

Think about a time your young child made a mistake. How much did you step in to correct course for them? How much did you have to guide, manage, advise, and direct this process? Now what about with your teen? How different does it need to look in order for your teen to develop the necessary skills for living independently from you? The teen brain is wired for novelty-seeking and  risk-taking, but it's also wired for resilience and growth. The most effective way to nurture our teen's developing frontal lobe (home of all the critical thinking and executive functioning skills) is to give them plenty of room to practice, practice, practice their increasing responsibility to directly manage their own lives, and to learn how to parent from a place of collaboration & compassion as they grow. This isn't about turning our backs on them, or shutting them out, or leaving them to fend for themselves. It's about moving from the position of leading them by the hand (sometimes dragging them kicking and screaming) to walking behind them with a gentle hand raised in readiness to help steady them when they stumble. Because how will we, but more importantly they, ever know what they're really capable of until we give them room to try?

Need some guidance or support with navigating the tricky teen years? We've got you. Check out Blake & Tracy's TeenWise® Parent Coaching or sign up for our upcoming parenting support group to find out more about how we can help. You don"t have to parent alone. 

Back to Nature

Photo by  Tomek Baginski    on  Unsplash

It may be scorching hot outside, but keeping in touch with nature is still important. More and more tweens and teens are so plugged-in to technology and social networking that they aren’t spending nearly enough time outside. Exploring nature is beneficial to kids because it decreases stress, increases a sense of community and belonging, and provides meaning and purpose that can increase tween’s self esteem, confidence and sense of place in the world. 

Since it is 100+ degrees on Texas summer days, you may have to get a little creative! We’ve collected some ideas to get you and your child started so you can get some fresh air this summer and stay cool at the same time.

  • Bring your child and their friend to Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center 

    on Thursday nights for Nature Nights 6-9pm

  • Visit local watering holes

  • Visit Breed and Company or your favorite local nursery to pick up inexpensive clay pots, some dirt, and plants. She and her friends can decorate the pots and plant some flowers to put in their rooms or on the front porch!

  • Go to East Austin Succulents (These plants can actually survive the Texas heat, and you will find some really cool looking cacti! Be on the lookout for a Living Social Coupon or a Groupon from them!)

  • Rent a Kayak off of Town Lake (aim for early in the morning or in the evening to avoid the heat)

What are some ways you stay cool while keeping connected to nature?

How to Give Back

Photo by  Sandrachile  on  Unsplash

Photo by Sandrachile on Unsplash

Summer may be all about fun, but with a little extra time on your hands, it's also the perfect opportunity to give back to your community with your tween. The suggestion to volunteer may elicit groans and sighs, but encouraging participation can promote critical thinking skills, empathy, social awareness and self-confidence in your tween. Finding fun ways to get involved is possible by browsing VolunteerMatch.org or visiting local non-profits to learn about opportunities for youth. Many will require parental participation as well, so make it a family affair and show your tween that giving to those in need is a lifetime endeavor! To learn more about how volunteering positively impacts young people, visit Psychology Today.

Here are a few of our favorite spots to get you started. Enlisting your tween's help in selecting a location and activity will help ensure that the experience is rewarding for the whole family!

  • Volunteers 8 years and older are welcome at the Capital Area Food Bank

  • Austin Habitat for Humanity often needs youth to provide lunches to volunteer sites

  • Planning a beach trip this fall? September 22 is Texas Adopt-a-Beach Day and there are many ways you can help!

  • Caritas encourages families to host their own food drive to help stock their pantries

  • At the Ronald McDonald House, warm meals are always welcome

  • Befriend a neighbor in need and deliver meals, spruce up the front yard, walk the dog or offer to pitch in around the house

  • Host a lemonade stand or garage sale and donate the proceeds to your tween's favorite non-profit

  • Clean out the closets and take gently used clothes to the Austin Children's Shelter

Building Family Rituals This Summer

If there’s one concept most families are familiar with (and crave), it’s the idea of routines. Routines help us stay organized and keep track of multiple moving parts. Routines are what help family members decide how to spend their time, together and separately. Rituals, on the other hand, are how families invest time and emotion. Rituals are predictable activities that help family members forge a strong sense of group identity and belonging.

Rituals and routines are especially crucial during times of high stress and transition, which occur frequently during the adolescent years. This life stage is marked with navigating the unknown, searching for identity and juggling physical and emotional changes all at once. Routines and rituals at home can help adolescents and their families find some footing. So how do we put rituals into practice? Many people associate this practice with holiday rituals and celebrations, for example: your birthday rolls around and you can predict how the day is going to go. Ideally, your loved ones are gathered with cake and candles, invested in spending time together and creating memories for years to come. However, rituals can also be the small things, the day-to-day moments that add up. Maybe family dinners or car chats after a soccer game; the intentional moments that allow space for communication and connection. Rituals are the wonderfully predictably practices that remind us we’re in it together.

While rituals can vary greatly by family system and culture, what each family deems worthy, allows it to become worthy. Here are a few simple ideas that can help your family get the ball rolling with establishing your own family rituals:

  1. Family Game Night: This is a time for play and laughter which directly contributes to a sense of connection. Also, allows family members to take turns pitching in game ideas and rule suggestions.

  2. Bedtime rituals: For littles, this can include storytime and snuggles. For older kids/teens this can mean identifying a high/low of the day or some form of emotional check-in before closing the day out.

  3. Family Meetings: Intentionally and consistently set aside time time to allow family members to discuss various topics and bring other family members up to speed on what's going on in their lives. Even allow space for discussions around changes in family rules or routines, or bring up ways to better meet family needs.

  4. Family outings/road trips: Hit the road! Whether this be an annual family vacation or perhaps just a short Sunday adventure. Your family can easily alter this based on time or financial constraints.

  5. Family walks/ exercise: Perhaps there is a sport that your family is interested in and would benefit from participating in together. Or keep it simple and take a short walk around the neighborhood to unwind and talk.

  6. Cooking/ Meal Preparation: If this is something that could be enjoyable for your family, let everyone get involved. Even allowing room for family members to experiment with recipes or learn how to make traditional family recipes. There is so much creativity and love that can go into cooking. (Note: if it wouldn't be enjoyable to get the whole family involved in the cooking, remember that there are people who enjoy to cook for others and some who take joy in eating it! That's how we bring everyone into the fun!)

  7. Family Wishlist: Set time aside to identify some wishes/goals for each season or calendar year as a family, and make it happen! Maybe in the summer you want to have a cookout, swim or make time to go the county fair. Allowing each family member to contribute and then feeling the gratification when you cross each item off the list!

These are all general ideas that can be adapted to each family and their unique needs. However, feel free to take this concept of family rituals and add your own twist!

Sync Up and Parent as a Team

Imagine parenting to be like managing a ship. You plan a route, assign tasks to your crew and hope that everyone pitches in. The crew relies on the co-captains, or parents, for guidance and reassurance. Now imagine if the co-captains are sending conflicting information. This approach leaves the crew confused about how to proceed. Often, what ensues is chaos, stress, and a crew that either attempts to benefit from this discord or proceed with discouragement.

This is similar to families when the co-captains, or parents, are not aligned. Each partner is working hard and making decisions based on their own goals, often unaware of what their co-captain is delegating at the same time. Let’s be clear, this is typically done with the best of intentions and belief that you are steering your family in a great direction. Yet, if the ship is being steered in two different directions, not much is accomplished. If you notice your children going behind your back to ask your partner permission, the rules often shift, or perhaps there is no family mission in place, this can be a fantastic opportunity to reflect with your partner on how to sync up. This can feel like a big undertaking. Many of us did not grow up in homes that had consistent structure and a transparency in why our parents operated the way they did. However, this is an opportunity to grow and learn. Remember: perfection is not the end goal here!

A great starting point is to sit down with your partner and discuss what values you are wanting to instill in your family. Whether that be adventure, honesty, selfless service, etc., start to discuss why these values matter to you. Really hear each other out and try to connect with your partner’s point of view, even if your lists differ. Second, reflect on how your current “rules” or guidelines at home either support or deviate from these values. You want to both be clear on how each guideline directly promotes your top values. Once these guidelines are clearly established, they also need to be written out so that all ages can understand what is expected. When spelling out guidelines think “SMART” - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely. For younger kids, pictures are also effective.

It can be helpful to call a family meeting and sit down with your kids to discuss, especially when changes have been made. Now with the family present, explain what is the purpose of each guideline. For example, we will spend each Sunday morning together as a family at breakfast for one hour, without phone/tablets to include quality time, holidays and vacations included. If you have buy-in about the purpose of this, there is more likelihood your children will have buy-in as well. Allow for questions and even for a respectful discussion to ensue. With teens, it oftentimes helps to allow some flexibility for feedback or editing the guidelines together so everyone can feel invested in the process. Having everyone sign the list and posting a copy for reference can symbolize this commitment of the entire family.

Now, the most important piece: FOLLOW THROUGH. Louder for the people in the back!! CONSISTENCY is key. If you and your partner agree to establish a rule or guideline, stick to it. It can be tough, but it’s so crucial to make sure you’re honoring your co-captain and the mission you’ve laid out for your family. If you slide, that actually means you are going against your commitment. This lends to anxiety and confusion.  It is crucial for your children to learn that you are true to your word and that what you expect of them is consistent. Perhaps this feels like something too big to take on without some extra support or you and your partner feel way off track. This can be common, especially with separated or blended families that are trying co-parent and are struggling to communicate. Know that family therapy is an option. There are wonderful therapists who can patiently walk parents through this process, and help clarify how to work together to steer the ship in an intentional direction.

Treating Parents is Key to Treating Anxious Children

Earlier this week in the break room, Blake and Tracy shared about a recent study they had read.  As one of the rare individuals who thoroughly enjoy reading academic research, I was PSYCHED – not just because I got to hunker down with my highlighter in hand, but in that it pertained to treating children with anxiety.  While these two things alone would bring a smile to my face, the results were tremendously powerful: TREAT THE PARENTS. While this may seem like a simple and maybe obvious solution to a family systems therapist like myself, you’d be surprised how little family/parental work is done when the main client is a young person with anxiety.  It is not uncommon for parents to believe that their anxious child is the one who needs therapy, which is certainly still true. However, if the goal of all involved is to support the child in reducing symptoms of anxiety, treating the parents is very much the key to success.

According to Eli Lebowitz, the associate director of the Anxiety and Mood Disorders at the Yale Child Study Center, parents of anxious children almost always try to accommodate their child. She states, “For instance, if the child suffers from social anxiety, no friends are invited to the house; in the case of separation anxiety, parents sleep with their child or never leave the home. Parents constantly reassure a child with generalized anxiety. While the responses of parents are natural, studies have shown that they also leave children suffering from debilitating anxiety into adulthood”.  Currently, there are only two evidence-based treatments for anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT, which I provide and have written about in past blog posts - Embracing Self-Compassion and Let’s Talk About Teen Mental Health), and medication. Of those able to receive these options, however, only half of the children respond to treatment. Because of this, it has been vital for researchers to find additionally effective treatments.

Yale researchers randomly assigned 124 children ages 7 – 14 with diagnosed anxiety disorders to either receive cognitive behavioral therapy, or their parents were enrolled in the Yale SPACE program, or Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions. For 12 weeks, parents attended weekly counseling sessions geared toward helping themselves cope with their anxious child.  While both approaches were equally effective in reducing the child’s stress levels and anxiety symptoms, the “accommodating” behavior parents typically engage in reduced significantly after receiving SPACE counseling.

For example, a parent assigned to SPACE was able to decrease the number of daily text messages sent to their child from “dozens” to about 2 – 3.  Also, parents who repeatedly kept their child out of school because of anxiety-related stomachaches learned to say, “I know you are feeling upset right now, but I know you’ll be okay,” and sent their child to school.

It is believed that the accommodating behaviors were reduced due to encouraging parents to validate their child’s emotions, while also creating and maintaining boundaries and consistent support for the child. In a 2013 study about Space, Lebowitz shared this example script:

“We understand it makes you feel really anxious or afraid. We want you to know that this is perfectly natural and everyone feels afraid some of the time. We also want you to know that it is our job as your parents to help you get better at things that are hard for you, and we have decided to do exactly that. We are going to be working on this for a while and we know it will probably take time, but we love you too much not to help you when you need help.”.


I am very much excited to share that I will now be challenging myself to learn more about the SPACE approach, and will begin engaging parents more frequently when treating their child’s anxiety.  Also, for you parents of anxious children out there, I’ve created a short and quick cheat sheet that may also help you in this process:

  1. Listen to what your child is saying, both verbally and with their body language!

  2. Validate your child’s feelings – “I see that you feel _______”.  

  3. Normalize the feelings – “Everyone feels _______ sometimes”.

  4. Support – “We are all working on this together, and I love you”.

Thanks for letting me share this exciting work with you, and as always, be safe, be peaceful and be kind ☺


Fighting the End-Of-School-Year Burnout

Photo by  Tim Gouw  on  Unsplash

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

It’s often the same old story for students. You are counting down the days until the school year ends, and then freedom can begin! You have spent all year working hard and juggling so many moving parts in your life. Yet, finals are coming up and summer feels far away. Maybe you’ve already noticed your motivation dropping and your feet dragging when it comes to keep up with everything going on. The struggle can feel very real!

This feeling of “burnout” often pops up when we try to power through, without also taking care of ourselves. You may have received messages that you have to keep pushing on, even if you start to reach your breaking point. However, this is not realistic! Resilience, or the ability to keep going despite our circumstances, requires us to rest when we need to.

For some, burnout means feeling cranky, checked out, tearful or even shutting down. Things that used to be fun, can seem uninteresting or even overwhelming. Your body is actually screaming, “take care of me! Slow down!”

What can you do?? You have a couple months left a you still need to survive. Here are some simple tools you can use to help yourself recharge and actually get through this last hump until summer break. I challenge you to try some of these on, and see what works for you:

1.    Check in with yourself. What are you are feeling right now? Maybe: sad, irritated, nervous, numb… find the word that feels true. And then name one helpful thing you can do for yourself in this moment. And most importantly, DO it!

2.    Get your basic needs met. Are you hungry, thirsty, or tired? If these things aren’t being taken care of not much else will be able to help. It’s amazing the impact a glass of water or a 20-minute power nap can have.

3.    Find one moment each day that you are grateful for. Gratitude actually helps us see our life in a more positive light.

4.    Make a list of small things that energize you. And then write those into your weekly planner. Literally. Carve out time in your schedule to do at least 2-3 of those, along with your other responsibilities. It’s ok to be busy, and still take moments for you!

5.    Mix it up! If you are starting to feel like each week is dragging on, then find ways to do things a bit differently. Maybe change up your study spots, try out some new breakfast recipes, change up your route to school or find some new albums to listen to. Variety will help your brain stay present in the moment and less “checked out”.

6.    Name the hard days. Having a tough day? Call it out. You can start by admitting this to yourself or talk to people in your life that you trust.  It can help you accept that you are being challenged and realize that others are in the same boat. This doesn’t mean you’re weak, only human. Plus, you’ve already survived ALL of your hard days up to this point. You’ve got a pretty great track record!


Feeling stressed? Learn more about our therapy services today!