The Parent's Guide to Surviving Summer by Sandie Johnson

The temperature is 70 degrees. The sun shines bright on this Saturday in June. The day is so gorgeous, you just have to be outdoors to enjoy it. Maybe a run by the lake, maybe do a little yard work, maybe walk to the neighborhood coffee shop and browse the thrift shop next door….

But wait. Oh yeah, there are those two kiddos that happen to be yours that just got out of school. And they have soccer games and a birthday party and have been begging to go to Dave and Busters, and seem to whine anytime they get a little hot, or the sun is too bright, or the breeze is too strong, or their sandals get sand in them, or their sibling starts to bug them. Yep, it’s summer alright.

The introduction to this article may sound a bit cynical to those parents who have one child or who have children who never whine, but for the rest of us, there is at least an element of truth in the picture that is painted there. So here are the top 10 ideas for how to survive this summer without becoming a referee or pulling your hair out.

1. Create a calendar: Kids can see what is coming up in a few days, a week from now, in a month, and how long summer really is. You can determine if counting down the days of summer helps or if it just makes everyone more anxious about the looming spectre of the return of school. Maybe create special days like “backwards day” (eat dinner for breakfast and vice versa, wear clothes backwards, etc.)

2.  Make an agenda every day on a white board where the kids can see for themselves everything that is happening.  For example: 9 a.m.-- get ready for the day; 9:30 a.m.-- trip to the library Noon-- lunch.

3. One hour of “free” time:  Give your child time with nothing to do, so that he/she can create his/her own activities. This space gives the child time to be creative and even learn how to manage time if he/she has only an hour. If your child needs inspiration, you may help them create a list of what they have wanted to do during the school year, but didn’t have time for.

4. Alone time: Create space for your child to spend time alone. Some parents call it “quiet time.” This time should be for reading and/or listening to music. If the child hasn’t slept well the night before, it may be a time to take a quick nap as well.

5.  Limit screen time to one hour or less a day. This idea may mean keeping phones and devices in a common space where everyone can be kept accountable. Consider limiting your own time on your phone or computer.

6.  Create separate playdates for siblings so that they get some independence from each other, which may not be as available during the school year.

7.  Keep a regular bedtime-- even if it’s a little later than in the school year. Kids don’t enjoy even the best things when they are tired. If you allow them to stay up until they say they are tired or want to go to bed, they will be cranky the next day, even if the day is filled with unicorns and whip cream.

8. Get outside! Even kids who complain about being too hot need to be outdoors every day. It has been shown to boost a person’s mood to be in nature for 15 minutes every day which proves that even just a walk around the block might be a cure for some grumpies.

9. Behavior system: If you have behaviors that you want to see more of, reward them. Keeping track with stickers is one way to keep track, but just verbally affirming your child when you see something you like goes a long way. “I noticed how kind you were to your brother a few minutes ago. I like that.” Here’s an example of how to keep track:

10. Swap babysitting-- If you have friends whose kids get along with your kids, no matter the age gap, arrange to watch their kids while you go out and have them watch yours while you go out.

So leisurely browsing at a thrift store with a latte on a Saturday morning may be a thing of the past for now. But finding your groove may be easier with some of these ideas.  Happy Summer!

Welcoming Sprout's newest counselor, Jemima King LCPC

Blog post by Jemima King

Several years ago I pieced together some fabric into a quilt.  I was moderately pleased with the quilt, but because of a series of random events (moving, broken sewing machines, etc), I didn’t pick up that quilt again until this year.  

Straight off I noticed several things:  1.  What I thought was a wonderfully constructed quilt, was in fact, poorly done.  The corners didn’t match up, so triangles became weirdly misshapen, seams didn’t come together in straight lines, several pieces of fabric came together and were lumpy instead of smooth, etc.  2.  The raw materials I chose were a mixture of high quality and some cheap horribleness—you can tell! And, 3.  The color combo is, well, interesting.  

I began to doubt that it was even worth quilting because it’s a lot of work and subpar materials, combined with poor construction made for a judgment fest!  Ultimately, I decided that I did want to quilt it, because while it is nothing to write home about (but apparently, something to write a blog about!), this quilt represents so much of my growth as a quilter over several years.  Growth I had not remarked on, noticed, or paid particular attention to, simply because I moved on.

As I sat on the beach quilting, I began to realize, self-judgment and criticism, isn’t just limited to items we may have created years ago, but also often extends to how we are still anxious after years of trying everything to manage anxiety.  How we haven’t quite figured out that relationship.  Or how we haven’t got that job we wanted to have by this time in our career.   We look at who we are and think; I am not good enough.   I did a horrible job.  I should have known X.  Or I should have done Y better.  We only see what we should have or could have done differently.  

And so, we miss out on how we have grown and what we have learned.  What came out of the experience we are so quick to judge?  What did I learn in the process of that event/conversation/experience that I now use to do better?  We miss how we react differently now.  That today we made a choice we didn’t even know was a possibility last year, but now we can’t imagine not making.

From my sad quilting foray, I learned about something called nestled seams that allow several pieces of fabric to come together without lumps.   I also learned how much ironing makes a difference in every step of the process—something I previously did as infrequently as possible.    I don’t remember where I picked up on both of those skills, but they are a normal part of my every day quilting.

So my question for you today is, what have you done this week that would have been impossible or poorly done just a few short years ago?  What do you do now in your relationships that you didn’t think to do before?   What experiences or work opportunities do you have because of something you did a poor job of in the past?  What is your quilt moment? 

What can you take a minute today to celebrate as positive change and growth in your life?  

Mother's Day by Jessica Gombis

Mother’s Day is upon us.  It’s a pretty loaded day I’d say.  I’m a mom and I have a mom, and well, let’s be real; we have expectations.  We have expectations of our children. We have expectations of our spouses.  Heck, we have expectations of the person giving the sermon at church, the server handing us our mimosa, the weather, the flowers, the jewelry, and the phone call.  C’mon! Being a mom is a hard job y’all so, it’s no wonder that mom’s have expectations.

There’s also so much heartbreak that mother’s day can bring.  There’s the heart-wrenching pain of wanting to be a mom and not getting to be one.  There are folks who have lost their moms and moms who have lost their babies. There’s mom guilt.  And even when everyone is living and thriving, the relationships between moms and children can be fraught with pain, conflict and absence.  There’s enough pain potential wrapped into this one holiday to land anyone in bed with the covers pulled over your head.

Some might say we should scrap the whole thing, and I think I agree.  While it’s lovely to have a day dedicated to honoring this relationship and these people who mother us, maybe the real issue is that one day can’t hold it all.

One day can’t hold enough gratitude for all the ways mothers sacrifice and serve their families.  No bouquet of roses, hand-written card, lovely brunch, or piece of jewelry can fully say thanks for all mothers do for us.  And in turn, one day can’t hold the pain of loss and broken relationships or serve to make up for them. It takes a long time; a lifetime sometimes to find that peace.

My perspective is that we need to make it our regular practice to honor and thank those who mother us as often as we can.  I need to call regularly, I need to send notes of gratitude regularly, and to give gifts regularly. No annual call or gift will ever be enough.

In seasons and situations of pain or loss, we need to regularly acknowledge those who are suffering.  When we are the ones suffering, we need to make it our regular practice to work toward reconciliation or peace.  It will take time and effort. If you find it difficult to do that work on your own, part of that regular practice may be going to counseling.  You’ll find some great Chicago counselors at Sprout Family Clinics in the South Loop or Evanston to help you on your journey.

Maybe the best motherly advice I can give you is to mother yourself a little this Mother’s Day.  Sleep well, eat well, love well and be well all you moms and dads and daughters and sons.

Also, I want a necklace and flowers if you’re reading this Sophia, Graham and Mason.  JK- but not really. Xoxo- Mom

Misunderstood Part 4: A Lack of Curiosity by Stephan Gombis LCPC

How Stress, Blame and a Lack of Curiosity Prevent you from being Known

Double. Chocolate. Brownie cake from Sweet Mama B’s Cafe. YUMMY! And this was Mike’s favorite. Knowing this, Kim went 40 minutes out of her way to stop by Sweet Mama B’s. The whole way there and the whole way back she pictured herself sitting across from Mike, smiling at each other and basking in the little piece of joy she brought for Mike. Kim envisioned Mike’s gratitude as he delighted and enjoyed his favorite cake with her.

But that’s not exactly what happened…

Kim got home a few minutes before Mike, so she decided to take a quick shower. A few minutes later Mike came home, opened the fridge and to his delight, saw his favorite cake just sitting there.  With gratitude, Mike pulled out the cake, cut himself a piece, sat down and ate it. When Kim walked into the kitchen and saw Mike washing his cake dish, she felt hurt and exploded. And Mike (rather than trying to understand where Kim was coming from) argued that he had no idea this would upset her.

So what happened here? How did a lack of curiosity impact their ability to be understood?

First off, all feelings need to be acceptable, though not all words or actions are always acceptable. It is ok, and even understandable, that Kim felt hurt. It's her response, not her feelings, that accelerated the situation. She took her assumption and ran with it.  

On the other side, Mike went straight into defense mode where all he cared about was getting the anger and blame to stop. The problem is, you can’t stop anger with reason. Without a sense of curiosity about where Kim’s anger stemmed from, Kim just got more upset and nothing could get resolved.

What is a Lack of Curiosity?

A lack of curiosity creates misunderstanding when you believe you don’t need any more information because you already have it all. It’s like being a know-it-all.  You know your partner feels this way when you speak and you see her rolling her eyes. That communicates…


            “I’ve heard this before and it has no value to me.”



We lose our sense of curiosity when we go into survival mode.

In survival mode, it feels like there isn’t enough for the both of us, bandwidth is limited, judgment abounds, and you feel rushed to fix the problem because your survival is on the line.


A relationship filled with a lack of curiosity looks similar to the characteristics marriage researcher John Gottman calls, “The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” These characteristics are contempt, stonewalling, criticism and defensiveness.  And when a relationship has these characteristics it communicates that you can no longer be influenced. You prefer monologue to dialogue. 

But maybe you’re thinking, "I do ask questions, but my partner says it feels like an inquisition.”

Some questions aren’t questions at all. They are statements of judgment wrapped up in questions. This is what’s called a “Leading question," a question that's basically a statement with a question mark after it instead of a period. 

And here are a few examples of statements with a question mark tacked on:


“You’re trying to hurt me. right?”


“You knew we couldn’t afford those purchases but you spent the money anyway didn’t you?”

“So this is what you consider a clean kitchen?”

“Don’t you hear the baby screaming?”


To counteract the tendency to ask leading questions I recommend “I” statements. So let’s restate the leading questions from above.


“I feel hurt” or “I’m having a hard time trusting you right now”


“I’m frustrated that we’re facing this much debt” or “I’m annoyed that we don’t have a budget we can agree to stick with”


The most valuable advice I can give on preventing a leading question from being asked, is to avoid asking questions you think you know the answer to. Assume the best in your partner, and ask questions from a place of genuine curiosity.


We’ve covered a lot in this section, but here are the main points…



1-A lack of curiosity is taking the posture of a “Know-it-all"

2-We lack curiosity when our bandwidth is limited, when judgment abounds, and when we feel rushed to fix the problem

3-A lack of curiosity manifests itself in contempt, criticism, defensiveness or stonewalling

4. We can counteract this lack of curiosity by seeking to truly understand our partner

At this point we’ve covered the how stress, blame and a lack of curiosity lead to being misunderstood. In the next and final section we are going to look at steps you can take to minimize this three-headed monster and some resources that can help you along the way.

Misunderstood Part 3 by Stephan Gombis LCPC

How Stress, Blame and a Lack of Curiosity Prevent you from being Known

Part 3: Blame

What is blame?

Blame is assuming someone’s intentions with judgment. This is also called “Mind reading” and "Convicting”. 

Assumptions + Judgment = Blame

What is Blame?

Blame is the second way that a misunderstanding can occur. And this is because blame often involves assuming someone’s intentions without knowing the facts. Judgment or assuming devalues the other, putting them down and distancing you from responsibility, leaving you feeling superior and blameless.  In couples counseling this is known as contempt.  And contempt is a serious problem. According to marriage researcher John Gottman in his book, “The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work," contempt is the highest predictor that a relationship will end in divorce.

People that blame don’t Always blame.

They do it when the conditions are right (or wrong depending on how you look at it). And the conditions tend to be right when our logic uses what I call, The 3 I’s.

The 3 I’s stand for:

1-No Information

2-No Intelligence

3-No Integrity

And it’s this logical sequence that leads us to blame. 

Let’s look at an example shall we?

Imagine having an argument with your spouse over his credit card spending. Where do you start? Information?

"Did you know our credit card bill is $2k this month?”

Why did you start there? You started there because you have the assumption that if he knew what you knew about the credit card, he’d celebrate your discovery and instantly repent of his ways.

But that doesn’t happen, does it? Frustrated by his response you move on to plan B…. No intelligence

“Honey, if we spend more then we make we will go into debt.”

You say it so sweetly.  And it’s true!  But the assumption here is that your partner doesn’t have the intelligence you have. So based on that assumption you need to dumb down the information during your second attempt.

So how does that usually work for you? Not very well right? He ends up feeling like you think he’s an idiot and you get even more frustrated because you worked hard to say it nicely and where did it get you? But you’re not quite ready to give up yet.

 With your last ounce of effort you try once more to be understood. The problem is… It’s your worst assumption yet. You assume your partner has no integrity. I mean why else would he reject the information you resented. And he can’t say he didn’t comprehend it because you even dumbed it down for him. 

“You don’t care about me and you obviously don’t care about our finances, so why don’t you just leave?”

This type of thinking and assuming drives a wedge between partners. We get to the point where we believe our partner is being evil. To side with them would mean we’re evil too. At this point what option do we have but to oppose them? And here in lies the problem with blame. 

It’s possible to build up a thoughtful case against our partner–even a very convincing one. But people aren’t islands; we don’t behave in a vacuum. We are social creatures that have the ability to impact each other. This is why former president John F. Kennedy famously said, “A society gets the criminals it deserves.” No we don’t “cause” our partner’s behavior, but we do co-create the environment that it exists in. And behavior remains in an environment in which that behavior is useful.

Imagine there was a pattern where your partner shopped online after the two of you had a fight. Perhaps shopping was your partner’s way of relieving stress? You didn’t cause your partner to shop, but you may have contributed to the environment being stressful.

How do you know if you’ve contributed stress to your relationship?

If you attacked him, overly-defended yourself or withdrew from the conversation (physically or emotionally); you played a role. And as much as you have the power to add to the stress, you also have power to relieve it.

One of my coaching tools to help spouses ease the tension in their relationships is what I call, The Oxygen Mask Exercise. And it goes like this…

Have two sheets of paper (one for each partner) and draw two circles (so it looks like a doughnut). In the smaller circle, write in your minimum non-negotiable needs on this issue. Note: It’s important to avoid “Padding it up” with non-essentials so there is still room for compromise. Then in the outer circle write in what you’d like, but can live without (list what’s negotiable to you on this issue).

 Next, ask your partner what needs are in their inner circle (AKA what they need to breathe in this situation) and acknowledge that those needs are important to you too.  Both people share.

Here’s an example:

Say your partner’s inner circle has the following listed:

“I need to know you like me and that you’re on my team”

You can then respond:

“I know that this has been a tough conversation. And I know how easy we can feel like we’re fighting for our lives here. I just want you to know that I do like you and no matter what, I’m on your team.”

 What you’re doing here is essentially telling your partner, “Here’s your oxygen mask, breathe freely.”


1-Blame is making a subjective judgment about someone else without seeing your part

2-Blame often requires making assumptions using the logical sequence of the 3 I's

3-Blame can be rational without being objective

So the next time you’re upset about something your spouse did and you want to be understood, remember to withhold the Three I’s that lead to blame and try to find out the facts without judgment. Use The Oxygen Mask Exercise to identify the heart of the matter, and listen carefully to your partner.

In the next article we’re going to turn our attention to the third and final reason that leads to being misunderstood; a lack of curiosity.

Misunderstood by Stephan Gombis LCPC

How Stress, Blame and a Lack of Curiosity Prevent you from being Known Part 1 & 2

Part 1: Introduction

A few years back someone sent me a YouTube link of a German commercial. That commercial went like this:

A rookie German coast guard was left alone to monitor incoming calls of ships that might be in trouble and in need of rescue. About ten seconds into the commercial a ship captain called into the German coast guard, but in English saying, “Mayday, mayday.  We’re sinking, we’re sinking.”

The rookie German-speaking coast guard feeling a little frazzled cautiously replied, “This is the German coast guard. But it sounded more like: “Zis is zee German coast guard.”

The scared English-speaking captain repeated, “We’re sinking, we're sinking.” To which the rookie coast guard now confidently replied, “What are you sinking (thinking) about?”

The ad was selling English-education services, but it’s a perfect example of what a misunderstanding can look like and how easily it can happen. Of course misunderstandings aren’t always this funny. Sometimes it’s no laughing matter. But funny or serious, I find that there are three reasons why misunderstandings occur. And those three reasons are:



3-A lack of curiosity 

After 11 years as a marriage therapist, and 9 years of being married, I’ve come to realize that being understood is at the heart of every matter we can argue about. So I put together this 5 part article series (that will be emailed out over the next 5 days) to help you discover how stress, blame and a lack of curiosity get in the way of being understood.

The first barrier we will begin with is stress.

Part 2: Stress

Imagine you are looking forward to an evening spent hanging out with a close friend. Then, at the last minute, your friend cancels. You’re disappointed, but more than that, you’re frustrated: this is the third time she’s canceled on you in as many weeks.

This frustration causes stress.  You know you need to discuss your frustrations with your friend, but  even thinking about talking to that friend can be stressful too.

Relationships cannot thrive when issues are ignored. If we can voice our concern without attacking, defending or withdrawing, our relationship can likely be restored and even improved. 

So you’ve heard of stress; and being human you’ve most likely experienced it too (maybe even on a daily basis). But what you might not know is how stress contributes to misunderstandings. 

What is Stress?

The definition of stress is, “A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances,” (Oxford Dictionary). Stress comes from the Latin word “Strictus” meaning, “drawn tight.” In French the word for stress is “Estresse” meaning “narrowness” or “oppression.” All pretty good descriptions, don’t you think? 

I find it’s helpful to look at how stress is described across the language spectrum, as it fills in the picture of what stress feels like. As you can imagine, if you’re feeling, “Strain, tension, tight, narrowness or oppression," misunderstanding might be close behind.  That would make sense wouldn’t it?

How stress prevents us from being understood

You can’t be both narrow and open-minded. You can’t be both tense and free to explore. And it’s tough to feel oppressed and still try to listen. Without listening we have no ability to understand or comprehend our partner. Stress restricts our natural ability to listen because the body releases stress hormones that trigger a sequence of reactions like the list below:

1-Lose periphery vision and into tunnel vision

2-Lowered ability to think logically

3-Less mental flexibility

4-Enter into fight or flight mode

5-Cold hands/feet as blood flow contracts and concentrates in vital organs like the heart and lungs

Now imagine you’ve been frustrated with your partner’s approach to parenting, and a challenging situation with your six year-old has sparked yet another disagreement with your husband. As the conversation intensifies, you begin to become annoyed that your partner doesn’t see how right you are. And at the same time, you start to ask the question, “What am I doing with this guy?” He keeps talking, but it all sounds like a huge waste of words. At the same time, you’ve overlooked that fact that he apologized three times, “saying it wasn’t sincere enough”. Guess what… Your stress is fueling the misunderstanding and preventing you from being understood. 

Are you starting to see how stress creates a likely scenario for misunderstandings to flourish?

When you’re focusing all your energy on surviving the present moment; taking the time to explore another person’s perspective is as likely as finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

But can stress ever lead to understanding?

It sure can. It’s true that stress and stress hormones can leave our minds less flexible, but stress in the right dosage can be the trigger that prompts us to lean into our fears and comprehend what’s actually happening.

You can leverage stress to be more mindful, and to create greater understanding. One way to do this is  to lower your stress hormones into the optimal zone through a method called Pulmonary Muscle Relaxation. It’s easy to do while sitting or lying down. There are three main steps to Pulmonary Muscle Relaxation and they are:

1-Contract one muscle group at a time (I recommend starting with your hands and then working your way up to your head and then down to your feet), while at the same time taking a deep (Yawn-style breath in).

2-Hold the contracted muscle group and your breath for 7-10 counts.

3-Release your muscles and slowly blow out the air as you bring your stomach muscles in

That’s it! This exercise is great for you to do when you’re feeling a discussion is going nowhere and you’re becoming less and less patient. Take that signal as a warning that you need to lower your stress hormones or this discussion is going to turn into a fight.       

Let’s review what we covered in this post shall we? 


1-Stress is narrowness, oppression, or tightness

2-Stress shifts our body/mind resources to be narrowly focused on survival rather than conversation

3. When we notice our stress levels rising, we can work to actively release stress in order to create a better environment for communication.

In my next blog post, we will be addressing Blame and how it can cause misunderstandings to happen.


I enjoy watching stand-up comedy shows a lot in my free time. One particular female comedian, Tiffany Haddish, has recently become my favorite. While I love her sense of humor and likeable personality, I also find Haddish inspirational. When she was homeless at one point while doing stand-up comedy, she created a list of goals to motivate herself to focus on completing only goal-related tasks that would help her succeed. In the year 2017 alone, she hosted Saturday Night Live, published a personal memoir, released a comedy show, and starred in a movie alongside Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith! I couldn’t help but be amazed by the power of setting goals and creating a series of to-do lists that are consistent with those goals.     

As creatures of habit, many of us would agree that making one behavioral change is hard enough. Too many times I’ve failed my new year’s resolution to exercise more because I didn’t create a concrete plan with a long term gym buddy. At the beginning of this year, I successfully (forcefully and painfully) cut down to one cup of coffee per day after trying for FOUR months.

Behavioral changes such as working out and cutting down on caffeine intake might be the easiest to make out of three major components of human experience: behavior, emotion, and cognition. I would like to share a tool with you for introducing some behavioral changes. Perhaps a lot of you have heard of the S.M.A.R.T. tool for project management or employee development. The acronym S.M.A.R.T. stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-related. If you could benefit from some structure, I’d like to illustrate how to use the S.M.A.R.T. tool as a guiding light on your daily path.

Let’s say I am someone who is learning to manage mild depressive symptoms one day at a time as my main goal. There are four behavioral basics that I would need to stick with: sleep, daily exercise, healthy diet, and socialization.

  1. In order to ensure eight hours of sleep so that I am not sleeping too much or too little. I will turn off all electronic devices at 10pm to ease my brain from the stimulation. Perhaps play some relaxing music and then I will sleep from 11pm to 7am.

  2. To get 15 to 30 minutes of exercise every day, I will park my car further than my normal spot at work and when running errands. Bonus points for the brutal Chicago winter because walking in the cold burns more calories! Those few minutes are not limited to physical exercise, you can substitute it with any reward or pleasure driven activities, such as painting, singing, listening to music, or playing musical instruments.

  3. I will keep a consistent diet by making sure I am not eating too much or too little. Regardless of my appetite, I will eat similar portions around the same time every day and never skip a meal. I will avoid eating fast food and cook more homemade meals. These specific behavioral tasks such as sleep, exercise/creative activities, and a healthy diet could help boost my dopamine and serotonin levels.

  4. Last but not least, I will communicate with a small group of people on a weekly basis. I will briefly talk to three friends, coworkers, or family members every other day in person, via texts or phone calls. I will show up once a week at any social gathering, it could be happy hour after work or a book club. Having some form of socialization can help ease the feeling of isolation in the midst of struggles.  

Just to throw in a mindful caveat, it’s OK if you don’t complete the entire list because even the most successful and efficient person only finishes about 30% of their list. The main purpose of setting goals and creating to-do lists is to lift you up by offering a sense of accomplishment in the process as you check off the items.

As we approach the end of this year, what are some of the S.M.A.R.T. goals you are setting for 2019?

In the quiet by Jessica Gombis

Let me address the elephant in the room.  I am not a licensed counselor or social worker.  So why do I get to contribute to Sprout Family Clinics blog and who am I, anyway? Well I can't speak to why these therapists gave me the mic (wink wink), but I promise I'll do my best not to lead you astray.  I am the wife of an actual therapist at Sprout. I'm also the gal who does the billing, manages the website, orders toilet paper, as well a bunch of other glamorous tasks around here. Most importantly, I'm raising three amazing kiddos ages 5, 4 and 10 months.  So, with that introduction and list of fabulous credentials, I'm sure you are excited, dear reader, to hear my perspective on things.

Now, I'm not just saying this because my husband is a therapist and I work at Sprout, but therapy is awesome.  Really. It is. There have been seasons in my life when it was absolutely necessary for me. Truth be told, I could probably always use therapy, but I can gratefully and humbly say that right now, I'm doing pretty good-- good enough to use some of the strategies and rituals I've learned through periods of therapy and self discovery.

The primary tool that I’m using right now is having daily quiet and prayer time.  For me, it’s best early in the morning, before little feet come down the stairs to ask for milk or to read a story.  I know that I need this time, but for me, it’s funny how when I'm doing okay or something else comes up, I easily give up these practices until, suddenly, I realize that something is really missing.

In the last year, I've been lacking my early morning prayer and quiet.  With the arrival of our third child last January, sleep became scarce, so the idea of waking up when I didn't have to, seemed beyond ridiculous.  And so, 9 months later I could feel it. Something was wrong. When I get that gut feeling that something is wrong, it usually takes me a while to figure out what to do.  I'll have a few too many icky interactions with the kids or I'll bicker with my husband. I’ve been known to go on a new job hunt and to have a shopping spree, which is immediately followed by a spending freeze.  I may get a new gym membership or reserve a plethora of self help books at the library.  (Notice, I didn’t say read them.) You may know what I'm talking about.  I try to rework to the whole life scenario for a few weeks. Then I remember the simple things that I need.  I need prayer and quiet in the morning. I need it.  

And so I began again.  I set my alarm. I made the coffee.  I lit the candle. I sat in stillness.  I prayed. I read. The first day wasn't magical and neither was the second.  But, it’s been about a week now of being back in the practice and I feel dramatically different.

I don't have just one thing that I go to when my world seems off kilter, but prayer and quiet is a solid practice for me.  Your thing may not be prayer and quiet. It may be running or yoga or coffee with a friend. Whatever it is, I think we need to identify our personal rituals that set our minds back on track.  We need to keep them stored in a safe place to remember and return to when we get that feeling that things just aren't right.

Maybe, like me, you need the help of therapy to get started on the path to identifying some practices and rituals.  Lucky for you, you've found the right blog.

The Generosity of Youth By Sandie Johnson, LCSW

In this season of gift giving, there is much emphasis on a child’s reaction to the holidays and their gifts. I remember my own kids’ excitement when they opened a gift that they thought was “so cool.” I felt joy, just seeing them feel joy! After all, Christmas is about the kids, right? It’s about seeing their faces light up when someone gives them a gift or they have a new experience. I’d like to challenge that notion by suggesting that the joy that I experienced watching someone else receive a gift that he really wanted, is a joy that children should experience as well.

So how do you get young ones to think about someone else? Children can be self-involved for very good reasons. They are figuring out how to get what they need through practice: asking for it over and over again, sometimes in more gracious ways than others. However, there are several ways that we can encourage kids to look beyond themselves to be generous in order to experience the joy of givingFirst of all, building a child’s empathy for others is crucial. There is no better way to get out of being self-focused than trying to imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. Seeing strong emotion in movie or book characters and asking your child, “How do you think that person is feeling?” prompts empathy. It can even happen with siblings or strangers and then awaken a sense of generosity towards them.

Furthermore, noticing a child’s generosity will reinforce it. Children can be naturally generous,  especially if they are with someone they want to please. Even though there may be self-centeredness entwined in sharing their cookies with a friend, noticing and remarking on it can help the child feel validated when they are doing something that might feel a little hard. When given positive attention, an action that is hard may take on a brave or courageous quality. Then that feeling of bravery becomes associated with generosity and the nobleness of generosity is highlighted for the child.

In addition, your own attitude about generosity is one of the biggest influences on your child’s propensity to be generous. If they see you extending yourself to be helpful to others, giving to charitable organizations (not just at holidays), and practicing kindness in small ways, they will follow your pattern and see these acts as a healthy habit. Having moments everyday when you excuse a mistake that is made or acknowledge a server’s work in a restaurant will communicate an attitude of generosity, not just an act of generosity.

An example of practicing generosity as a family could be to pick a family project that creates a holiday tradition as well as setting a generous example.  Perhaps volunteering at a food pantry, making cards for residents at a nursing home or making cookies for your neighbors could be ways that kids can be involved hands-on in generosity. It will also give you time together as a family, building memories of the times your family shows generosity again and again.

However you encourage generosity in your children, you can count on the fact that when humans are generous, gratefulness arises, and when someone is grateful, contentment is found.  I hope we can all find that kind of contentment this year!

The main ideas in this blog come from “Tips for Raising Generous Children,” an article found on the Childmind® Institute website. (Tips for Raising Generous Children)

Thankfulness By Leah Zhang, LPC

The vibrant fall colors remind me that the Thanksgiving Holiday season is fast approaching, filled with travel plans, family gatherings, friendsgiving or a pre-Christmas shopping spree. For some of us, it can be very low key and chillax. For others, it can be hectic trying to finish tasks at school or work in order to pack up and fly home. For some, it might be stressful anticipating the upcoming gatherings given how complicated our family dynamics are. I hear many stories where people feel overwhelmed anticipating the worst case scenario, conjured up from their past Thanksgiving experiences. ‘I love seeing my family for Thanksgiving. But being stuck in the airport waiting to see them isn’t my favorite moment.” “My mom and I have been arguing about something over the past few months. I am afraid that we will be fighting over dinner and completely ruin everyone’s Thanksgiving.”

If we look only at how stressful Thanksgiving can be, we might miss the complete picture. Simplistically, there are two sides of a coin. Thanksgiving gatherings can be chaotic and joyous; tiring yet satisfying. When we go around the table and take turns to give thanks, it is surprising how our negative emotions can ease up. Certainly, it’s easy to be thankful when life is going well when you feel like you are standing on top of the mountain. It a bit trickier when we consciously choose happiness and gratefulness in the valley. Creating a habit of giving thanks can be what we need in stressful situations when we actively shift our perspective to a “glass half full” mentality, bringing what we have rather than what has been missing in our lives into our awareness. It fosters other positive emotions, such as joy and contentment.Just like creating a healthy habit of working out regularly takes time, cultivating a thankful spirit in order to feel and express gratitude will not be our automatic response right away.  

Here is an easy exercise to start off and it takes about five to ten minutes to accomplish. Every morning for a week, prompt yourself to count three things you are thankful for in life. This exercise can be done mentally on the way to work, or written in your journal while riding the train. Or if you are not a morning person like me; give thanks at the end of the day. For example, “I had a great time today when …” “I felt happy/cared for/excited/appreciated today when …” At the end of a week assess your emotions to see if the exercise is helpful to you. If so, do it two more weeks, and then a month. In time, this gratitude exercise may rise above an item on your to-do list and become an attitude in life and an an effective coping method when stressful situations come our way. That attitude can help us to interpret and reinterpret any event in a positive light. When we are busy counting our blessings in life, it may be easier to overlook the negatives about a delay at the airport on the way to see our family.

To read more about the benefits of gratitude, please visit The 7 Benefits of Gratitude.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Celebrating Halloween Without Creating Monsters By Sandie Johnson, LCSW

I’ve noticed in the last 10 years how much earlier Halloween decorations start to go up now. I saw one family putting them up the last weekend of September this year. The elaborateness of them seems to have gone over the top too.  My favorite was an inflatable ghost that rose up from behind a gravestone and then went back down slowly. Very effective on the spookiness scale.

So how do kids perceive all this? We as adults have a filter that says it’s not real. Small children may see the scary things and be either fascinated or afraid depending on their previous experience. Older children (6 to 10 years old) may experience real fear because of images that they’ve seen and stories that they’ve heard.

Some kids manage the fear and enjoy the startle factor that comes from being scared momentarily. Others make it very clear that they are afraid and upset by the images and can tell a parent that they don’t like looking at a certain decoration. The third category of children are the ones who feel afraid internally but can’t express it for fear of looking “like a sissy.” These children often have older siblings that they are eager to impress. When left alone with those feelings of fear these children may have their fear come out in other ways. They may have a meltdown over having to go to bed. Or maybe they become resistant to activities that are normally fun for them to do.

As a parent, you can handle all three of these scenarios! First of all, know your child. If there are experiences that predispose your child to anxiety, count on the fact that Halloween is a stressful season for them. No matter how many times you say, “It’s not real. You don’t have to be afraid,” they are still going to need time to process their feelings, either verbally or just through play. Provide downtime leading up to the holiday as well as on the day. When trick-or-treating, for children 5 and under, I would recommend only going to houses of people you know and keep it to 30 to 45 minutes. Little people will be overstimulated by any more than that.  For older children you as the parent can set up the structure of the evening so that expectations are clear about how long you will go door-to-door, how much candy they can eat and what time they have to be in bed. Afterwards, process what they saw by asking questions like, “What was the scariest costume you saw?” or “What was the high and low of the evening?“ Having time at home before they go to bed where they can play or read is the ideal to give them some space to process on their own.

However you do it, check your own expectations as well. Are you trying to create an experience for your child that you didn’t get? Are you being as creative as you can with the costumes to impress another family? If you’re focusing on your child, even if they want to wear a garbage bag as a costume (yes, that really happened) you’ll be able to enter into their excitement and enjoy the holiday with less external pressure.

Happy Halloween!