When I had my first child, I vaguely recall (in my dissociated state) an initial period of overwhelming anxiety. It was as if I left this planet and was banned to another with different weather, different rules, different Everything. I was Lost. I suppose to some this sounds ungrateful and disdainful. How can a mother be so sad and distant amidst such a miracle as a newborn? After the weight of a thousand guilts, I feel a newfound compassion for myself during this period. One, because I have since had the honor of supporting many women in my therapy practice through similar post-partum episodes. Therefore, I have been spoiled by exposure to the truest sense of compassion– actual proof that I am not alone in that pain. Two, because I have learned to accept all of my emotions as messengers. I am a unique mama bear that simply needed to get lost in order to be found, to enter my new self. The new “me” as a mama. Once I did, I fully embraced this new self, like it was a new friend and comrade. I believe that this full embrace helped me to be my most authentic self and parent.
Looking back, I no longer regret my anxious, fearful, frozen self back then. I thank it, for leading me to my present. I am connected to the rawness and reality of being a mama with fears and worries, joys and gratitude.
The stories of my anxious mama clients reveal one simple truth; we are all connected in this fear of ‘not being enough’ AND there is NO One right way of parenting your child. I am enlightened with this awareness: your Mama Bear instinct carries more weight and is more effective than any parenting advice, ‘how to’ discipline book or familial tradition. The toughest part to digest is that we are parenting for what is best for our child NOT for what we think is supposed to be the best way to parent. *
So, allow your anxiety to be eased and comforted by the universality of motherhood, by humbly admitting to imperfection and in fact embracing it, and by treating yourself and all mamas with warmth and compassion. When you see a mama struggling, warmly nod in loving kindness and let go of the temptation to judge; WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.
“When I looked into his eyes, it was like he wasn’t there and I truly panicked with him”
Title: What to do when your child has frequent Night Terrors
My son was 2 when he had his first night terror. Despite being a child therapist and having an in depth understanding of sleep issues, I was oblivious to what was happening. He screamed and squirmed, yelling “No, stop!” and other nonsensical things. When I reached out to comfort him, he escalated and got louder. “LEAVE ME ALONE!”, he yelled in panic. He began to swat at me and scream at Daddy. When I touched his chest, I could feel his rapid heartbeat jumping out of his skin. Many minutes passed; I felt helpless. Suddenly, I began to cry; “what is happening?”
This was just the beginning. My son would have many, many more episodes like this one. Varying in duration and intensity. As a child therapist, I thought I would know what to do. As a mother, I thought I could instinctively soothe my child at any moment in time. But, as a human, I did not have any answers. Looking back, I wish I had a parent talk with me about this mystery, but unfortunately I did not. This came much later. If you are a parent to a child with nightmares or night terrors (each one different), I hope to share some helpful information and support you through this very dark place.
Many of the health journals will describe the night terror as such: “A night terror is a sleep disruption that seems similar to a nightmare, but with a far more dramatic presentation. Though night terrors can be alarming for parents who witness them, they’re not usually cause for concern or a sign of a deeper medical issue (kidshealth.org).”
These informative sites will tell you that they occur during the first 90 minutes to 2 hours after someone falls asleep during deep non-REM sleep, for a number of different reasons; 1. The child is over tired, stressed or ill, 2. Sleeping in a new environment, or 3. Lacking sleep/fatigued.
What they don’t tell you is that watching your child’s dazed and absent look while he screams in absolute terror is one of the most heart-breaking things to hear as a parent. They won’t tell you that the screams can get so loud that you might find the police at your doorstep answering a courtesy call that a child was screaming “Help Me!” And they might not explain that this is not in your child’s memory, so this episode is left for you to simply accept and let go of.
Here are some Insights & Supports that have been SO helpful to me & some tips as a counselor:
In the moment of the night terror, DO NOT TOUCH or wake your child.
Know and understand that your child is living a dream, unaware of your presence. The panic or terror part of this is near irrational. It is like a simple, worry thought intensified times 10. Their body is reacting from this intense, irrational place. Touch may just intensify the fear, so keep a safe distance; enough to ensure safety. Only intervene physically if your child is putting him/herself in harm’s way. Because the reasoning centers of the brain are asleep, it is nearly impossible to console a child who is having this type of parasomnia, known as a sleep terror.
Remain calm, reassure yourself that your child is okay and that this episode WILL pass.
Take care of yourself and practice self-compassion. You are not alone. Although rarer than nightmares, night terrors usually occur in children between the ages of 4 and 12. After watching these terrors on and off for years, I happened upon a young mommy in the hair salon one day who said, “I overheard your discussion about night terrors; both my son and daughter had them. Know that they will pass and that you are a good parent. First, take care of your own stress with self-soothing and then offer this to your child.”
Establish a bedtime routine that’s calming and stick to it.
Have an intentional structure to the evening. For example, no screens passed 6 pm; quiet reading or play time, bath time, tea then a story. Ensure that the bedroom environment is soothing and relaxing. Try using relaxing scents, diffusers and room sprays if that pleases your child. Avoid potentially stressful situations if at all possible just prior to bed.
Offer encouraging, nurturing words during the terror.
During my research of many articles on night terrors, I stumbled upon only one column that emphasized the psychology behind it. I recall one of the interventions being comforting words or phrases. What if your child could still be soothed and somehow reached during this dream state. The suggestion went something like, “I’m here now and you’re safe; nothing bad will happen to you; I’m here.” I tried it and it truly seemed to make a difference. Experiment with this in a soothing voice. It’s worth a try.
Make sure that your child gets enough rest.
With night terrors, it’s imperative that lack of sleep be addressed as much as possible. Perhaps you might make bedtime earlier, gradually adding 15 minutes of extra time until you reach the desired bedtime. Add naps if possible. Talk about the importance of sleep. Read books/stories about sleep (i.e. “Little Ones Bedtime,” “The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep”). Try incorporating bedtime yoga. I highly recommend the book and youtube video by Mariam Gates, “Good Night Yoga.”
Reduce your child’s stress.
Evaluate your child’s ability to manage the stress in his/her life. Notice if there is anything in his/her life that might be increasing fear or worry. Talk about it together. Introduce stories and teach coping tools about stress management.
My secret bedtime empowerment tool*
As an art therapist, I often use creative visualizations with children and adults to help bring that person to a relaxed state. Years ago, I began utilizing an intervention that has proven highly effective time and time again.
1. THINK and CREATE your own ARMY of POWER. We all need guardians. Bigger than friends. UNIQUE to each one of us.
What person, animal, or object do you pick to be a symbol of:
STRENGTH, POWER: Think of the strongest, most powerful thing you can imagine. What would you take to protect you in the scariest darkest of places?
2. Place your picture next to your bed. Each night, close your eyes and imagine them all here. Working for YOU. By your side.
3. BRING your protector WITH YOU IN YOUR DREAMS. It is your weapon, your POWER. It is ALWAYS WITH YOU. Ask for it WHENEVER YOU NEED it.
Sometimes we are under the misconception that happiness is something we achieve. It’s the day that comes without problems or pain; it’s the job we’ve been waiting for; or the raise we’ve been wanting; it’s the “good” day.
My discovery as a counselor and as an individual and parent has been quite different. Happiness is something we already have and it must be accessed. Joyful moments come from being open to them and seeking them out. It’s about attitude, gratitude and resiliency.
Researcher and social worker, Shawn Achor, has found that “happiness is linked to resiliency & courage.” Apply the following tools to help you better access Joy & Happiness:
In a short clip from youtube that went viral, little Jessica sets her day’s affirmations with enthusiasm. If we could all start our day this way, we might help to breathe in more of this joyful spirit.
Your attitude or how you perceive your world and your stress accounts for 90% of your long term happiness, according to happiness researcher Shawn Achor. Positive psychology suggests that having a positive outlook on life and increasing positive emotions improves our daily physical health. A study of nuns that practiced this change in perspective added 10 years to their lives.
Tool: When a challenge presents itself, ask yourself, ‘what can I possibly learn from this?’
There was a TED Talk out a few years back on gratitude by Louie Schwartzberg. His talk enlightened us all as a meditation on being Grateful for every day. His time lapsed imagery reminds us of the Beauty in Nature. His interviews with a young child and elderly man provide wisdom on the power of gratitude.
“This is not just another day; it’s the one gift given to you and the only appropriate response is gratefulness.” Open your eyes and hearts to this video and be truly touched.
Tool: *List 3 things that you are grateful for each day to promote increased happiness.
Mindfulness leads us to be fully present, self-aware, without judgement and in the moment. It is awareness, here and now with an open heart. A simple way of beginning mindfulness practice is to notice your 5 senses, pause, be with the experience; it only takes a moment. It is proven to decrease stress, anxiety and depression. The regular practice of mindfulness awareness leads to greater satisfaction in life, increased self-trust and gratitude & joy.
Tool: Simply notice your 5 senses during each change in your environment throughout the day; i.e. what do I see, smell, hear, etc. when I leave my house, when I get in my car, when I walk from the car to the building, etc.
Self-compassion/Compassion for others
Self-compassion can be defined as TREATING YOURSELF WITH THE SAME KINDNESS & CONSIDERATION THAT YOU WOULD A CLOSE FRIEND. Dr. Kristin Neff has researched the benefits of self-compassion. Her research showed that that self-compassion is strongly linked to wellbeing. * The practice of self-compassion is not a self-centered activity. Rather, it helps us to develop a healthy relationship with ourselves and leads to greater empathy and openness towards others.
Having a child at the age of 38 was anxiety provoking for me. Humbly, I admit that I felt lost and very sad. I was scared and nervous to even be alone with my child. Little did I know that this new world would lead me to discover a new me, a better me (as do many ‘forks in the road’). My child taught me more about love and kindness than I had ever known. My child taught me how to truly be in the moment. Prior to him, I thought I knew everything about this; I taught mindfulness to my clients for years. I practiced meditation daily. But, as the teachings often reference, a child is an expert at mindfulness; “observe life through the curious eyes of a child and you will live mindfully,” as they say. I was a new mom on a dark and scary planet. Just writing that brings up fear of judgement. However, I have learned to let go of criticism because my child is teaching me and I am a better mother for it. We all tend to listen to advice that critiques our imperfections and supplies the ‘should’ and ‘should nots’ of parenting. One thing I have learned in this journey and in the privilege of sharing in my client’s journeys is that my instinct as a parent usually guides me most effectively towards wisdom. I know my child better than anyone and most importantly, I let go of knowing it all as my child eloquently teaches me that I must parent to what is right for him, not what I believe is the right way to parent. Once I relinquished this control, I learned through his eyes. I mindfully watched the beauty in this world.
When he was a tiny infant, we practiced this mindfulness tool. We would say, “good morning sun, good morning living room” and wave hello. When he was experiencing an emotion, I felt it too and understood from his perspective the confusion of being asked to take a bath when ‘I want to play!’
As I watch him grow, I am in awe of his power to be present and aware. We connect better. We play better. We feel joy more intensely. We create spontaneously. We think about our words and actions and Learn. We Express big emotion and make peace with it.
I share this today in the hopes of breathing the wisdom of mindfulness to other parents.
~The mindful heart connects in Love, opens to learning, & breathes in relaxation and joy. ~
Many celebrities have credited EMDR to their mental health recovery; Prince Harry, Evan Rachel Wood and Sandra Bullock recently.
This process of trauma recovery is fascinating because it addresses the neuro-science based and well researched concept that trauma, or what each individual perceives as trauma, settles in the body. Trauma can remain stuck there and interfere with our lives and our relationships for a long time.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing works through bilateral stimulation of the right and left hemispheres of the brain (moving eyes left to right or using tapping, sounds or tactile paddles that activate left to right). This “firing” and repeated reactivation while thinking about the memory opens the neural pathways within our brain, thereby allowing traumatic memories (as the patient focuses and processes them) to become “unstuck”.
EMDR is simply one way to process trauma utilizing a mind body approach. I compare it to a power tool in the therapist’s toolbox. What I appreciate about EMDR is actually the empowering aspect of it. The positive resourcing that could be used in this way makes for a re-building of the Self; installing inner strength, confidence, resiliency, hope (literally) in the brain. In my practice, I often hear individuals describe the experience as “re-writing history” or feeling less identified with trauma and more in control of the thoughts/beliefs we often become so attached to.
Lets acknowledge here that this process can occur in various ways depending on the individual. Healing can be accessed through various body based modalities. Yoga, Art therapy, dance, movement, journaling, creative writing–to name a few. Movement forward/progress comes from continually listening to that intuitive part of oneself, following the inspiration and curiosities that present themselves to you, adding different healing interventions to your regimen if they work for you and then regularly evaluating what is effective.
EMDR is so attractive perhaps because it incorporates this holistic method of healing. It addresses the whole person, mind and body, and has been well-researched and evidenced-based as a practice. Each practicioner is unique in how they apply the techniques and it is so important to check in with yourself to determine if this feels right for you.*