The Ground-up Approach to Structure with School-Aged Children During the Coronavirus Crisis

These are challenging times for all of us, and for those of us with children, it can be especially daunting to face the coming weeks. Schools have been closed and are unlikely to resume any time soon. Managing elementary and middle-school aged children can be quite a task for parents trying to juggle working from home and engaging in full-time childcare at the same time. This is one time where perhaps the usual gripes about reticent high school teenagers can pivot to feelings of gratitude about their self-sufficiency! For the parents of younger children, though, there can be additional feelings of guilt and anxiety regarding making sure that they are doing home-schooling “right.” This concern can result in a top-down approach to structure, where rules can be established rigidly, in an attempt to mimic the structure of the school day. 

Attempting to ensure that, every day, your child: 

– studies math, 

– reads a certain number of pages, 

– gets physical exercise, 

– engages in arts and craft, 

– practices music, 

– learns new things in science and social studies, 

– keeps up with the school-at-home websites, and after that, 

– talks to family and friends, 

– engages in game and leisure time, 

– eats, 

– sleeps, 

– bathes and brushes on time…

… will only ensure the outcome of a frayed, fraught and frazzled parent!

All of the activities, as mentioned above, are useful in themselves; however, desperate times do not necessarily call for extreme measures. A ground-up approach to provide structure would be more useful in such challenging times. Moving smoothly between structured and unstructured activities will help your child to regulate their emotions related to the significant changes to their daily school routines. Rather than structuring the whole day with a gamut of activities, it might help to structure the next hour or two with an activity or two and leaving enough room for unstructured time. A more inductive approach to tasks and achievement during this time of crisis would help the child process and express their emotions in healthier ways. 

There is significant research on the positive benefits of unstructured activities for younger children. Now might be a good time to allow those benefits to be obtained, as we can creatively and compassionately weave those in with the scheduled activities. It would help parents to realistically manage their own expectations (and that of their children) and for the time being.

If your child seems to be struggling with adjusting to the new routine of life or is experiencing negative emotions related to the pandemic, psychologists, and therapists at CFIR are here to help! We are offering telepsychotherapy (e.g., video, telephone) sessions that are private and safe. 

Dr. Ashwin Mehra, C.Psych. is a psychologist at CFIR (Toronto). He provides psychological assessment and treatment services to a wide range of clients. Dr. Mehra supports them to understand and overcome a wide range of difficulties related to anxiety and mood disorders, traumatic experiences, substance use and addictions, and interpersonal challenges.

Building a Successful Stepfamily

by: Alice Lurie, M.A., R.P.

Are you struggling in your new stepfamily? It is important to ensure that all stepfamily members have reliable information about what is typical in stepfamilies and how to work toward building healthy stepfamily dynamics. Stepfamily success is built on strong one-on-one relationships before strengthening the larger stepfamily system. Specifically, the couple relationship and the parent-child relationship need to be stabilized before other step relationships are focused on. Often, solutions to step-issues are about finding a middle ground and having empathy and compassion. This is especially important as step-relationships tend to accentuate and polarize differences in families (Papernow, 2013)

In some ways, stepfamilies do not function the same as nuclear families do yet many stepfamily members enter into their new family relationships with hopes or dreams of “returning to a normal” life pathway that was disrupted by death or divorce (Papernow, 1993). The more tightly stepfamily members hold on to expectations that may not apply any longer, the harder they will experience stepfamily formation and the more likely they are to experience significant difficulties in it. Building realistic expectations based on information about how stepfamilies function most effectively is important.

Stepfamilies tend to have more conflict than first families (Martin, 2009). This is distressing for adults and children alike, and can leave the adults more likely to give up before the family has had a chance to stabilize if they are unaware of this dynamic (Hetherington 1988). At times it can be challenging to integrate a step-parent into a child’s life. The manner of integration is crucial to how this relationship will evolve. Clinicians at CFIR are skilled in providing support to develop a healthy blended family environment.

References

Hetherington, E. M. (1988). Parents, children, and siblings six years after divorce. In R. Hinde & J. Stevenson-Hinde (Eds.), Relationships within families (pp. 55–79). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Martin, W. (2009). Stepmonster (1st ed.). New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Papernow, P. (1993). Becoming a stepfamily (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Papernow, P. (2013). Surviving and thriving in stepfamily relationships: what works and what doesn’t (1st ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Alice Lurie, M.A., R.P. is a registered psychotherapist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR) in Ottawa. She works with adults and couples to support them to relieve distress and overcome difficulties related to anxiety and stress, depression and grief, anger management and emotional regulation, and career and workplace issues.

How to Keep the Happy in the Holidays While Co-Parenting

by: Laura Moore, B.Sc. (Honours)

The media markets the holiday season as a “picture perfect” time to connect with your family; these unrealistic expectations are especially challenging while trying to co-parent. Letting go of “perfect” and working together with your previous partner during one of the most stressful times of the year may feel nearly impossible. Remembering every co-parenting situation can look different, the following tips can make it possible to keep the ‘happy’ in the holidays while co-parenting.

Plan Ahead But Be Flexible 

Create a holiday plan at least a month or more in advance of the holidays. This plan may be derived from your parenting plan or your separation agreement. While making this plan keep in mind the extended family and still encourage these connections on both sides. Although planning ahead is of the utmost importance, remaining flexible over the holidays will reduce upset for yourself, your previous partner, and your children. Believe it or not, the holiday schedule may be much more important to you than to your children.

It Starts with You

This holiday season (when you know you are going to be alone), make plans to see loved ones. Also, seek the help you need from a therapist to work through some of the grief and loss you may be experiencing during the holidays. In this process, you will begin to let go of expectations and find moments of happiness as you embrace new traditions. Allow space for you and your children to be upset and move away from the expectations surrounding the holiday season. By creating a safe, calm, and positive space for yourself, the effects will trickle down to your children as they often rely on you to help regulate their emotions and see the whole picture. Continue to collectively focus on what you do have together and not what you don’t have.

Less is More 

It’s not the presents that make the holidays so special; instead, it’s the presence of the ones we love. It is essential to communicate with the other parent about items that are off-limits for holidays and what is on your children’s gift list this year. Do not try and outdo one another; this will put a lot of pressure on you and make gift shopping and planning activities quite stressful. Try not to overcompensate with excessive activities and planning, and try to spread out the holidays. Most importantly, enjoy some of the simple pleasures of the holiday season. Doing so will allow you not to lose sight of what is most important!

Communication 

Communication should be purposeful and child-focused. When you show empathy and care to your previous partner, it allows your children to see you still have a relationship with the other parent in a positive way. Schedule a phone call to talk about the upcoming holidays. If communication is difficult for you and your previous partner, possibly invest in a gift for one another this holiday and use a communication app, either 2houses or Our Family Wizard. Most importantly, do not use your children as a way to communicate messages back and forth between you two.

Connection

Although you may experience feeling you are alone, your previous partner is probably struggling just as much as you are. Have your children buy a present and make a card for the other parent. Letting your children love and communicate with the other parent will not affect your child’s love for you. As much as splitting the holiday season is new for you, it is also a new concept for your children. Encourage your children to consistently communicate with the other parent via phone, video call, and text. Create a shared album and add pictures to it each day. Also, your children will enjoy any chance where previous traditions can still be shared with both parents.

You cannot go wrong if you put your children first and let them be your guiding light as you navigate the holiday season while co-parenting. The “good enough” holiday season will happen when we let go of our expectations and enjoy what we have created for ourselves at this moment. Remind your children that no matter who they spend their holidays with, the holidays can create a magical feeling that will be in the memories for years to come!

Laura Moore, B.Sc. (Honours) is a therapist at the Centre For Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR) in Toronto. She is completing her Masters degree in Clinical Psychology at the Adler Graduate Professional School in Toronto. Laura works with adults and couples in therapy, to support them to overcome challenges related to depression, stress, grief and loss, trauma, and relationship conflicts. Her current research focuses on cultivating spousal attunement following traumatic experiences.

The Challenges of Parenting

by: Dr. Lila Z. Hakim, C.Psych.

Parents often feel challenged by the shifting parenting strategies required to respond to their children’s changing developmental capacities and needs. When child-caregiver interactions meet children’s developmental needs, positive mental health outcomes are more likely in the short-term and down the road. 

Developmentally Sensitive Parenting: Child-caregiver interactions are essential to a child’s development. These interactions have a long-lasting impact on our children’s self-development, the quality of relationships with others, and their overall psychological well-being. Parenting requires sensitivity to a child’s emerging developmental needs. 

Sometimes parents are unable to respond to developmental milestones, which then affects the child’s self-development. When parenting is out of sync with these critical developmental milestones, it can be disruptive to healthy development and potentially compromise the security of the parent-child bond and the mental well-being of the child. In these circumstances, children and adolescents may begin to experience psychological symptoms and distress. Psychologists at CFIR can help you to parent in a manner that is sensitive to these developmental milestones. We help you develop strategies to respond to your children’s changing capacities and needs.

Parenting through Separation & Divorce: Parenting a child in the context of separation and divorce can be challenging. Learning how to talk to your children about separation and divorce in a developmentally-appropriate way is vital to support children to deal with this challenging life transition. Often emotional distance, anger, and hurt in the primary couple relationship will have tainted home life for an extended period before separation or divorce. Loss and grief experienced by the family breakdown and the eventual termination of the parent’s relationship have a reverberating effect on children. Learning how to deal with children during the separation and divorce process effectively supports parents and their children to ensure healthier psychological outcomes. Psychologists at CFIR can help you to address parenting issues in the context of separation and divorce, including navigating through emotionally challenging conversations associated with the various transitions involved in separation and divorce (i.e., leaving the family home, child access, co-parenting).

Co-parenting: In the aftermath of divorce, parents are often challenged to create a new parenting relationship, especially when children are young. Although the couple relationship did not work, parenting continues to be a shared responsibility. Developing an effective co-parenting strategy minimizes the impact of separation and divorce on children. Often this requires divorced parents to establish a collaborative plan of care, even though their relationship is ending. Our clinicians can help you to resolve your co-parenting conflicts and produce a satisfying co-parenting relationship in the aftermath of separation and divorce.

Step-parenting: Bringing a step-parent into a child’s world can be challenging. Often parents are unsure of how to integrate the step-parent into the child’s world. The role of the step-parent requires clarification in a manner in which the child’s relationship with both of their parents is not harmed in any way. Step-parents have a role to play in their stepchildren’s lives, but the process of integration is crucial to how this relationship will evolve. Psychologists and clinicians at CFIR are skilled in supporting you to develop a healthy blended family environment.

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

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