So the first question I have for you is just to have you introduce yourself and tell me about your background and how you know John (HAPPÉ founder).
So I’m a clinical psychologist, I specialize in working with children. I’ve been practicing for 12 or 13 years now. My specialty in terms of my clinical practice is anxiety treatments. I will work a lot with children who have anxiety in their families. My practice is called Mindful Behavioral Health. I’ve actually joined my practice with another colleague who’s a yoga instructor. She and I have joined together in this really nice union where we’re collectively working on mindfulness and strategies to manage anxiety in kids, really focusing on both cognitive-behavioral strategies and mindfulness yoga and meditation, really bringing that more to the forefront. That’s been something that I’ve always done in my practice, but bringing her into the practice has really been beneficial to emphasize that.
John and I worked together in a previous private practice, just as colleagues in the same group, and he always had a lot of positivity to share. I was really thrilled to hear about this program that you guys are working on.
Do you have kids [in your practice] doing yoga?
I had always recommended that to kids. As part of cognitive-behavioral therapy, there’s a portion, especially with anxiety, that works on relaxing the nervous system. That was always something that I was trying to get kids to do more and more of — practicing breathing techniques, practicing yoga, mindfulness, and meditation and breaking it down for their age-appropriate level. But it’s always a hard thing to get kids to buy into. You can do it really playfully, which is fun, but getting them to practice it daily is hard. I really think that’s a huge component that needs to be emphasized more across the board for everybody, especially right now, using those strategies to calm our nervous system. To really get into that feeling of relaxation is really important for daily practice, and can prove a lot of stress and anxiety that builds up.
Do you incorporate [yoga] into schools?
So we’ve offered some workshops, mostly to parents, but that’s something that we were really planning to do right before COVID happened. We really wanted to do a longer workshop for kids and parents to really integrate both features. But we definitely have collaborated a little bit! I’ve gone into some schools and just sort of talked with kids about anxiety and what it is and how to identify it. I gave them some simple strategies they can use to give them some tools. My colleague, Julie, who is a yoga instructor, was offering yoga in schools as well as an after-school program, which was a huge success and really beneficial for the kids. But of course, it’s been limited with COVID.
So what do you think helps kids become more resilient as they grow up?
I really think resilience has a lot of different features to it. I think if we can instill some of these things in kids when they’re young, it really helps to just give them the tools that are lifelong. So a couple of things that I really like to focus on for resilience for kids are helping them to think about the process that they’re going through, rather than just the outcome. So, talking with kids about the process that they’re working on, how hard they’re working, how much they’re focusing, how they tried again when they made a mistake; things like that are talking more about how they did it, rather than just what they did. I think those things are really important for everybody to focus on, but especially for kids to be able to recognize, “I’m a hard worker,” or, “I don’t think about when things are hard, not just that I got all A’s on my report card,” or that, “I scored a basket in basketball.” Helping them to see the process that got them there is really important. That’s one thing that I think helps to build a lot of resilience.
I think building that same mindset for grit is another thing that really helps to build resilience. It’s the idea that we can accomplish way more with just having that grit. So being able to keep trying when things are hard, to work through discomfort or uncomfortable things, to recognize that if we just keep moving, we can always get closer and closer to our goals. That’s another thing that I think kids can really use a lot of emphasis on. I think there’s a lot that’s very easy for kids these days, things that are just creature comforts that we all have. Helping them to focus on, “What do I do when I encounter something that’s hard or challenging?” and being able to work through that is a huge life skill. I think that’s another thing. Grit really builds into resilience as well.
On the other end, obviously, the more emotional end, I think that helping kids to develop some self-awareness, to understand themselves, and pay attention to themselves or body and emotional cues, building an emotional vocabulary to be able to understand what emotions they’re feeling and how to identify those, how to notice them and observe and just to be okay with those. I think there’s a lot of associations that we make with emotions, some feeling very positive, and some feeling very negative. Helping kids to see that emotions are really just our body and our mind giving us information about the situation that we’re in and helping kids to be okay with whatever emotion that they’re feeling, and just to be able to communicate it.
Along with that, I’m developing some strategies to manage those [emotions]; simple things that we can do to just work on our emotional health. We don’t really get taught those skills regularly. As young children we’re taught how to brush our teeth and take care of our body, but not really talking about how to take care of our feelings and what to do with them, although we obviously need that. Learning some simple strategies, like how to walk away, how to communicate your feelings, how to do some relaxation strategies, how to calm our body down when we get very upset or very agitated [can be powerful]. So those sorts of skills, I think, are essential for kids to be resilient to be able to manage the things that come their way.
The last thing that I really focus a lot on with kids is prevention. I talk to kids a lot about this difference between using a band-aid, which is something that we’ll use when we’re upset or when we’re having a crisis and we need to calm down. Then we talk about strategies we use as a vitamin, something we do every day, even when we’re feeling good, even when we’re feeling okay, that helps us stay feeling okay. Focusing on that daily self-care is something that I talked about with young kids all the way through adolescence, really focusing on a two-pronged approach of relaxation strategies and positive thinking, rather than using what I call cool thoughts. We’re focusing on things that are true and positive to get us through a situation or whether it’s through using gratitude and getting into a daily practice of that. Definitely focusing on those two things, I think, are going to build resilience and flexibility to get through whatever life throws at us.
Do you have a process or a way that you get kids to become self-aware when they’re in the middle of a storm or emotion?
Yeah! So with younger kids, I use a lot of visual strategies. I’ll make a chart to show them different colors and associate the colors with their feelings. Then we can say, for example, when you’re red, you’re feeling angry, or you’re feeling very activated or very, very scared. Or when you’re feeling blue, maybe you’re feeling lethargic, or tired, or sad. We talk about those colors and have them as a visual, so that gives kids a frame of reference. So if mom or dad says to them, “Boy, you’re seeming red right now,” they automatically know what that means. It’s a quick way to communicate and we have strategies that we’ve associated with those. So when we’re in the red, here are the strategies we use. When we’re feeling yellow, which are a lot of our emotions, uncomfortable, nervous, embarrassed, jealous, there are strategies we can use there. So that really helps younger children to have those visuals. It’s a lot about working with the parents to give those cues. Most kids, when they’re very upset and activated, it’s hard to get them to calm down and get them to use a strategy. That’s where I talk so much about prevention; if we can work every day on calming down, practicing our skills, and using our strategies, then we have them ready in those moments where we’re starting to get closer to red. Then we can get more in control of ourselves. Sometimes we get too far gone and it’s hard to regain control quickly and easily. So, I really try to emphasize to kids, the more that we practice those strategies, the easier it is to calm ourselves down.
It’s like the happy faces in the doctor’s office from pain to no pain! I use that all the time, it helps me as an adult, I think!
The next question is for parents. How do you have advice for them to say ‘no’ in a way that kids understand without the emotion and tantrum? Any advice for how to go through saying no to the kids?
Yeah, it’s always a hard one. I think a lot of it depends on the child’s personality. Lots of times we talk about even just taking the word ‘no’ out of the vocabulary. So rather than saying “no” say, “You can’t touch that,” or frame it as, “We can go later,” or, “First I have to do this, and then we can play outside.” Trying to give some explanation is really helpful for kids. We want to communicate with them just like we communicate with anyone else! So helping them to understand why can be really helpful. There are lots of different parenting philosophies, and I think some parents can get into that mindset of “no means no and I’m not going to explain myself.” But I do think the more that we treat children the way that we want to be treated and communicate with them the same way, the more we can get out of them.
Even at a young age, helping the two-year-old to understand, “First, this…” is helpful, or to explain to them, “We can’t touch this, this is hot,” or, “This is dangerous,” or, “This is something we can’t do.” Give some explanation then focus on what they can do. When we tell kids, “Stop jumping on the bed,” they can understand that. But then what should they do? Instead of that, I like to say things like, “Please put your feet on the floor,” or, “Please use gentle hands,” or, “Let’s use our inside voice.” Telling them what to do, rather than what not to do, is going to give them much more direction, and then they can be compliant with what we’re asking them to do.
Do you have advice for parents and kids on how to deal with the changing situations and vibes [due to the pandemic]?
It is a really tough time for everybody right now, especially with the pandemic and all of the changes that we’ve had to sustain. There are a couple of things that I think are really important. First, we’re all working on flexibility right now. Even for me, at this exact moment, I’ve had to be flexible with the changing situations and things that are happening with my kids’ school. I think it’s something where the more flexible and open-minded we can be, saying, “This isn’t working the way I thought it was going to go but we’re flexing and pivoting to something different and we’re going to make it work,” working on flexible thinking is important. We also have to recognize that we are all stressed. We’re all in an unusual situation — kids, parents, everyone. One thing that I emphasize for everybody right now is not only recognizing that the kids are stressed, and they’re going to show that in lots of different ways, but the parents are stressed too. Paying attention to a parent’s mental health is really important too. That’s one thing I’ve really been emphasizing, that we need to take time to take care of ourselves and take care of our own emotions and when we’re taking care of that, we are a better model for the child. Then we’re going to interact better with the children and we’re going to be able to get through this a little bit easier. Model for your kids by saying, “I need to go take a break; I’m going to go meditate; I’m going to do some yoga; I’m going to talk with my therapist;” whatever it is that you need to do. Going for a walk, exercising, making sure we’re getting enough sleep, all those basics are really important. We can be more open to provide what we need to because a lot of parents are pulled in a million different directions right now. Between doing homeschool and taking care of their kids, everybody’s home in the house full time. They may be working from home or working outside of the home. There’s just so much going on that’s challenging us. We have to be patient with ourselves, with our kids, and for kids. In particular, I think we want to make sure we’re going back to those routines and making sure that they’re getting playtime outside, getting fresh air and exercise, sleeping, eating, and connecting socially.
Social connection has definitely been one challenge for kids. This is not developmentally appropriate for anyone to be isolated the way we have been over this last year. For kids developing social skills and emotional regulation skills, they need that practice. Whatever we can do to get some connection going, whether it’s creating a pen pal situation or FaceTiming with friends, playing video games together virtually, or having an outdoor play date when that feels safe and comfortable — anything that we can do to make sure that that social connection is happening.
I think one thing that we really want to focus on is just finding moments of joy like having family time together, and having family time apart because that’s also important; when we can have family time together, really focusing on joy and doing things that are fun, silly activities and doing what we can to bring some of that happiness back into our lives. We spend so much time focusing on what we can’t do anymore and missing what we’re not able to do and the challenges we’re facing. Finding a little bit of gratitude and joy I think can really go a long way too.
I feel so bad for them not being able to explain that your friend can’t come over.
Exactly. I couldn’t imagine it would be so hard.
What are some things that you should do with your children every day, like daily rituals, to help your kids grow emotionally and mentally?
There’s a wide variety of different things that you can do every day to connect with your kids and to build resilience and emotional connection. One thing is to, if possible, do some one-on-one time with each child. It doesn’t have to be every day, but at least once a week sitting down, maybe before bed, take some time to do just one-on-one time. Giving kids that time and space that they know it’s one-on-one with mom or dad or whoever the caregiver is, is their time. If they want to watch a video with you, if they want to talk about something that happened at school, or if they have something deeper emotionally that they want to talk about, allowing that time really allows kids that safety of being able to know they have that consistent time to talk about whatever’s on their mind. I also really like to encourage families to do this strategy I call the “high five.” These are five positive thoughts. You can do it together before bed, in the car ride when you’re going somewhere, or before a meal, but it’s just five positive thoughts. Going around and saying,”‘what’s something good that happened today?” It doesn’t have to be anything big or momentous. It could be, “We had waffles for breakfast, and that’s my favorite,” or, “The pretty sunrise this morning,” or, “I got to play with my friend.” Whatever it is, there’s something good that happened today, something that they’re looking forward to, something that they’re proud of that they have done, something that they’re grateful for, and then something that makes them smile and laugh. Going around and just having them focus on those five positive thoughts can be a really nice daily ritual just to bring into focus with gratitude, the positive things being focused on! Even if something not so great is happening today, there are these other good things that are happening and we can focus on those! That can help us feel better. So those kinds of things, I think, are really good and important.
I love that! I’m using it. How do you help children verbalize the cause of their emotion — what is making them feel sad, stressed, or angry, when all they want to do is cry?
Yeah. So it is hard sometimes to verbalize. I think even for adults, sometimes it’s hard to verbalize exactly what’s going on. Some kids have very big feelings, and they’re very intense with the way that they’re feeling them. For kids, behavior is the fastest way to communicate — for a lot of young children especially. We do want to try to arm them with the tools to communicate and to express themselves a little bit more. So with some kids, it can be verbalized, saying “I feel” and talking about “I feel” statements like, “I felt sad when that happened,” or, “I’m feeling scared because…” Or, sometimes we have to think about alternative ways. So maybe it’s through art or some craft activity where they can put their feelings into that. Or maybe it’s through music, having your teenager play a song that represents how they’re feeling, and then talk about that and how they connect with that song at that particular moment. So I think we can be really creative with it and help kids to understand there’s not just one way to communicate. The more that we can let people know how we’re feeling, the more that they can relate to us, the more that they can help us to feel better, or just remind us of what we can do to help ourselves feel better, just any way that we can get those feelings communicated. Sometimes I’ll recommend parents to do a little journal back and forth where they can leave a little journal or notebook on their kid’s bed during the day, and the kids will know that Mom wrote something in there for me. Then they can read what mom wrote. It could be something as simple as, “I love you.” Or something as deep as, “Today, when I saw you help your brother, that really made me proud of you.” It could be something silly, a joke, whatever, just one way to communicate. Then the kiddo can write something in there for mom and dad and put it on their bed. It’s just a simple way to open communication. Maybe it’s something that then we can say, “Hey, I saw what you wrote. Can you talk more about it?” Or maybe it’s something that just stays really private. Something like that can be a really simple way just to foster more communication.
How can parents explain meditation to their children in a way that makes them want to do it?
There are a couple of different ways. One is to explain to kids how they might be doing meditation without even realizing it. I always mentioned to kids that there are things that we do very naturally, anything that actually has a repetitive quality to it, even walking, pacing, running, bouncing a basketball, throwing the ball against a wall, sitting in a rocking chair, all of those activities have a meditative quality to them. We naturally engage in those without even thinking about it and they feel good to us without us even having to know what that is about. Meditation is not about having to sit and look like a Buddhist statue, chanting, or anything like that. It can be as simple as just focusing on our breath, focusing on mindfulness, focusing on the sound that a ball makes every time it hits the wall, focusing on your footsteps as you’re walking, walking the dog, or noticing something you hadn’t noticed before in the yard or the neighborhood where you’re walking. Really breaking it down into small, tangible things makes it easier.
Showing one simple strategy can be really helpful. I think there’s a growing tide right now for meditation and mindfulness so there are lots of places to look. There are celebrities and athletes who are practicing these things too. So showing a kiddo a video of one of their favorite football players practicing yoga might work too. Those simple signs that other people are doing this, it’s a really natural, normal thing to do, and it benefits us all can really be helpful, too. But like I said, just breaking it down into something small helps. Sometimes I like to do an exercise like a mindful eating exercise with a Hershey Kiss or something. It helps kids to see that this can be fun. I’ll say, “We’re going to eat a Hershey Kiss, and we’re going to just slow the whole process down, pay attention to what we can see, what we can feel, what we can smell, what we can taste,” and that’s meditative. Helping them to see where it is in their daily life, I think can be helpful.
I want to ask you, what are your favorite books for kids to read? And what are your favorite books that you recommend parents read?
I have a lot of books that I like! This is less of a book and more of a journal, but “The Big Life Journal” is one of my favorite resources. They provide a lot of work on mindfulness and growth mindset and it dovetails a lot with the work that I do. I’m always using their principles, and they have these wonderful journals that you can do with kids. So “The Big Life Journal” is one of my favorites.
I also work a lot with kids’ workbooks that they can do alongside me. There’s a series called “What To Do When” that’s about mistakes. They have one about worries, they have one about anger, they have one about negative mindsets, so we’ve got to cover a wide range. They’re really accessible for kids and easy for them to do with their parents or with their therapist, or even on their own! This one I have is about perfectionism, but they have a whole series of them that are about worry and all kinds of different issues. It’s really nice! Kids can write in it if they want to.
The other series I really like for kids is the “American Girl series.” They have them on a variety of different things. I wish it wasn’t so focused on girls. While it was wonderful for girls, it’s also great for boys too. They have some that are just about friendship skills for instance. They’re about understanding your emotions. They have them about divorce, they have them about self-esteem, so it covers a wide wide range, which is wonderful. I use those a lot and recommend them to families. It’s a nice way to sit down with your kid and to go over something together. It makes it accessible. I always think having a book makes conversation so much easier. Whether we’re talking about worries or whether we’re talking about feelings or trouble with friends, I think having a book to spark the conversation can be really, really helpful.
What are some mantras parents can use to feel grounded and in control throughout the day?
Mantras are great! I use these and I really recommend them to everybody. Whenever we’re thinking of a mantra, we want to focus on the emotion we’re trying to move towards. So one that I really like is, “Peace begins with me.” Or, “I choose to see this moment through peace.” So sometimes it’s bringing that back, especially when we’re in a chaotic moment when the kids are doing something that’s driving us nuts and we’re just super stressed. Bring it back to, “If I can stay calm, everybody else will feel that we can move from a more peaceful place.” I always tell kids this too and I think this one applies to parents also.
My favorite one is, “I’m not going to let this bother me.” I like that for kids. It’s simple, but it also reinforces the idea that they’re in charge of their emotions and regardless of the situation, they can move through it and not let it bother them. So that’s another one. Really anything that speaks to you and anything that brings you towards that emotion you want to be feeling like, “I am peaceful, I am joyful. I can do this.” Whatever works. It is helpful to have that. That switches our mindset. The more positive frequency moves our emotion with it. So our mindset, the thoughts we say to ourselves, and the way we talk to ourselves are so important. I talk about that with kids, but it’s also important for parents.
What are some phrases you can use to acknowledge and accept rather than empower children’s negative emotion? So if your kid is scared of the dark, what can you say to them that makes them know it’s okay to feel that way without feeding their fear?
With anxiety in particular, and depending on the kid’s age level, I think we have lots of different approaches. I do tend to use a cognitive-behavioral approach, even with young children. I think it’s important to teach them how to work with their thoughts and their feelings. With anxiety, I’m always explaining to kids why we have that emotion. I think it’s helpful for them to know why we have feelings, just why we even have that emotion, and to help them understand that anxiety is an emotion that protects us and it’s there to keep us safe. However, sometimes anxiety pokes this little nose in where we are already safe, and it doesn’t need to be activated. So I go back to that with kids to help them understand, “You’re having a worrying thought about the dark right now and remember, that’s just worrying.” Sometimes we talk about worry as a little creature or a person. Personifying it helps them to understand and sort of talk back to it. We can say, “Remember worry is just here to try to keep us safe. We know that we’re sitting here in our home, and nothing changes in the dark as it’s the same as when the light is on.” Worry is just here to try to keep us safe, then we can just talk to her and say, “Hey, worry, we don’t need you right now, you don’t need to be here, everything’s safe, we’re okay.” Help them to understand why it’s happening and to be able to respond to it.
I always want to empower the kiddos if we can. We don’t want to always be providing the answers for them. Like, “There’s nothing in the closet, the lights are on, we’ll put the light on, or spray this monster spray.” We can do all those things to reassure them, but it’s going to be much more powerful if they can use those thoughts themselves. Encouraging them by saying, “I wonder what you can say to worry right now?” or, “What’s a cool thought we can use to say to worry?” That can really help them to feel a little bit more empowered that they’re the ones that are in charge of those feelings and if mom or dad isn’t there in that moment, that they can still use those strategies.
Are there signs of anxiety, distress, or harmful emotion in kids? Are there any signs that a parent should be aware of that maybe it’s time to start seeing a therapist?
I think that there’s a wide range of really normal emotions that kids have and certainly different phases that they’ll go through. Certainly, with this pandemic, we’ve all had ups and downs. So I usually say to families, if feelings are feeling like they are getting so big that they are interfering with daily life. So, if your child is starting to have some change with the way that they’re functioning, with their socialization, with their behaviors at home, with their school life, or just with getting through the day, and it’s starting to impact those daily life situations, then it’s time to definitely reach out for some help. That being said, I really think that 99% of people could benefit from having a therapist to talk to. I think of it as an educational coach for your emotions, so I think everybody can benefit from it. It’s something that I always say. Don’t hesitate, don’t feel like this isn’t enough of a big deal. A couple of sessions can be great to distill some tools and get some strategies that really help. Just opening the door to understanding that it is okay to reach out and say, “Hey, I’ve made contact with someone and maybe I don’t need to meet with them all the time. But maybe in another year or two, something could come up and I’d have someone familiar to reach back out to.” So I think it’s nice to really normalize that procedure and that process. But definitely, if things are feeling like they’re building, it’s great to reach out and get some extra help.
What are your favorite empowering statements for children?
My favorite empowering statements for children are things like, “I can do this.” I like to focus a lot on that growth mindset. “Mistakes helped me grow,” is a really good one that I like. I really like that, “I’m not gonna let this bother me,” too. I think any of those kinds of cool thoughts can help kids to understand the role that they play, not in changing the situation that they’re in, but changing how they deal with the situation that they’re in.
How do you explain to children that you’re busy and that you wish you could play or spend time with them, but you just really can’t right now? I think this is a good one especially for those staying at home.
Absolutely. This comes up a lot, especially where kids can understand that you’re home but don’t understand that you’re working. So whether it’s work or things you have to do for the household or just other activities that you have going on, of course, there are times when we have to differentiate when we’re available and when we’re not. One thing that I would say is, depending on the child’s age, you can be very visual with it. Show them a little schedule showing that first mom or dad has to do this thing, then we can do some playtime. Helping them to see that they’re going to get their time, but that they can be patient and wait. That’s important. I think it’s also really important for kids to understand how to wait if mom or dad is on the phone or having an adult conversation. It’s going to be easier for them to wait if they know they get what they need at the end. Being consistent with offering that one-on-one time or that playtime with them if you can every day even if it’s just a few minutes, kids can benefit from that. I’m trying to use that “first, then” strategy and explain to them first, “I have to do this, and then we can play.” But really, that works best if you’re consistent with it and you follow through with the playtime. That builds that trust that they know they can be patient because mom or dad always does give me that time. Like I said, whether it’s something visual that you show them, or, “First we’re going to do this, and then that,” or you can have little signals. For some families, maybe they’re working from home and they have to be in a separate room or an office. Having a little sign on the door that says, “Busy until this time,” or having a system like knock three times if there’s an emergency, but otherwise, Mom will come and check on you periodically throughout the day. Develop something so everybody understands that their time is important, but that we also have to be devoting time to other activities as well.
How do you overcome burnout or what advice do you give for parents who are so busy or overwhelmed or feeling buried, to come out of that emotion?
I think that that is something everybody is dealing with. We’re talking about this idea of “pandemic fatigue,” and I think we’re all failing or have been at various points of time through this whole thing. Burnout can happen with or without this pandemic. Parents these days are pulled in a million different directions and so are our kids. Stress levels at home can definitely be high. I really think that it always feels like the parents’ goal is to be selfless, to always be giving to their children, to be doing what their children need and providing that consistently. Of course, that’s a portion of it — parenting is a very selfless action. However, we really can’t provide that and pour from an empty cup. You have to take care of yourself and take care of your own needs before you can help others. This is a little counterintuitive to how a lot of parents think, but truly, you are modeling for your children how to keep those balances and take that as a priority. It’s something that we want to reinforce for them. If we’re teaching it to them, then we should be practicing it too. So I think it’s so important for parents, again, to be working on their self-awareness, noticing their emotions, and noticing their tone of voice. Kids pick up on that stuff. They are so intuitive and notice the slightest change in your demeanor, the facial expression that you made, the tone that you’re using, they notice those things, and that creates an anchor for them. So the more that we’re taking care of our own needs, making sure that we have some healthy coping skills, that we’re engaging in meditation, exercise, yoga, whatever it is for you that gives you a little bit of breathing room, and practicing it every day. It’s like that vitamin, right? So it’s something that prevents us from getting so upset and so easily triggered. That really has to be a priority. It’s something that we all have to just put some effort into and sort of recognize that it’s for everyone’s benefit, whether it’s your coworkers or your children or your spouse or your neighbor. Whoever it is that you’re interacting with, the more that we’re taking care of ourselves, the better we can provide to others.
Thank you so much Ginger, it was nice to meet you. Take care. I hope you stay well.
Dr. Ginger Martin is the founder of Mindful Wellness in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Mindful Wellness is a joining of behavioral health and yoga to help children, adolescents, teens, and families find ways to discover the connections between mind and body.
You can sign up for any of our FREE HAPPÉ programs to work on any of the skills Ginger mentioned, sharpen their (and your) emotional awareness, learn stress and anxiety management techniques, and more to achieve your parenting goals.