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Experiencing stress and anxiety at various times as a parent will be familiar. All parents know that our role has its highs and lows. Whether our children are at school or home with us self-isolating, they are in our care and thoughts 24/7. It doesn’t take a pandemic for parents to feel anxiety and stress around the job of parenting. Life can throw us many curveballs along the way. First, though, let’s have a look at what we mean by parental stress and anxiety.
What is parental stress?
Parental stress is the sense of being overwhelmed, which occurs when the demands of parenting overtake our capacity to manage it all. We all have moments when we want to pull our hair out as we are driven crazy by the competing demands for our time.
Over the longer term, this consistent stress becomes a concern when it impacts negatively on our relationships with our children and reduces our capacity to support them. We may become irritable and grumpy and overly negative. Our relationships with partners may suffer as well. This situation feels awful, and we may judge ourselves badly. Worse still, our children will start to see and possibly copy our very poor coping strategies.
What is parental anxiety?
Parental anxiety is defined as excessive worrying about the current wellbeing and/or future needs of our child. Common to parents of children with a disability, it may also develop with families where a child presents with complex or challenging needs.
While all parents have moments of worry for their children, parental anxiety is a pattern of worry that is long-standing and of such an extent that it impacts on the daily functioning of the parent and/or child.
Parental anxiety can start to look like paralysis, where decisions become difficult if not avoided altogether. Parents find themselves trying to minimize any risks for their children, which is where the term helicopter parenting comes from. And again, poor coping strategies are being modelled. Additionally, the child picks up on the parent’s anxiety and may take this on themselves too.
What can you do about parental stress and anxiety?
The first step starts with recognizing that things are getting out of control and seeking help. At our Centre, we are currently seeing a spike in parental stress and anxiety. Hence, we are now opening our Parental Stress and Anxiety Clinic (PASC) to parents of children who are not currently accessing Child Wellbeing Centre services.
In PASC, we match you with a psychologist who can help you get on top of any stress and anxiety. Typically, this is about learning new ways of managing thoughts and feelings. We also include opportunities to learn helpful parenting strategies and relaxation techniques. Sessions are currently available face to face or via online Telehealth sessions. All you need to do is let us know what will work best for you and we will make it happen.
Please contact our Reception on 9274 7062 for more information about our services and let them know that you are interested in PASC. We’re here to help!
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Managing strong feelings at the best of times can be challenging. Our children take their lead from us. When we are chaotic, so are they. When we are in the grip of strong feelings such as anger and sadness, they watch and learn (whether this is positive or negative) how to react and behave. When we are calm and rational, they are more likely to model this too, and if not, at least we are in a better place to help them with their strong feelings.
We want to be able to coach them through these strong feelings and teach them how to manage them well. However, that means we ourselves need to have a sense of how to do this so that we can help our children find calm. Sometimes, even if we do know what to say and do, our own strong reactions to them can interfere with a rational and helpful response.
What to do with strong feelings first?
Here are some tips to initial responses you can try:
- Allow them to express themselves (without hurting anyone), for a minute or two. This might be verbal or non-verbal expression;
- Reflect back to them what you think they might be feeling …“you seem pretty angry”, “do you feel frustrated?”, “are you sad?”. Often merely acknowledging their feelings will help diminish their intensity. When children feel seen and heard, they tend to calm naturally;
- However, when their feelings are very big and strong, we may need to let them express it further, but help them to do this more appropriately. For example “do you need to stomp out your anger?” (and stomp with them), “why don’t you hit this cushion with all of your anger?” (and stay close by), “it’s ok to scream loudly, but do it into the air or a pillow…not my face”.
How to help children calm down
Any break in this expression of feeling is the time to jump in with calming strategies:
- encourage little ones to breathe, and in particular to blow out a big breath, just like blowing out lots of candles;
- explain to pre-teens and teens that we need to expel the build-up of carbon dioxide that makes us feel sick and dizzy;
- encourage them to move around, to shift the adrenalin that has built up;
- connect with little ones again, by holding their hands and looking into their eyes, affirming to them that they are safe and not in trouble for having big strong feelings. If there was a trigger event of a conflict, address this afterwards, but not right now. Wait about 10 minutes before talking about it when you are both calm;
- connect with teens by a touch, a text, or gesture of making them something to eat or drink. Give them the option of talking to you, if not straight away, then perhaps in the car on your next trip. If conflict needs to be addressed, deliver the pre-agreed upon consequence without negotiation or emotion.
What if strong feelings are becoming a problem?
If you are unsure, our experienced psychologists can be your coach. They will then be able to show you how to model becoming calm for your children to see and encourage how to teach your children with similar strategies.
We all know that parenting is not an easy journey and that many of us experience stress and anxiety or even guilt at times. If this is the case, and you are overwhelmed with your own strong feelings, we have a clinic at the CWBC designed specifically to address parenting stress and anxiety.
During these challenging times, the Centre remains open and can offer in-person sessions or online meetings.
Please contact Reception for further information.
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It is more than likely that by now you and your children are being exposed to sources of anxiety and panic around the coronavirus (COVID-19). As always, when parents worry or panic, children can pick up on this without really understanding what it is all about. Typically their questions will start with “what is … or … what if”. Rather than just telling them not to worry, simple explanations with age-relevant objective information can be very helpful.
Helping kids understand the worry about the Coronavirus
One of the best antidotes to anxiety and panic is knowing more about the topic. It may be helpful for you to know that recently the statistics are indicating that children are not being greatly affected by the Coronavirus. To date, it seems that children may be less likely to catch the virus, and if they do, they may have mild flu like symptoms that seem to resolve without further complications.
If the children see people wearing masks on tv or in shopping centres, you might talk about it helping to prevent the spread of germs, and why washing your hands is very important. Teenagers might like to discuss the pros and cons for wearing a mask. These are easy conversations that will assist them with any sense of worry or anxiety. However, it is very important that adults discussing this with children are well-informed, not by the news but by our science forums.
Getting helpful information
News reports exacerbate anxiety and panic around people stockpiling staples. Rather than it being the situation of every-man-for-himself, this is a wonderful opportunity to talk to your children about being organised, and thereby being able to support your family and community. When buying extras (if this is what you choose to do), you might discuss how you as a family might need to support others who aren’t able to be as organised. For example, if you know near-by elderly people, you might talk in terms of making sure that you will be able to help them if this is needed. Depending on their age, your children might also understand the need to support other families with people who are often sick (the immunosuppressed). Indeed, there may be families in their school that are already identified, and this close-to-home example allows the possibility of thinking about what others might need too.
Yes, there is concern about COVID-19. Do we need to panic? Absolutely not and it is imperative for our children that we don’t. Our children can catch anxiety as easily as any virus. Protecting them from the germination of our own anxiety is the best preventative.
You are of course very welcome to discuss your concerns about your child’s level of anxiety with our psychologists. We can’t help with medical advice but we can help with anxiety management.
Please call reception on 9274 7062 for further information.
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Some of our little ones, and even our no-so-little ones, might be finding it hard to say good-bye to their parent at the classroom door. At the beginning of the school year, particularly for under 6’s, this is understandable in terms of their attachment to us, as well as the unfamiliarity of a new room and teacher. By now, most of our kiddies are settling into their new routine and are comfortable with a quick kiss and wave. However, for some children, this parting can still be an excruciating time, with great distress for all involved.
Why do children find it hard to separate?
Sometimes the reasons for this can be quite clear, especially if they’ve suffered a recent loss or trauma. For others, their distress is unexpected, and parents can find this very confronting and concerning. When there is great wailing or screaming, and clinging to the parent for dear life, both parent and child are likely to need support and assistance to reduce everybody’s anxiety. Old school thought included ripping the children off their parents with the belief that the child will forget them once they’ve left. These days we tend to adopt a more gentle approach, with less painful measures and less lasting repercussions.
What can I do to help?
Just as you might have done when they were little, give them a period of time for adjustment, with some words in their ear about what you will do together on pick-up. Give them something of yours to hold and settle them into an activity close to their teacher.
When these soothing words and support are not enough, we need to determine what is going on for them and give everyone coping strategies to help with this situation. Whether or not it is actually separation anxiety, teaching staff and parents, as well as the children, will do well with a nurturing plan moving forward.
If you would like more support, we have psychologists experienced in this area that can assist you. Please call us on 9274 7062 for more information about our services.
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Aside from getting back into routine, going back to school is a great time for children to reconnect with their friends. It’s also another year ahead of learning and fun. For some children the transition back into school can be challenging. Rather than leave that transition to the night before, there is quite a bit that you can do right now to help with getting your child ready.
5 Tips for getting ready for school
If you haven’t already started, this week is the time to start focusing on getting everyone ready for school again. How can you prepare?
- Sit down and plan out with your children what you will need to do to prepare for school. Create a checklist and timetable of all the steps that are required. This helps reduce any overwhelming feelings to something more manageable.
- Talk about the good things that are likely to happen when your child is back at school. The start of the school year is a time to make new friends and meet new teachers. There’s also lots of cool stuff to learn about.
- Adjust sleep times. During the holidays most children tend to go to bed later than they would on a school night and sleep in later. Starting to adjust sleep times gradually before school starts is likely to be more effective then suddenly demanding that your child be asleep at their usual time the night before school starts!
- For younger children, do a walk around the school showing them where their class will be, how to find the toilets and where school drop-offs and pick-ups will be and
- Celebrate back to school with a party or special event. Include one of their friends or classmates for school to make the occasion that little bit more special.
What about the anxious child?
Some children become very worried at the start of the new school year, often imaging the worst is about to happen. As parents, it’s important that we acknowledge those worries. Telling someone not to worry seldom works! Instead the focus on coping strategies and helping the child find things to help them manage these worries.
For some children, rehearsal strategies like social stories are really helpful. They explain what is going to happen and can reassure the child that things will be fine.
For other children, finding gentle ways to challenge their worry thoughts is what’s needed. For example, reminding them of all the other times they were worried and good things happened.
Being a little worried about going back to school is perfectly normal. However, if you feel your child is “too worried” then our psychology team is there to help with strategies to help children back into school. Please call reception on 9274 7062 for more information about our services.
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Bushfires have dominated the news these holidays. For some, the holiday season has been about survival and trying to keep a roof over their heads. For others, it’s been the mixed feelings of sadness and at times anger as we monitor the news. There have been stories we have read about where we have felt proud about our fellow Australians – mixed in among the distressing ones. For many of us, we have experienced worry as we have watched daily coverage about the bushfires. Sometimes, even frustration as we look for meaningful ways to help.
Through all of this time (and times to come) our children have also been watching. Through the media, they are learning about the impact of the bushfires on people, communities and animals. They are also learning from how we as parents respond to the news. While older children may be able to use their words to ask about what is happening and seek reassurance, younger children often can’t. Changes in behaviour are often how we know if a child is feeling distress or anxiety.
Signs to look out for
Whether it’s to do with the bushfires or other natural disasters, children may be displaying symptoms of anxiety and distress through their behaviour. During the school holidays, these are some behaviour changes to look more closely at:
- sleep changes – nightmares, sudden difficulties sleeping alone and/or difficulties falling asleep
- eating changes – loss of appetite or a sudden increase in appetite
- mood changes – increased anger or irritability (this can also look like a sudden increase in defiant behaviour).
- increased clinginess – needing to be physically close to their parents, needing more physical affection, separation anxiety
- increased complaints about feeling unwell – complaining of tummy aches, headaches – where there is no underlying medical concern.
How can parents help
There are three keys things that parents can do to help children feeling anxious about bushfires:
- Limit how much exposure your child has to the news. Re-occurring images about devastated communities, the impact on wildlife and the anger people are feeling are scary for children. If anything, it’s the news stories about bravery, communities supporting each other, animals being cared for that is the range of stories to let young ones see. Make sure to talk about any of the stories children are seeing -both to provide balance and to provide reassurance.
- Monitor your own feelings and responses. Big feelings (anger, fear, sadness) being expressed by parents can be overwhelming to young children. As parents, we need to find places to express these away from our children.
- Reassure children. When children are expressing their own fears, they need to be reminded that they are loved and cared for and most importantly, personally safe. Let them know that there are people in the community helping those that need help, including the animals.
These same strategies are also relevant for older children too.
Lastly, it’s normal for everyone to have big feelings when terrible things are happening in the world. However, if your child continues to remain anxious after the bushfires, then it might be time to seek help. Your GP or school student services team (once school is back on board) are good places to start. You are also welcome to talk to one of our psychologists.
Please feel free to ring Reception on 9274 7062 for information about our services.
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When working with a client recently, I was reminded again that children often use behaviour as a way of communication. In many of our posts we have covered, more than once, that there are four functions of behaviour, escape, tangibles, automatic and attention. Behaviours can provide access to more than one of these simultaneously and these behaviours may be appropriate or inappropriate.
All behaviour has a purpose
Inappropriate behaviours are never just something to be reduced to manageable levels, they are communicating a need. It could be “I don’t want to do this” or “I don’t have the skills to do this”. Sometimes it’s “I’m having a great time, but I don’t know how to show you” or “I need something”. For many children on the Autism Spectrum, there are skill deficits that can leave a gap between what a child is trying to say, and what they are able to communicate effectively to another person. Hence the importance of standing back sometimes and thinking about what is happening.
So, what does this mean for practice?
I speak about “replacement behaviours” often and that is first and foremost what needs to be addressed through therapy. Children have a right to develop the skills to independently communicate, so long term they can be their own advocates and control their own lives.
In the mean time, before those skills are developed and consolidated, as parents and therapists we can make environmental changes to reduce the demands on children, provide visuals that support them to understand the rules and what is happening next. It’s important to remember the onus is on us to support them. Children don’t act out to be malicious, or to spite anyone – we are responsible for their behaviour.
Our Program Managers are there to help if you have a child who is displaying problem behaviours and you’re unsure what they are trying to communicate. We can help you tease it the behaviour out, and develop a plan with you to work on reducing the problem behaviours, modifying your environment, and reducing the skill gaps.
ABACAS Program Manager
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I know you may not want to hear it be we are approaching the end of the school term and the long holidays. Many parents of children with autism often face this time with a range of emotions – relief and anxiety. Relief that there is an end in sight for the daily school & daycare routine. Anxiety when you think about how you will be keeping your child occupied over the holiday period.
Start planning for the holidays now (while you have the time and energy!)
Here are three ideas/strategies to help you cope with what’s to come:
- Create a visual holiday routine/schedule
For someone who struggles to differentiate between the days of the week, it is essential to establish a routine for a child with autism. By establishing a routine, you will be able to offer a sense of control and structure. It will also be much easier to transition to the back to school routine once the school term starts again next year too.
When a child is anxious about what is going to happen it will often come through in their behaviour. For example, I have seen children ask repeatedly for swimming throughout the day as they do not have an idea what they will be going next. Obviously, it’s a rare parent and child who is not going to be stressed by this behaviour (in the child’s case note being able to go swimming on demand). And yet, this behaviour may be avoidable.
With a visual schedule, children can see what is expected of them and what they can expect to do next. From a therapy perspective I would encourage you to think about including some time to practice the skills that they have mastered during therapy sessions too.
Your therapy team can help you work out how to create a visual schedule so please let them know if you’d like this help. Putting one in place now (even when it may not be as needed) is a nice way to transition into the holidays too.
- Let’s keep learning!
Learning does not end when the school term ends. When therapy stops (e.g. at the end of term) we often see a decline in skills acquisition and maintenance over the long holiday period. Being out of routine and not having therapy can lead to lots of stimming time and not enough skills practice.
Apart from keeping up with regular therapy sessions, I recommend my parents to spend time generalising the skills that their children have mastered within sessions. Holiday time can be spent expanding their skill sets and to exposing them to new stimuli. For example, teaching children to tact zoo animals when you make a visit to the local Perth Zoo or teaching them to tact car colours while playing “I spy” on the road.
- Have some down time
Being a parent is hard work. Therefore, it is very important to look after yourself during the holidays. Be it spending some alone time by the beach or even taking a short 5 minutes break to sit and sip on a hot cup of coffee before it gets cold. Do it. Because you deserve it. And remember, happy parents usually make for happy children too!
Holidays don’t have to be stressful!
In actual fact, holidays can be a lot of fun. Start thinking about how you will set up your days, particularly once you get past Christmas.
Please talk with your Program Managers about the activities that you could do to help generalise the skills that your child has learned during their therapy sessions. While the office will be shut from the 22nd December through to the 7th January, most of the team will be on board through-out the rest of January. We usually have a bit more flex during the holidays so increasing therapy sessions is also an option.
Assistant Program Manager (ABACAS)
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In the last post of this series, I want to talk about behaviour change and ABA. I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about ABA being more than just tackling problem behaviour. ABA build skills, provides early intervention, social training, and much more. However, tackling problem behaviour is something we do, and often do very well. Working with problem behaviours requires multiple steps, and commitment from a number of people.
What’s involved with behaviour change?
I’ve outlined some basic steps for effective intervention below:
Your Program Manager will want to establish a stable base-line before they intervene. This can tell us a number of things such as, is the behaviour naturally decreasing and maybe doesn’t need intervention? What situations does the behaviour occur in, and are we able to predict it accurately? What does the behaviour look like?
All behavioural interventions should be function based. Interventions which are function based are supported in the research to be the most effective. Evaluating this might require formal testing, or can sometimes be done through observations.
- Replacement Behaviours
How can this child get their needs met in other ways? People have a right to get their needs met, and others have a right to have theirs met too. The solution should involve not only reducing the problem behaviours, but increasing skills and tolerance of the reasonable preferences of others.
Once all this information is gathered, there needs to be a long term plan to fade any artificial systems that might need to be put in place to increase tolerance and skill building to a level that can be maintained by the natural environment.
Making sure everyone is on board
The initial phases are the easier part, once all this information is gathered and a plan is written, all the people involved in the child’s life will need to buy-in to the plan. This means that they commit to following the recommendations consistently, across the board, and increase to the next stage of the intervention only when criteria is met in all environments. This part of the process is just as important as the plan itself.
For more information about ABA and how we can help with challenging behaviours please talk to your Program Manager (Rachel or I). We will be able to work out with you the best way to help.
ABACAS Program Manager
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The collective gasp of all the people in the room is a familiar sound every time I mention the word “punishment”. I can thank some poor ethical choices from 50 years ago, and the confusion between the word punishment in regular language versus what it means in the context of Behaviour Analytic literature. This article will cover what reinforcement and punishment are in terms of behaviour, and hopefully you will have a better understanding of how we use these effective techniques, in a safe and ethical way.
Let’s start with reinforcement. Reinforcement is the addition or removal of a stimulus, that increases the future frequency of a behaviour. Any time behaviour is increasing (or maintaining) you are reinforcing it. You can reinforce your partner doing the dishes or them sitting on the couch, your child’s tantrums or their use of functional communication. There is no good or bad in reinforcement, it only refers to the behaviour increasing.
This is the same for punishment. Punishment is the addition or removal of a stimulus, that decreases future frequency of behaviour. Once again, there is no good or bad, and punishers are not necessarily things the average person would find aversive or see as harmful. Let’s look at some examples.
|Antecedent (before)||Behaviour||Consequence||Future Frequency|
|A parent says “please do your homework”||Child completes homework||Parent praises the child||Behaviour increases, more homework is completed (reinforcement)|
|A parent says “please do your homework”||Child completes homework||Parent praises the child||Behaviour decreases, less homework is completed
We may think we’re doing one thing…but actually children see it as another!
In this example the same sequences of events occur, and we see different effects on the child’s behaviour. It is these effects on behaviour that determine what is punishment or reinforcement. We see this happen in our daily lives all the time, we think that we’re helping, but behaviour isn’t changing or it’s getting worse. When we break it down something that we are doing in earnest, is actually punishment (reducing behaviour).
In conclusion, reinforcement and punishment are not about good and bad, they are scientific terms that help us understand behaviour. Once we understand a behaviour then we can change the environment, or up-skill people around us, to help a child better succeed and have a happier time in their home, school or community.
Please call Rachel or I on 9274 7062 for more information about your child’s program or about any of our services.
ABACAS Program Manager