Surviving and Enjoying the Holidays

As the Holidays are fast approaching, I have spent much of my time during sessions preparing clients for visiting and enjoying their time with their families and loved ones. Most vacations away visiting families or staying home are wonderful and full of long lasting positive memories. Sometimes, this is not the case with all families or all trips. One idea to help navigate through potential troubled waters, is to create a mini traveling survivlal kit that will help soften some of the intense feelings that occur after a family trigger. Trauma Expert, Janine Fischer suggests this with people who are at risk for self harm, but I have found that this idea helps many people cope in all situations. We are always packing for EVERYTHING–why not “pack” a kit that will help you cope with potential family triggers. Triggers can occur in any sensory experience: sight, taste, smell and auditory.

The contents of the kit depends on YOU and the details surrounding the trip. To prepare, you must think about potential pit falls and triggers, as well as, the events that you really want to ENJOY! With this in mind, pay attention to how you are feeling when thinking of the triggers — how intense are they? where are you feeling them in your body? Now — what are some things that might help you cope IF this situation occurs during your home holiday or your vacation away. Some suggestions are: exercise, going to the movies, listening to a great song list, knitting/sewing, reading a book that is pleasurable, calling/texting a friend…. . Make list and practice preparing to use it. You can literally create a box to bring or even something in a separate bag that would also include your favorite quote, stones or other “grounding” objects.

When faced with difficult family situations, this survival kit gives you a plan to help control feelings that can be overwhelming and can cause you to feel flooded. Most importantly, the goal is to ENJOY the events that are important to you and not remain STUCK in the emotional storm. Hope this tip helps you in enjoy your holiday.

PTSD Memories: The Body Always Remembers

Most of us have had feelings of nostalgia once in a while. We might see yellow school buses go by and think of our children long ago getting on the bus for the first time. Maybe it is when the weather changes, we remember our college days or hear an old song that reminds of times past. Sometimes we can’t remember exactly in detail the event, but our body and brain reminds us of that particular time in our lives.

When people experience a trauma, the body and brain also remember. People recovering from traumas can witness in themselves very intense feelings or ”memories” of the situation that occurred (Fisher, 2013). This onset is often triggered by any sensory experience: sight, smell, auditory, and so on.

What outsiders may not realize is that these emotions can be very scary and overwhelming. Everyone has heard that saying ”it is like riding a bike ’ you will remember what to do”. Well’this is the way the body is reminding the survivor — but it is the type of muscle memory one must learn to cope successfully with.


Some examples of experiences are: feelings of panic, apprehension, shame, depression, numbness, sense of abandonment, impulses to run or leave, self mutilation, shakiness, rapid heartbeat, and suicidal ideations. All of these reactions or feelings is the body’s way of remembering what happened. Very often, clients will say to me ’ ”I don’t really remember all the details”, ”there are lapses in my memory from growing up”. Yet, the body is recalling ’ communicating in feelings and behaviors.

Having this cognitive understanding, allows clients to begin strengthening their ability to tolerate this hyper or hypo arousal state that is so very uncomfortable (Fisher, 2013). They can then remind themselves they are in the present day. This helps build new muscle memory that the feelings – aka- the memories, can be tolerated with new coping skills. The goal is to change the default setting — to tolerance ’and hopefulness.

(Fisher, 2013)

Sandwich Generation: My contribution to a recent article in PARENTING magazine: May 2013 issue

More commonly, moms and dads are caring for their kids and their parents. Read about what’s it like to live together as an extended family

By Janene Mascarella

”There was a day where I was nursing a baby during a conference call and simultaneously searching for ramp installers online,” says Mona Shand of Brighton, MI. She and her husband help care for her 81-year-old father, who is wheelchair-bound and suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and their three children, ages 5, 3, and 1, while balancing full-time jobs.

The Shands are members of the sandwich generation, a colloquial term for those caring for kids and aging family members simultaneously. It’s a demographic that’s becoming increasingly crowded. In a recent poll from A Place for Mom, Inc. (APFM), the nation’s largest senior-living referral information service, more than half of the respondents (95 percent of whom were parents) said an older family member is either already living in their home or expected to within the next five years. It’s a statistic I can relate to. While my 84-year-old father-in-law is active and self-sufficient, it’s understood that sometime in the not-so-distant future, he will move in with us. That would bring us to two kids, two Betta fish, a dog, a bearded dragon, and Grandpa.

Caring for an older relative is nothing new, but dual caregiving is a relatively recent phenomenon due to advances in medicine, longer life spans, and starting families later in life. The recession’and the shrinking retirement savings it created’served only to cement the trend.

In the end, multigenerational caregiving presents a complicated family landscape to navigate. It’s no wonder the sandwich generation finds itself, well, squeezed.

Stuck in the Middle

”I knew I was in the sandwich generation when in the course of one week, my elderly dad said to me, ”I hate you, I wish you weren’t my son,’ and my daughter said, ”I wish you weren’t my father,’” says Herb Lin, a father of one in Washington, DC. ”I responded to them both the same way: ”I’m sorry you feel that way, but I love you and you’re stuck with me.’” Lin says his father and 11-year-old daughter were not close, which he attributes to a cultural and generational divide. (Lin’s father was a Chinese man who came to the U.S. as an adult, and did not acclimate well to American culture.)

One of Lin’s biggest challenges was shaking the feeling that he was neglecting one while spending time with the other. ”My priority was my daughter, who I felt needed me more, but I had to respond to my dad’s emergencies quite often,” he says. ”I was able to reduce the stress only by compartmentalizing’dealing with each one separately rather than trying to integrate the relationships under one family umbrella.”

For those taking a cue from Lin, make sure some of that compartmentalizing qualifies as quality time, advises Meredith Gelman, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in Fairfax, VA. ”In these situations, it’s important for parents and kids to spend time alone,” explains Gelman. ”A simple, inexpensive afternoon together can remind them that they are still an intact family.”

Alot of sandwich generationers feel pressure to do everything for everyone in their nest. That’s a first-class ticket to a guilt trip, says Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and family counselor in New York City. ”Guilt is a normal response, but in order to help either generation,” says Dorfman, ”you have to meet your own needs.” Find an outlet: exercise, plan a regular girls’ night out, find private time with your spouse. ”Prioritize your own physical and mental health first.” To avoid burnout, suggests Gelman, don’t just ask friends and family for help; ask them to help with specific tasks.

Hand-Me-Down Life Lessons

While the challenges are great, there are benefits’for all generations. In the APFM survey, nearly 41 percent cited the opportunity to reciprocate the care they received growing up as a plus. ”A lot of people say it must be very hard taking care of my mother, my daughter, and my business,” says Monika Hengesbach, who owns a tax practice in Pleasant Hill, CA. ”But knowing that my mom doesn’t have to worry about being alone when she’s sick is the greatest gift I can give her.”

When the time comes for my family, my kids will witness empathy in action and caring come full circle, a lesson that’s not lost on Fitton’s children. ”My kids have a greater understanding of love and responsibility,” Fitton explains. ”They see that sometimes parents and grandparents need help, and because we love them, we do whatever we can to take care of them.”

It’s bonding on a whole new level, Gelman explains. ”These situations really expand a child’s mind-set and avail them to think a little less about themselves,” she says, ”if only for a moment.”



Washington Post: Making Sense of Hurricane Sandy

Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 10/31/2012 Oct 31, 2012 11:00 AM EDT
The Washington Post

Making sense of Hurricane Sandy

By Janice D’Arcy

Our region missed the brunt of the storm. But many of us have friends and family who were deluged by Hurricane Sandy. Even those without direct connections witnessed scenes of flooding and devastation in and on the news.

(Scott McDermott) Adults may be used to these occasional bouts with Mother Nature, but to a child the unpredictability of natural disasters can bring a special sort of anxiety. They watched their parents preparing, sometimes frantically, and now they see that those who did prepare may still have suffered.

Elmo may have said it best when the muppet took to the radio on WNYC to help reassure kids in the New York area. ”Elmo was a little scared.”

Fairfax therapist Meredith Gelman, who specializes in family counseling, suggests that parents seize the chance to discuss weather unpredictability, especially because it seems we’re fielding an increasing number of intense events.

”In recent months children have been exposed to more natural disasters with serious outcomes. Children often become very frightened by all the unknowns around the impending storms, especially when children are participating in more prep drills for the unexpected. I encourage parents to talk to their children about the upcoming storms and their unpredictability,” Gelman said.

(Justin Lane – EPA) ”When difficult feelings come up for children, I encourage parents to validate those feelings. Validating allows the children to actually feel safe, to feel heard and to be able to cope with the unknown.

”Validated kids are willing to talk about how to prepare ’ just like studying for tests and drilling for potential fires at school. What are the safety plans?”

Most importantly talk about what things and people they can count on that are predictable. Reassure them that you as the parents will keep them safe the best way you can. Their teachers, coaches and leaders will do their best to keep them safe.”

Meanwhile, Dr. David Schonfeld, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Disaster Preparedness Advisory Council reiterated that trying to shield children can cause confusion. Honesty is better.

”If children ask whether or not a storm like this could occur in their community, realize that the underlying question is not whether or not is possible, but rather whether it is likely that such an event will occur. The recent storm is highly unusual in terms of the extent of the storm and the amount of damage that it caused,” he said.

”Reassure children of what is being done to keep them safe and help them appreciate that the chance of a storm of this magnitude occurring in the near future in their community is relatively small. Yes, storms are likely to occur, but they are likely to have far less adverse impact ’ help them tell the difference between the storm that is present in their community now or is likely to occur from the recent storm that had devastating impact.

”But don’t provide false reassurance or deny actual risk.

”Sometimes it is best to help children deal with troubling concerns that are legitimate concerns rather than trying to convince them not to be worried when their concerns are legitimate. Share with them your concerns and your strategies for coping with those concerns. Children will be more likely to learn coping strategies when they are modeled and taught by adults who care for them. Learning how to cope with distress provides a lifelong skill they will, unfortunately, have other opportunity to use.”

Gelman also added on a more upbeat note, that parents can remind children of the good times that minor storms bring: ”Game playing by flashlight, family read-a-thons or family movie night with a battery operated DVD player decreases anxiety and increases coping skills and resiliency for future storms. Natural disasters pose a great deal of unpredictability, but there is a lot in our children’s lives that are stable and predictable and that they can count on.”

How are you explaining to kids the damage from Hurricane Sandy?

Squashing the Worry Bug

Do you have a child that worries? Does the anxiety get in the way of having fun, participating in activities, with friendships? Does your child have the following traits?

  • DemonstrateS excessive distress with crying, physical symptoms, sadness, anger etc.
  • Easily agitated or angry in stressful situations accompanied by stomach aches or headaches.
  • Needs repetitive reassurance to ”what if” concerns

These are just a few symptoms of children who worry excessively. There are few ways to combat anxiety and, at the same time, give your child the confidence to manage it. Tamar Chansky, PhD, author of ”Freeing your Child from Anxiety” has identified 5 steps in creating this management plan.

Empathize with your child what you are feeling:

  • Acknowledge what is going on with her. Don’t tell her not to worry, but reflect her feelings by saying: ”this seems so hard, so unfair”, ”this is making you so upset”…
  • Relabel the problem ’ give it a name.
  • This allows the child to determine what thoughts are from her worry voice and what she really THINKS.
  • Give it a name like ”worry bug”, make a puppet to remind her, or even draw pictures of it.

Rewire and Resist

  • Help her find the truth and not let the powerful feelings get in the way
  • Teach her to say things like ”my parents would never let me be in danger — I am not listening to you worry bug!”

Get the body on board

  • Slow the body down by counting, deep breaths, thinking of something that makes her happy and calm.
  • Remind your child that anxiety always passes

Refocus on what you want to do

  • Ask your child what she would be doing if she was not worrying? Then get into the activity ’ or something like it — the brain will follow but not the worry bug!

Reinforce your child’s efforts at fighting her worries!

  • Reward any behavior that demonstrates any coping, effort at beating this worry bug!
  • Change the reward after a partial goal is met

You can use these steps with children and adults at all ages, just adapt to their age and maturity level. Chansky and others believe that it takes about 2-3 weeks for a new behavior to really be established, so practice and reward consistently! For more information regarding anxiety in adolescent girls and women visit the blog section of my website at

Time Outs for Everyone

As a parent of three young children, the days of time outs are not far behind me. What I find interesting is how this behavioral tactic is so useful for children and adults of all ages. When Time Outs are used with self-soothing techniques (ways to calm yourself down), the road to compromise with your offending partner is not so bumpy! But how do you know when to take a Time Out during a disagreement?

John Gottman talks about this important break in his book ”And Baby Makes Three”. The first important step is identifying what you are feeling and if you are becoming flooded. Yes – just like your basement flooding or sadly the Titanic, but it happens more quickly and is felt differently across gender lines.

For some people they may feel:

  • Knots in their stomachs
  • Jaw tightening
  • Changes in their breathing patterns
  • Freezing/or difficulty moving

Gottman describes this as a tidal wave of physiological sensations: called Diffuse Physiological Arousal: DPA. When we are in this state, our reasoning, hearing, and rational self are altered. Thus the fight or flight sensation is activated. According to Gottman, we must then know to take a break and calm down in order to effectively navigate (and compromise) within the argument. If not, we end of saying and doing things that we often regret later. Sound familiar?

Gottman believes that we need to first understand and recognize the signs of DPA so that it does not suck us into a vortex of an alarmist state ’ ready and mobilized for action! Taking this break has to happen before the flooding. It is also important to indicate when you will resume talking about the issue at hand. It is recommended at least a half an hour, but not more than one day.

During that time, our systems have calmed down and we will be better able to compromise with our partner, child, and co ’worker. The details of the time out (the identified mutually agreed upon sign that a break is needed, for how long and can we commit to this ritual) with a partner / child can be discussed during calm times before a heated discussion.

With outside people, one can simply say ”it seems as though we don’t agree, why don’t we talk about this situation later when we can have some time to think about it?” .

Don’t forget to calm yourself down when the time out is happening. Some clients of mine write, other listen to music, exercise, and take deep breathes. This part of the ritual must happen or you won’t be ready or able to do the next big step: compromise!

Try this method out! You will be surprised how well it works.

Best Way to Communicate Issues

Dr. John Gottman’s describes one way to communicate difficult feelings within a couple is by utilizing what he calls the slow start up. I have found the process also helpful within families, with children, in the workplace, and amongst friends. Gottman believes it is all about the way we begin verbalizing our feelings and needs.

Now we all have found ourselves in situations where we approach our partners “guns” firing in all directions. Usually the person responds defensively with criticism, real contempt, defensiveness or they stonewall us. I think we can all recall where we have been on both sides of this type of argument.

I support Gottmans’s belief that if you begin communicating your needs in a “soft” way the message is better received. Describe the situation neutrally, using “I” statements and state what we need — not what we are NOT getting. That is like stab in the heart.

So: Say what you are feeling

Describe the problem neutrally — but don’t blame the other person

Say what you need

Ready to try it out?

Washington Post Article : Holiday Gift Giving Dilemmas

When Parents Differ on Holiday Gift Giving

Even as the Halloween candy remains on the aisles, the holiday season approaches and the present ”dilemma” comes to a head. Parents can differ greatly on what they want to GIVE and RECEIVE at this time. Many parents in our area have already begun changing the traditional gift giving even at their own child’s birthdays and family celebrations. Instead of the child receiving gifts, guests are asked to bring food donations for a local shelter.

What do you do though when the season for holiday ”giving” rolls around and your spouse has very different ideas (mom wants to donate to charity; dad wants to head to Target)? The best solution is to allow flexibility where you both meet in the middle of the road (even if you think you are right ’ as I am always).

I tell parents to strategize this difficult dilemma by breaking this process up into 3 parts:

  • Recipient list and Budget
  • Communicating Gift Giving Vision
  • Negotiation

The goal is to find common ground at each step and set the stage for future holiday gift giving discussions.

Each parent must first think individually about WHO they are buying for this year including coworkers, family friends, teachers, etc. Create a list and then decide what the BUDGET is for these acts of generosity. Disagree on a dollar amount? Meet in the middle.

Now each person must reveal their own gift giving VISION. Identifying and expressing your own vision is very important to effective negotiation. Perhaps this season’s vision is based on fond childhood memories, anxiously waiting and finally receiving the long awaited gift. Maybe it is the desire to extend your family’s blessings and give to others as way to model for your children. Take turns verbalizing this vision, quietly listen to your partner, and reflect back what you are hearing ’even if you don’t agree. Active listening lessens defenses and creates the opportunity for meeting in the middle.

During the NEGOTIATION phase, tease out any similar gift giving themes, ideas and visions. Identify ways that you and your partner might combine each other’s gift ideas. Can you still buy at the local toy store while also purchasing toys and clothing for a local needy family? Discuss ways to involve the children in the process and create a future gift giving template (maybe each year the children determine a different place to donate their time to a charitable cause). Strategizing early in the holiday season around different gift giving ideas will lessen family stress and support the special spirit in giving.