As a parent I knew that one day our son (who is an only child) would become an adult and leave home. But as prepared as I thought I was to manage that transition, in truth I wasn’t prepared at all. I think this was the result of naivete’ as well as lack of knowledge and experience. None of our close friends had been through this yet (we were all going through it at the same time) nor had anyone older shared words of wisdom with us about this phase of life. Strangely, even my social media feeds seemed to lack mention of college parents grieving when their kids left for college….only the occasional mention of missing them or how good it felt to have them home for holidays and vacations. So, when the day came for me to drive our son to college, I was aware that our lives were about to shift but I had no idea how much.
Now, of course, everyone experiences adjustment, change, loss, and rites of passage differently. There are many parents who get through this experience with their hearts intact and even thrive as empty nesters in those initial first few months. I had envisioned myself as being in the latter group— I had, afterall, spent 18 years encouraging my son to live life, explore, and make memories. I was excited for him to be heading to college…to be leaving our small town and moving to a place where academia, diversity, and opportunity are embraced and celebrated. I could feel his readiness to foster this new life. I was overjoyed for him.
But as some parents do, I was so focused on him having a positive transition to this phase of life that I kind of forgot to prepare myself. You’d think, as a counselor, I would have been better prepared. I wasn’t.
On the day I drove him to college it was a beautiful day. Ideally beautiful. We listened to his music all the way there and I soaked in every second of sharing this time with him. We stopped to have Thai food before heading to campus.
When we got to campus we followed lines of directed traffic that eventually led to his dorm. There were student volunteers to help unload the car and take my son’s belongings to his room. I then parked the empty car in a nearby lot and walked back to his dorm room to help unpack what I could.
And then, it was time to leave.
I gave my son a big hug, told him to enjoy this—all of this— and said the usual mom things…I love him; to be safe; that his dad and I are proud of him; that we are always there for him and just a text away.
And then I left.
I walked back to the car and tears started to flow. That seemed expected. But the tears wouldn’t stop flowing. That was not expected. Ugh— I loathe crying. I really do. I know its healthy and cleansing and that our bodies need to do what they do— but still, I loathe it. I’m also the ultimate “ugly crier” who cannot hide the fact I’ve been crying. My eyes instantly swell to three times their size, creating bags upon bags; my face becomes so blotchy it lasts for hours, long after the tears stop. So imagine my face after an hour of crying…then three hours of crying…a full day of crying…2 days of crying…and still more tears on the third day. I was a complete and utter mess. I had moments of panic and irrational fear. It took days for these feelings to subside and eventually calm. Still, even then, I felt emotionally gutted.
One beacon of light in all of this is that my husband was understanding, supportive, and not afraid of my constantly flowing tears. He was grieving also. He got it. We both missed our son. We were both untethered from our parenting roles for the first time and it was disorienting and heart-wrenching.
Another beacon of light included a few unexpected conversations with neighbors and colleagues who shared their own experiences of grief when their children left home. These small, intimate conversations were validating and made me remember that life is beautiful, in all of its bitter-sweetness.
The best beacon of light, however, was realizing that, like any adjustment, a new normal settles in. Things do get easier. Joy and resolution return.
We did get through it— slowly but surely. For us it took a lot of Netflix, calming teas, extra walks with the dogs, and checking in with one another. Now, as a parent who has survived the experience (as you will also) I want to share some helpful things I learned in the process in case it’s helpful for any others about to go through the same transition.
*** Some of these tips may also be helpful for adult children “leaving the nest” for the armed forces, traveling abroad for a semester, a new job, leaving home in general, etc.
2-3 months before your child heads to college and/or leaves home
Moving Day and Beyond
A common fear in childhood is being afraid of the dark, and as adults we can help children alleviate that fear. The following post lists some of my favorite ways to encourage children to enjoy the dark using the "language" children speak best— play and wonder.
Before exploring ways to make the dark a safe place to play and explore, however, I want to address the topic of horror films. If your home has any horror films in it's library, and/or you have people watching horror films when a child is present in your home, I'd encourage you to keep those films out of reach and not watch such films in the presence of children. This is true of any filmography intended for a mature audience. Young children (some older ones as well) are not developmentally and emotionally mature enough to handle the content of horror films-- heightened fear and anxiety are likely to follow, no matter how minimal the exposure.
That being said, let's talk about fun activities that encourage children to dim the lights or play in the dark:
1. Play with shadow puppets. You can search online for tutorials on making your own shadow puppets and/or search for where to purchase them. The advantage of making your own is that you can create an imaginative mix of characters and scenery that is “one of a kind” and of your child’s own imagination. The advantage of buying them is the convenience of not crafting them—because not everyone enjoys making arts and crafts or has the time to make them. The shadow puppets in these photos were created by Andrea Everman of Owly Shadow Puppets.
2. Make hand shadows. You and your child can use a flashlight to create fun shadows on the wall. Your local library most likely has a book or two on how to make the classic hand shadows. If your library does not have them, ask them about interlibrary loan— you may be able to borrow from another library.
3. Make (or purchase) a silhouette lantern. These lanterns are especially enchanting for children, and they will want to use these lanterns both for play (they are perfect blanket fort lights) and as night lights. I purchased the one below from Loren Morris at Primitive Witchery here: www.etsy.com/shop/PrimWitchery?ref=l2-shopheader-name You can also follow a tutorial such as this one to make your own (this one starts off with Christmas themed lanterns but if you scroll down you will find other designs to create): www.adventure-in-a-box.com/magical-christmas-lanterns/
4. Make a tin can lantern with your child and then light them up at night for a night walk, or use it as a night light. Battery operated tea lights can be used in lanterns for younger children. https://www.hgtv.com/design/make-and-celebrate/handmade/how-to-make-a-tin-can-lantern
5. Have an evening tea party where the only lighting is candles or twinkle lights. You can also serve tea that helps with sleep, such as chamomile tea.
6. Use bathtub lights. These lights are waterproof and designed for bath time, but they also work well as night-lights and as characters for night play (in or out of the tub). You can search online for "floating lights", "bathtub lights", or even "hot tub lights". Swans, jellyfish, rubber duckies, and more are available for purchase. There are also planetarium lights and other decorative lights for the tub.
7. Play with "play props" and toys that light up. These include miniatures (i.e found at craft stores and hobby shops) like the campfire pictured below. These light up play props can be used for both indoor and outdoor night play.
Battery operated tea lights can also be used with figurines:
8. Play board games and card games that need to be played in the dark. For example, Mistiboo is a spooky version of Old Maid. The card images glow in the dark, which means you can play this game with the lights out. Another game, Shadows In The Forest, (not pictured) involves hiding creatures called Shadowlings in tree shadows which are created by trees and a lantern that come with the game. If you have a local library that has board games in it’s lending library, ask them if they’re able to purchase one of these night games for patrons to borrow.
9. Visit your local library to check out books that will ignite your child’s sense of wonder about the night. Some kids love enchanting picture books that feature night themes and stories that take place at night, such as Dream Animals--A Bedtime Journey, by Emily Winfield Martin. Other kids may find non fiction books about the night more appealing, such as those about constellations, bioluminescence, and nocturnal animals.
10. Go outside to play before bedtime— this works especially well in winter months when the sun sets earlier. You can bring some figurines outside for your child to play with, if needed. And, if you have any "light up" play props, bring those as well. When it’s snowy outside, take advantage of the snow by using it to dig out caves and caverns for characters. Lights illuminating the snow (especially in the snow caves) create magical playscapes.
11. Winter is also a wonderful time to take advantage of any snow forts your child has built. Bring flashlights or lanterns out to the fort at night for bedtime stories or snack time.
12. Go on a night picnic.
13. Sit by a campfire. Regardless of the season, campfires provide many opportunities for storytelling and music, quiet contemplation, marshmallow roasting, and the primal joy of sitting next to the fire.
14. Watch a celestial event such as a meteor shower or Northern Lights. spaceweather.com offers updates for when these are likely to occur.
15. Visit a planetarium.
16. Create snow sculptures during the day and then light them up at night. For example, we made a Godzilla creature once and put a sparkler in it's mouth. Other ideas include making snow dragons where tea lights can be placed in the dragon’s nostrils; or make "snow people" holding lights in their hands; create snow sculpted jellyfish that light up, etc… the possibilities are endless. (Of note-- by day, Godzilla served as a bird feeder. Those "hands" are full of peanuts and sunflower seeds. It was entertaining to see birds landing in his arms.)
17. Play with glow in the dark bubbles (aka black light bubbles). There are online tutorials for how to make your own, but I purchased mine. Either way, you will need a black light flashlight to view these bubbles. However, if you have the means to enjoy this activity, it's a treat. If you wait for an extra cold winter's night, you can have the added benefit of watching the bubbles freeze. Glowing frozen bubbles on the snow mimics galaxies and the night sky -- it's a magical delight to lay your eyes on this spectacle. The same bubble solution was used to create the glowing effect on a small snow fort.
18. Go for a night walk.
19. Take your flashlights outside and look for nocturnal creatures such as beetles and moths. You may even find a toad to say hello to.
20. Watch the sunset together.
21. Visit places that offer candlelight tours, whether it’s a tour around the historical district in town, or a candlelight tour of a castle or fort. The photo below is from a candlelight tour at Hammond Castle in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
22. Go on night drives or night walks to find fireflies in summer. (Yes, I added a firefly filter to the photo below, but in real life there were hundreds of fireflies around, and my iPhone didn't pick up on them. On a side note, the phone camera DID get the picture of this sweet deer that was feeding in the field.)
23. Take advantage of full moons— ice skating and swimming under a full moon, for example, are memorable events for kids. Play with moon shadows or go for a full moon walk. Put your child’s gemstones out in the moonlight for them to “recharge”.
24. Use “twinkle lights” or string lights at home where the child spends time in the dark, whether its a blanket fort or their bedroom.
25. Have a candlelight dinner.
26. Create a bedside basket for your child that has a flashlight (or other small light) and a few small tokens of comfort in it. If the child wakes in the middle of the night s/he may learn to use the items in the basket before waking you.
27. Play a game of flashlight tag with your kids.
28. Create your own “flashlight filters”— a) Use clear colored plastic or paper; cut circles to fit just within the inset of the flashlight; then place the circles on the end of the flashlight to make different colored lights. b) Cut black card stock or scrapbook paper into circles to fit within the inset of the flashlight. Poke holes in the paper circles to create patterns or constellation shapes, then place the circles on the flashlight end. When the flashlight is on, it will shine through the holes and create the designs on a flat surface, such as a wall.
29. If you have very active kids, it may be a worthy investment to buy a light up hula hoop. Kids can hula hoop in the dark and watch the lights on the hula hoop rotate and swirl around. If you have more than one child, and if they can tolerate friendly competition, see who can hula hoop the longest, or try hula hoop challenges such as “who can hula hoop the longest with their eyes closed?” They will burn off some excess energy before bedtime.
30. “Talk” to fireflies.Here is a tutorial: www.amnh.org/explore/ology/zoology/talking-to-fireflies
Overall, any time you engage a child in an activity that taps into their sense of wonder and play, you are also providing an opportunity for them to learn. In this case, they are learning to fear the dark less with every fun and safe exposure they have. So, if any of the above activities seem to match the interest and need of your child, go ahead and give them a try.
Copyright B. Thomas 2019
When your child is having an especially rough day, or needs a little extra nurturing, try a kid-friendly foot soak. It’s a gentle, but playful, way to encourage your child to slow down for a moment, reboot their sensory regulation, and take a few deep breaths. For some kids these are wonderful in place of a shower or bath at bedtime; for some they are helpful as part of a regular ritual for self regulation and sensory input/calming; and for some kids they work beautifully as a special treat or even just for fun.
Foot bath essentials:
A whole other level of foot bathing:
Make a themed foot bath, such as a Dinosaur or Mermaid foot bath. You can add additional stones or shells to the bath. Small bath-friendly toys or figurines can be added as well.
With any luck, you’ll be able to enjoy a foot soak alongside your child, too. When your child sees you taking a moment to nurture yourself and relax, you’ll be role modeling self care and relaxation for your child. So, join in the ritual when you can.
Indigo North Counseling, LLC
An Overview of My Latest Book-- More Creative Coping Skills for Children: Activities, Games, Stories, and Handouts to Help Children Self Regulate
I have authored 4 books with Jessica Kingsley Publishers, and like many authors, I claim my most recent book as my favorite. This is what it looks like:
More Creative Coping Skills for Children: Activities, Games, Stories, and Handouts to Help Children Self-regulate is written for parents as well as professionals who work with children (i.e. counselors, social workers, teachers, day care providers, youth group leaders, recreational therapists, camp staff, etc.).
Each chapter in the book focuses on common challenges that children might struggle with. Chapters include:
Building Interpersonal and Social Skills
Creating Healthy Boundaries
Reducing Oppositional Behavior
Increasing Focus and Reducing Impulsivity
Taming Anxiety, Stuck Thoughts, and Stuck Behaviors
Social Anxiety and Selective Mutism
Sadness and Depression
Increasing Self Confidence and Self Esteem
Loss and Grief
Traumatic Events and Illnesses
Each chapter provides general support around approaching these challenges using games, helpful handouts, rating scales, activities, stories, and more to encourage skill building in each area. Here are some examples:
Apologizing and owning our behaviors is an important social skill. Apology notes are included in the book to encourage and assist children to say they are sorry if/when needed.
Sample incentive charts are provided for parents to use. Incentive charts can be helpful in reducing oppositional and resistant behaviors.
There are a few mandalas for coloring, because coloring is calming for the brain and body. These are in the chapter Taming Anxiety and Stuck Thoughts and Stuck Behaviors.
I included scripts for guided imagery as well as progressive muscle relaxation-- these are key skills in calming and self regulation.
Scales can be helpful for youth to define and communicate how they are experiencing moods, feelings, and behaviors. The scales can also be used to keep track of patterns of progress and regression of symptoms (i.e. in winter months, a child reports more 4s and 5s...whereas in summer the child reports more 1s to 3s-- this is good information!). An anxiety scale is also included in the book.
I used to have a poster on my counseling door like this when I worked in a school. Kids can tear off the section that they want to focus on for the day. This is one of many ways kids can practice building self confidence and self esteem.
From the chapter on Grief and Loss-- losing a pet is challenging for many children, understandably so. I've worked with many children who have wanted to lovingly say goodbye to their pets after they died, but didn't know how. These scripts are provided to aid in the conversation parents and providers can have with children as well as provide some suggestions around what can be said to honor the pet at a funeral or remembrance ceremony.
The chapter on Family Challenges addresses tight budgets and poverty, building relationships, managing separations within the family (i.e. if a parent is in the military or incarcerated), changes in the family (i.e. divorce), and mental illness and substance abuse.
At the end of each chapter there's an accompanying story. Stories can help kids understand a situation through a different lens, as well as provide suggestions or solutions for challenges the kids might be facing.
Kid-friendly games, puppets, coloring sheets, and craft activities are also included throughout the book.
If you'd like to see even more, go to this link at Amazon and use the "look inside" feature.
Thanks so much for taking the time to learn more about my latest book!
Bonnie Thomas, LCSW
Indigo North Counseling, LLC
As you might already know, I'm an advocate for nature-based activities. Nature gives our bodies many things we are lacking in our usual day-to-day routines-- vitamin D, fresh air, immune-building microbes from the soil, exercise, relaxation, a sensory rich environment, places to explore, and so much more. I am so passionate about the benefits of nature that I even wrote a book about nature based activities for youth. You can see the book here.
Autumn is a wonderful time of year to get outdoors and enjoy the unique opportunities that the season offers. It's also the perfect time to gather natural materials for crafts and projects you might need or want year round. Sticks, acorns, acorn caps, seed pods, flowers for pressing and drying, pine cones, and more are abundant this time of year.
Here are some of my favorite autumn activities:
1. Head out to the back deck, the front lawn, or even the front steps for a breakfast picnic. If you're feeling more adventurous and/or your family will cooperate, then venture out to the woods or a favorite trail for your breakfast picnic. Bring autumn-themed breakfast treats such as apple cider donuts, cider, trail mix, cranberry scones, or hot chocolate. Enjoy the chill in the air and enjoy a yummy breakfast with loved ones.
2. Go on a foliage drive-- make sure to stop along the way to explore. You can always do an online search before you go to see if there are any of these creative activities to do along the way such as letter boxing, geocaching, local labyrinths to walk, or apple orchards and/or pumpkin farms to visit.
3. Create some "land art"-- this time of year is great for land art because there are so many natural materials around to create with. In addition, at least here in the Northeast, the mosquitos and black flies have significantly reduced -- still use protection against ticks, though!
4. Gather acorns for your local wildlife rehabilitation center or collect them for future craft projects.
5. Rake those leaves and jump in them.
6. Go on a mushroom hunt. The woods are full of gorgeous and unique fungi that are usually hidden under leaves or peaking out from rotting logs. A mushroom hunt is a "look don't touch" activity for kids, but they might still find appeal in the "scavenger hunt" feel of this activity. You can challenge kids to find a certain number of different colored mushrooms; find mushrooms in each color of the rainbow, or as close as possible; or to photograph them if they have iPhones or are old enough to use yours or a camera. Bring a mushroom guide, if desired, for identifying the mushrooms you find.
7. Pick apples at an organic orchard and then make your favorite apple recipe with them. Orchards are great places for kids to explore different varieties of apples, especially if heirloom apples are present. Picking apples is a joy in an of itself, but many orchards also offer additional activities at their farms. Research your local orchards to see what is available to you.
8. Track down some snapdragon seed pods. Did you grow snapdragons in your garden this year? If you did, you will find these odd looking seed pods left behind that look like skulls or witches heads. If you did not grow snapdragons this year, ask around and see if you have any friends that did. If they have not pulled out their gardens yet, these Halloween-ish pods will still be there just waiting for someone to collect them.
9. Pick pumpkins-- there are so many fun projects to do with pumpkins, from roasting the seeds and making pies, to carving them into jack-o-lanterns, coaches, fairy houses, and more. Remember, if you ever feel at a loss of ideas, the internet is your friend.
10. Collect acorn caps for making these sweet little nature dolls. Buy the wooden figurines from your craft store, color them with colored pencils, glue a cap on, and then seal the doll with varnish.
11. Go mining! Research places to explore in your local area where you and the kids can go mining. I love this activity in the fall because its much cooler (in temperature), the foliage is gorgeous to view along the way, and mosquitos and black flies are at a minimum. My favorite spot for mining in Maine is Mount Apatite in Auburn because there is no cost and no tour--you can go on your own time and collect some beautiful gems. Bring a bag or a bucket, a hammer, and goggles for each person. Smashing rocks is both exciting and therapeutic for kids (and adults, too)-- the thrill of finding a gemstone is priceless, and you get out tons of energy doing so. Of course, experienced miners will not recommend "smashing" rocks as some gemstones are more fragile than others. So, if you are interested in mining you will want to research where you can do so in your area, what the rules are of the place you are visiting, as well as any tips for appropriately "smashing"/mining your finds.
12. Leave positive words and "secret messages" along any trails or places outdoors you explore. This is another variation of land art, and it's an easy one for kids to do. Gather some natural materials and put them together to spell a word or message of encouragement for others to find.
13. Host a picnic for your backyard animals. Set up a tray, table, or blanket in your yard; add a tea set, cups, and/or bowls; then fill them with seeds, nuts, or other foods appropriate for an animal's diet. This is pre-hibernation time for many of our backyard friends so this is a wonderful time to help them stock up on extra food. Taking and sharing photos of them enjoying their treats is my favorite part of this activity.
14. If you happen to live near an apple tree, or visit a place that has one, there are usually tons of apples on the ground. Gather a bunch of them, wash them, and then have the kids bite silly faces into the apples. Prop them up in the tree branches for a tree filled with silly faces.
15. Use acorn caps as hats for finger puppets.
16. Grab some chalk and head out to the nearest blacktop to create patterns, pictures, and other creative creations. Again, the weather is perfect this time of year for any sort of outdoor play (expect maybe swimming...).
Bonnie Thomas, LCSW
Indigo North Counseling, LLC
Change comes in many forms. The small changes in life are typically the more manageable ones, such as learning to ride a bike or making a new friend. But there are changes-- life altering changes-- that require a whole different set of resources (internal and external) to manage. Life altering changes include the death of a loved one, leaving a long term relationship, transitioning to a new identity, “coming out”, bringing a new child or sibling into the family, a traumatic event, leaving home for the first time, etc.
As many of you know already, change is messy and exhausting-- sometimes even the “happy” changes can be messy and exhausting too. Change also requires patience even when each and every cell in your body is screaming that it wants things to feel comfortable and okay and familiar RIGHT NOW.
In an ideal world, at least in my ideal world, each of us would be compassionate and open minded to other people’s experiences, especially during these life changing ones. In addition, we would also be more gentle with ourselves.
That being said, here are reminders and tips for getting through those life altering changes, as well how to help others going through the same.
Self Care during difficult changes:
How to be supportive to loved ones facing life-altering changes:
There are so many more ways to be gentle and real with yourself --and others --during a life altering change but I hope these lists serve as a good starting place.
Bonnie Thomas, LCSW
Indigo North Counseling
A new school year is about to begin. For those of you who send your kids to private or public schools, this means your child has a multitude of changes to adjust to in the coming weeks. Some children and teens do well with changes and even look forward to them. For some, however, each and every change can trigger a sense of unease and even anxiety. Let’s look at some strategies to reduce the stressors that can come with adjusting to change (even the happy changes).
New sleep/wake schedule:
If your child is the type that stays up later in the evening and/or sleeps later in the morning during summer, then you may want to plan ahead (about 2-3 weeks before school starts) by sending them to bed a little bit earlier each night and also waking them slightly earlier each morning.
Why? By preparing your child to go to bed and wake earlier for school, before the school year starts, you are reducing the fatigue that happens when sleep routines are adjusted and altered too quickly. Fatigue adds to stress levels, and a tired brain and body is less able to take in all the instruction and complexities of paying attention. On the contrary, when your child has a good sleep routine and is better rested, she’s better able to keep up with the demands of the school day.
Transportation to and from school:
If you drive your child to school every day, and the route has not changed, then your child is likely well prepared for the drive to school. However, if you have not driven that route in a while, it might help to do so before the first day of school just to be prepared for any detours or changes ahead of time. If you have an anxiety-prone child the "practice drive" does 2 things: 1) re-familiarizes the child with the drive to and from school--this creates a sense of normalcy and routine 2) on the off chance that something drastic changed along that route, you will have time to discuss it and/or address any challenges ahead of time.
If your child has a new bus route:
Other helpful suggestions:
New school, classroom, and/or teacher:
In general, a regular routine during the school year can help reduce anxiety for kids overall. A regular routine means a routine that is predictable for your child, i.e. the child knows dinner is at 6pm each night and bedtime is at 8pm. If you’re the type of person who hates routine (I’m one of them) this can feel challenging and even counter-intuitive. However, for kids who are susceptible to anxiety, the routine is a predictable backbone of their day. The routine becomes structure that helps them manage the rest of the day’s craziness. Everything else may feel chaotic to them but they know, if nothing else, dinner is at 6pm and bedtime is at 8pm.
Last, your child is heading back to school with kids they haven't seen in a while, or haven't met before. Remind your child that sometimes kids return to school with a different appearance and/or new life experiences under their belt-- this can be anything from noticeable changes ( i.e. a radically different hairstyle) to ones the child cannot necessarily "see" (i.e. the child has experienced a tragic loss over the summer). Encourage your child to treat him or herself with kindness and to extend that kindness to others as well for a smoother start the school year.
Bonnie Thomas, LCSW
Indigo North Counseling