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
When it comes to winter weather I am one of “those” people who gets excited about the lack of sunlight, the stark winter landscape, and the snow. I know, I know— this is a bit weird to some people and I’m often met with icy glares and sinister scoffing from my sun worshipping peers. But in the interest of those who cringe at the thought of an encroaching winter, I thought I’d offer my favorite tips and suggestions for thriving in the winter months.
First, winter is a wonderful time to “hibernate”. Some refer to it as “hygge” (aka the Scandinavian term for sinking into the coziness of the season) — but for any group of people who cyclically live through winter, we also know it as “hunkering down”, “hibernating”, “wintering”, or even “disappearing”. Perhaps it’s because I’m an introvert, but I love this aspect of winter the most. Combine any of the following below to embrace the art of human hibernation.
Get out the warm blankets—lots of them
There are so many blankets to mix and layer these days, from nostalgic wool blankets and family quilts to modern comforters and fleece throws. Keep blankets in all the rooms where you spend time relaxing. Make sure there are plenty for everyone-- including your pets--and snuggle up often.
Wear warm socks and slippers
You can often find warm winter socks at craft fairs (made by your local knitters), at the farmers market, at a local venue, and of course online. The advantage to buying socks locally means you can actually feel how thick, soft, and durable they are. You can also get a better sense for the size. When a cold winter’s day or night brings a chill in your home, put on a pair of warm socks and curl up in those blankets mentioned above.
Indulge in reading
This is a great time of year to lose yourself in used books, new books, and shared books.
Make and eat homemade comfort foods
I’m not talking junk food here— I’m talking about hearty soups, stews, and other foods that feel satisfying and comforting to eat. These are the foods that warm you from the inside out and are perfect for days when it’s snowing, when you’ve been outdoors shoveling or skiing, or after a long day of work and a crappy commute. That’s the kind of food I’m talking about. If you yourself are not a cook, seek out local places to buy from. Sometimes your local bakers, caterers, or restaurants will have pot pies or soups to sell that are frozen. You can tuck these in your freezer until needed.
Make warm drinks
Winter is the perfect time to indulge in warm drinks: Mulled apple cider. Coffees. Herbal teas. Medicinal drinks. Hot cocoa. Chai. Find your favorite brands and recipes for hot drinks and keep them on hand for chilly days.
For a touch of extravagance add whipped cream, cinnamon sticks, anise stars, sprinkles of sugar or spice, or any other garnish to make your warm drinks more special.
For extra extra extravagance splurge on unique items such as tea that comes in shaped tea bags Or, try Butterfly Pea Flower Tea which is a gorgeous blue-hued tea that turns purple when you add lemon to it!
Find a favorite mug for those warm drinks
In a world of too-many-mugs this is a rather simple suggestion. However, if you’re going to spend an entire season in cold weather, a favorite mug for your hot drinks and soups can be a mood lifter. Whether the mug is heavy and has a certain comfort to how it feels in your hands, to a mug with gorgeous or whimsical artwork, or a mug given to you by someone who holds your heart in their heart, or a mug that expresses your sense of humor….in the dark months of winter, a special mug can really make a difference on your mood and provide a sense of routine and comfort.
Daydream. Stare at the walls. Notice the patterns on a quilt or a book cover. Breathe. Watch the snow fall. Feel the warmth of your blankets. Snuggle with a pet. Sip your coffee. Watch the birds outside your window. Listen to the traffic. Breathe some more.
Take a nap
Grab a book and crawl under as many blankets as you can. Read until you find yourself getting relaxed, warm, and sleepy. Whether you fall asleep or not is fine— just giving your body a chance to rest is a wonderful gift to yourself.
Winter is a great enabler for crafty people like myself. It’s not only a great time to peruse Pinterest and craft blogs for new projects to make, but it’s also a time to finish any craft projects you’ve started and/or explore new ones.
Do puzzles, play games
When I was a kid my grandparents loved to do jigsaw puzzles, especially the ones that contained “whimsy pieces” (puzzle pieces cut into specific shapes, such as a bird or an airplane). There are still puzzle companies today that make high quality, artistic puzzles that include whimsy pieces in addition to other special features. My favorite puzzles so far have come from Artifact Puzzles which are gorgeously made.
Get a puzzle book—whether it’s sudoku, crosswords, or word finds it’s nice to have puzzle book around for those moments when your mind wants to be awake and engaged but you still want to curl up and relax.
New board games and card games are released frequently for people of all ages. If games are something you enjoy, check to see if your local library has a lending library of games (yes, some do offer that!). You can coordinate game night with family or friends.
Winter is a wonderful time to sink into a hot bubble bath, but that’s not a feasible option for everybody. If you do not own a tub, a bubbly aromatic foot bath can be a wonderful alternative. Purchase a plastic tub (like one you’d wash dishes in) and fill it with comfortably warm/hot water. You can add essential oil, epsom salts, flower petals (organic, non sprayed ones), or bath gel to the water as well. Keep a couple towels nearby in case of spills and for when you are done and need to dry your feet.
If you are prone to seasonal affective disorder and/or become low during winter months, it might be helpful to try a sunlamp. Talk about this option with your doctor, naturopath, or counselor before trying it, however, just to rule out any risk factors and to make sure you're getting the best possible care for your mental health.
Lighting in general can help you during especially dark months. Add “twinkle lights” around areas where you spend the most time and/or invest in novelty lights or other lighting decor to brighten up your home.
Now that I’ve covered ways to endure the winter months indoors, let’s move on to the outdoor activities. Winter is certainly a great time to go outside and play, regardless of whether you’re a child or adult.
Build snow sculptures
Snow people are fun to build but don’t let yourself get stuck in a rut of only building snow people. Try building something new— such as an upside down snow person…or a snow unicorn…or a snow cat. You can also stack snowballs, create words on trees with sticky snow, make icicle art, and more.
Build a fort or an igloo
Yes— really— even if you don’t have kids. It’s not only great exercise but it’ll get your mind off of politics, the world news, and other stressors.
If you do have kids, make sure to utilize the fort for unique opportunities such as bedtime stories (the kids get bundled up with their pajamas and you all bring blankets, flashlights, and lanterns to read stories in the fort). You can also have a picnic or tea party in the fort.
Picnics are not just for summer-- I actually prefer winter picnics over summer ones because they tend to be more adventurous and memorable. Also, winter picnics at night are even more enchanting when you bring along candles and lanterns to light up your picnic area.
Winter sports and recreation
Winter is the ultimate playground for many recreational activities such as ice hockey, ice skating, downhill skiing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, sledding, and more. If you don't already know whats available nearby, search online or ask community members for favorite spots like skating rinks and ponds, snowshoe trails, and sledding hills. Don't forget to pack a Thermos full of hot soup or cocoa for the trip!
Blow bubbles and watch them freeze
These are the kind of bubbles you create by dipping a wand into soapy liquid and then blowing gently on the wand to make bubbles. If the weather is cold enough where you are, the bubbles will freeze. Frozen bubbles are mesmerizing to watch — see how many you can get to stay perfectly balanced on top of snowfall. To make things even more interesting use the "dark light bubbles" and shine a black light on them--the frozen bubbles will glow!
You can also use black light bubbles to decorate forts or sculptures for night photography.
Feed the animals
I tend to feed our backyard friends year round. However, when you want a little backyard entertainment, put out a special picnic or tea party for the animals; build a snow person with arms holding seed; make hearts and other shapes in the snow using birdseed; or decorate an outdoor tree with garlands of cereal or berries or ornaments made from bread, nut butters, and birdseed.
I hope this blog post gives you a starting place for ways to embrace the heart of winter--when all else fails, start planning your gardens for spring and summer and get those seeds ordered.
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
Art therapy is an intervention and treatment modality I use a lot at my private practice. Not only can it be used in conjunction with other therapy models, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, it can be used with all ages and abilities.
I use art therapy in many forms at Indigo North Counseling, LLC— from drawing and painting to multimedia projects. I use photography, mandalas, collage, writing, triptychs, shrines, totems, life maps, altered books, found objects art, dreamcatchers, storytelling, and more.
Art taps into a whole different language for people to express themselves and share their stories. You don’t have to be adept at using words, or explaining things verbally, or remembering linear details of your life when you use art as a language. The colors, textures, symbols, and details speak for themselves— through metaphor, through process, through creation, and through release.
If you have a general interest in using art therapy to help you through a part of your life, to explore who you are, or to express any feelings, you may find some of the online activities to be helpful (use the keywords “art therapy activity” in your search engine).
However, if you need or desire more directed activity based on your unique needs, art therapy with a counselor or art therapist is recommended. Art therapy can be used to help with depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, acute stress, mood disregulation, self esteem, stress management, self care, adjustment to change, grief/loss, and more.
The next time you look for a boost to your well being, don't forget to consider art as part of your self care regimen.
Bonnie Thomas, LCSW
Indigo North Counseling, LLC
Comfort Zones are those places, physical and metaphorical, that provide respite. They can be places of residence, i.e. your own home or a loved ones home. They can be natural spaces such as the mountains, a forest, or the beach. They can be places of sanctuary, prayer, and meditation. And comfort zones can also be needs or wants that regulate your level of comfort-- i.e. if someone asks you to do something that doesn't feel right, or feel good, you might find yourself saying, "No--that's out of my comfort zone".
Comfort zones provide the space for us to reflect on our experiences. People are not well equipped to process a lot of information (external and internal) when under stress, so finding and utilizing time to retreat to a safe and comfortable space allows us to truly think about, and feel, what is going on around us and within us.
But what happens when our comfort zones fracture? For example, what if the friend we always turn to for support is not available? What if a location where we typically find comfort is currently off limits?
Comfort zones will fracture and evolve from time to time which is why I often suggest making sure you have a selection of comfort zones to begin with. Diversifying is key. Here are various examples to consider:
If you expand on the meaning and breadth of "comfort zones" you will be better prepared if one (or more) of your zones "fracture". For example, if you move to a new place you might suddenly find yourself feeling out of sorts, whether you have moved across town or out of the country. While you adjust to the new feeling of "home" and orient yourself to new surroundings, you can still connect with close friends, keep familar routines, wear a favorite piece of clothing, or immerse yourself in a favorite activity. Before you know it, you will have created new comfort zones and/or your fractured zones will be accessible once again.
Many people who have experienced a traumatic event know that the annual anniversary of that event, and each year thereafter, can be emotionally challenging. There are always exceptions, of course-- some people can experience the death of a loved one, a divorce, or a harrowing event and not notice any change in affect or physical symptoms on the anniversary. For many people, however, the anniversary can create a sense of angst and side effects: a feeling of unease, disrupted sleep, a feeling of dread regarding the anniversary, anxiety and restlessness, depression, grief and sadness, lack of focus and decreased attention, irritability, and more.
However, there are ways to care for your mind, body, and spirit prior to the anniversary, and throughout, to get through it (and even feel stronger to deal with it).
There are more ways to get through a trauma anniversary--if you need or want more ideas you can research the topic of “trauma anniversaries” online, seek professional support, or reach out to loved ones for additional ideas.
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
Like many adults, I am constantly navigating the world of coping strategies to see which ones help me feel and function better. One of my favorite strategies is Finding Hearts. It's not a commonly listed strategy in self help books (in fact, I may have made this one up). However, when I am feeling uncomfortable, overwhelmed, or having a particularly rough moment, I look for hearts.
Looking for hearts does a few things for my state of mind and well being:
1. It's a practice in grounding. Grounding is a technique used to decrease emotional distress that accommodates anxiety attacks, dissociation, PTSD and other intense emotional states. Grounding means bringing yourself to the present moment by checking in with your senses (what do you smell, hear, taste, feel, or see around you at the moment); checking in with your surroundings (look around you, identify where you are or what is in your view); and also checking in with yourself (say your name to yourself, state the date and time of day). Grounding basically means you pull yourself to the present moment. Finding hearts is one way to bring yourself to the present moment: scan your immediate surroundings; see if you can find any hearts hidden in the clouds, in the ceiling tiles, in the food you are eating, on your clothing, in the trees, etc...
2. Its a practice in focus. My ADD can take on a life of it's own and there are times when simply looking around for hearts helps my brain and body slow down enough so I can pay better attention to other details.
3. It's a practice in mindfulness. Mindfulness is observing the details of your surroundings (even your "inner surroundings"-- your feelings and state of mind) and being fully present in the moment.
4. The creative part of me simply loves this activity-- for me it feels like a mini-recess for my brain. It's playful, it's creative, and it's a nice break from the routine of the day that can be done in seconds or minutes.
5. The metaphysical/spiritual/curious part of me can't help but love the fact that we are surrounded by hidden hearts everywhere.
6. Photographing the hearts you find and sharing them (i.e. on social media) is a simple and fun way to connect with others. Once you start sharing them, you may find that your friends and loved ones start sending them to you as well.
Bonnie Thomas, LCSW
Indigo North Counseling
When I need to find my balance or quiet my heart and soul, I create art. Art is my favorite form of therapy and self expression. One of my most treasured art projects is making these Spirit Stones.
While walking various trails or beaches I collect rocks that are flat. Scanning the earth for rocks is calming and centering in and of itself. I keep the rocks in a jar until I have one of those days where my head is running full speed ahead and just needs
Then I paint a bunch of these stones all at once. I use various pens-- from oil based ink, to chalk pens, to permanent markers. Some of my favorite patterns and images include feathers, arrows, a compass rose, spirals, geometric shapes, words of inspiration, eyes, and mandalas. Try making your own and see if it calms and centers you also! The rocks can be placed around your home or office to remind you to relax, to inspire you, or to bring some creative energy to your space.
I keep supplies on hand at Indigo North Counseling, LLC to make these stones with clients of all ages-- sometimes we make them as Spirit Stones, other times we add them to other projects or create them for "worry stones".
Bonnie Thomas, LCSW
Indigo North Counseling