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Mindfulness Matters

*Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine

Practising mindfulness meditation is something I have done to cope with everyday stress for the past four years. Relationship troubles, work pressures and oppressive inner dialogue can all contribute to adult stress. However, stress isn’t reserved for adults.

The science of child development shows that excessive stress could lead to lifelong issues with learning, behavior and overall health. Though most children deal well with stress, others find coping more difficult. Finding healthy ways to manage stress can help children maneuver through challenging times.

Roy Hintsa, a Toronto area mindfulness-based stress reduction facilitator, says mindfulness allows children to manage stress by creating a pause between the stimulus and the reaction. This gives them the opportunity to choose to respond thoughtfully rather than react impulsively. “Mindfulness promotes well-being,” he says. “Children become happier and kinder. They get in touch with their emotions and learn to regulate them.”

The simplest tool we have for mindfulness is observing our breath. Roy says not to change your breathing pattern. First, focus on feeling the cool air when you inhale and the warm air when you exhale. Then count your breaths in pairs: Inhale, exhale, one. Inhale, exhale, two, and so on for five counts. If your mind wanders, note what you were thinking about and return to counting your breaths.

Mindfulness in schools
Much of Roy’s experience with teaching mindfulness to children is in a school setting. Children are confronted with stress from many areas. Most often that stress comes from worrying about academic performance. “Even from an early age,” says Roy. “This can cause many youngsters to feel stressed out.”

Not only can students experience anxiety related to academic pressures, they can also come to school with a host of stressors stemming from problems in the home, social conflict and physical or mental vulnerabilities. “There is also the pressure of being accepted,” says Roy. “Mindfulness helps children to be kinder to themselves and this extends to others.”

Mindfulness can also help improve children’s attention, focus and memory, Roy says. These are all important factors for learning.

Roy recommends children take three mindful breaths to help relieve anxiety before doing homework, tests and participating in competitions. The goal is to teach children to focus in simple ways. “It’s really about focusing,” he says.

One exercise Roy does with students begins with sitting in a chair. Kids are asked to concentrate on their breathing while their classmates walk around and try to distract them. “The child’s job is to really try to stay concentrated in spite of all this noise that’s going on around them.”

Get the whole family involved
Roy says parents must be mindful themselves in order to create a mindful family.

“Children will come to mindfulness at their own time and pace,” he says. “If parents are mindful, and I don’t mean modeling mindfulness, but are embodying mindfulness, they may come to it earlier.”

The key is to be fully present when interacting with your family, says Roy. Here are some ways he says you can do that:

  • Just before leaving for school in the morning, before opening the front door, stand together and take three mindful breaths.
  • You can also take three mindful breaths before eating and try to begin the meal mindfully.
  • Go for a walk with your child and pay attention to what you both notice around you, what you see, hear, smell and touch.
  • Before bed, share something that you are grateful for that day — something that made you happy. Have your child do the same. Then continue with some mindful breathing!

Mindfulness exercises for younger siblings

Children can be introduced to the principles of mindfulness from a young age, says Roy. Children from all ages can benefit from different styles of training. Younger children tend to respond more to physical activities rather than practising meditation. Here are some exercises Roy recommends for preschool children:

Mindful Listening: Tell your child you are going to ring a bell or a tone bar. Ask them to listen carefully to the sound of the bell and raise their hands when they can no longer hear it.

Breath Awareness: Have your child lie down on a mat on the floor, or on their bed, and place their favourite stuffed animal on their belly. Have them rock the stuffed animal to sleep with the movement of their belly as they breathe in and out. This is how they can begin to pay attention to their breathing.

Mindful Eating: This is a time when playing with your food is OK. Give your child a piece of fruit and ask them to pretend they are from another planet and have never seen this piece of fruit before. Ask them to describe their experience using all five senses. What does it look like? Smell like? Feel like? Taste like? Does it make a sound when you bite it?

It Takes a Village: Community raises mental health awareness

*Originally published in Milton Villager magazine.

One in five Canadians is diagnosed with mental illness, which makes it more common than cancer and diabetes. Many more cases of mental illness go undiagnosed because of the fear of judgment and rejection.

Sometimes sufferers of mental illness resort to suicide. This was the heartbreaking circumstance surrounding the recent suicide of 16-year-old Amber Regis, a local teen who struggled with depression.

Terri Naccarato, a friend of the family, organized an afternoon dessert soirée fund-raiser at the Teatro Conference and Event Centre on Feb. 3 to help Amber’s grieving family rebuild their lives after their tragic loss.

Saddened by local suicides over the years and having been impacted by family and friend’s depression, Terri felt compelled to do something to address the major issues leading to suicide.

“I had to do something,” she said. “This cannot be the only answer for a teen when they are struggling. We need to bring awareness to this horrible illness and bring the community together.”

The event, titled In Celebration of Amber’s Life: Bringing Awareness to Teen Depression/Suicide, featured a number of speakers who shared information about mental health and resources for Halton residents coping with mental illness.

Terri rallied local talent and business owners to donate time, talent, services and prizes for a silent auction, raffle and door prizes. Among those who donated their talents were magician/illusionist Tyler Fergus and teen singers Dylan D’Alessandro, Gavin McLeod and Lateisha Justino.

Aestheticians from Allegra Organic Spa & Boutique were on-site, offering manicures to attendees between speakers and performances. The goal of the event was to educate the community about depression and mental illness and to help remove the stigma that so often prevents people from seeking help.

“People are afraid to talk about [mental illness] because they feel that they are going to be stigmatized,” Tammy Whelen, a mental health educator with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), shared at the event. “They don’t want people at their job to know that they might deal with depression or schizophrenia because maybe they’ll get fired. Maybe their coworkers will bully them. Maybe their wife will leave them. These are all things that cross people’s mind. And it shouldn’t be that way.”

She says we have to look in the mirror and realize the problem starts with us. We’re stigmatizing people when we label them.

“Many people are frightened by what they don’t understand. The more we understand mental illness, the less likely we are to stigmatize sufferers,” Tammy said. “Who’s to say that someone who’s diagnosed with a mental illness, like depression, or schizophrenia, or bipolar, or anxiety disorder, cannot live a mentally healthy life?” she said. They can, she adds, by access community resources.

One of the things mental health professionals say we must understand is that mental illness is complicated. There is no one cause.

“Mental illness is the result of a complex interplay of genetics, biology, personality and environmental factors,” Wendy Caron, a social worker with Woodview Mental Health & Autism Services, explained to listeners. “And 49 per cent of people with mental illness do not seek treatment.” Wendy’s sister suffered from anxiety and depression and ultimately took her own life. She believes that the more we talk about it, the more likely people are to reach out for help and find an alternative to suicide.

There was a time when breast cancer was just a whisper on people’s lips. Now we wear pink ribbons and buy pink appliances and run for the cure every October, Wendy says. The same attention must be given to mental illness.

“We need not whisper when we say, ‘I have mental illness. I have depression,’” she said.

Becky, a teen facilitator with Lighthouse, a peer support program for grieving children, youth and their families, shared the story of her own sister’s battle with depression and why it’s so hard to understand mental illness. “It’s not like cancer or tuberculosis or any other kind of physical disease because it’s something you can’t see,” she shared. “She really pushed through and she really tried. And for three years she really gave it her all, but in the end, she took her life when she was 17 years old.”

The reality is that people do commit suicide. And as much as people are uncomfortable talking about mental illness, they are also uncomfortable talking about suicide.

“I think that the people who organized this today are just so great for doing this kind of thing in memory of Amber,” Becky said. “I really wish something like this happened in Oakville, where I’m from, because I know what I needed when [my sister] died was just a sense of community, caring, well-being. Just knowing that there were lots of people who were going to listen to me and understand and care.”

But how do we begin to support those who experience such painful losses, especially children who have lost siblings, parents and other loved ones? The answer is by helping them seek programs that will connect them with peers who are going through the same thing.

Melissa Hedman-Baker, clinical director of Lighthouse, says that it’s very common for grieving children to feel like nobody understands them, especially with their peers at school. “At the Lighthouse, they are amongst others who understand what it’s like,” she shared. “Even if the circumstances surrounding the death are different.”

As the speeches came to a close, handmade bookmarks were passed out by some teens from one of the programs run by Woodview.

“Each of these bookmarks have an individual message of hope from a kid that knows what it’s like to be depressed to another kid somewhere who may be struggling,” Wendy shared.

Wendy directed her final words to the supporters of the Regis family:

“How does someone move on from this kind of loss?” she began. “With the support of friends and family and community. Your cards, your visits, your casseroles, your ongoing support is what’s going to help this family come out of their darkness.”

The event was well received by attendees who engaged with speakers, requesting more information on how to best support teens in their community. “The only thing missing was more people,” said Hunter Foster, a local teen who attended the event.

“I learned a lot, and I wish there were more teens and youth there,” he said.

Not only was the event intended to educate the community, but to be a show of support for the Regis family. While many people were not able to attend, they showed support in other ways, and these gestures let the family know they are not alone.

“The community support is overwhelming,” Tara Regis, Amber’s mother, said. “We are so grateful for the love, prayers, words, gifts and events that our family, friends and community have blessed us with. Honestly, there are no words strong enough to share our appreciation. Thank you just does not do it justice.” Despite the Regis family’s tragic loss, they are able to reflect positively on Amber’s life and are proud of the person she was.

“Even in death we feel that Amber has brought amazing people into our lives that we may never have had the chance to meet otherwise,” Tara said.

She hopes that the event in Amber’s name will bring greater awareness to the issue of teen depression and promote open dialogue and trust between parents and their kids.

“We are hoping to be able to work with the community in the future to share Amber’s life and establish further supports for teens in the community who may be struggling with similar issues,” she said.

Loved ones described Amber as compassionate, intelligent and athletic. She went above and beyond to help her friends through tough times and brought a smile to the face of everyone she touched.

“She was a supportive friend, a fun-loving and protective big sister and an amazingly strong daughter who made us proud,” Tara said.

Too Young to be Infertile? What You Need to Know

*Link to original post here

Pressing snooze on your biological clock could not only cost you financially, but emotionally as well.

More than half of university-aged young adults believe that fertility begins to decline at a later age than it really does, according to a recent U.K study.

The Globe and Mail reported results from the journal, Human Reproduction, citing  that 67 per cent of women and 81 per cent of men think that female fertility greatly declines after age 40; when in reality there is a marked decrease from age 35.

A 2010 Canadian study showed that women on the other side of the pond believed the same thing.

Many from the U.K study believed that the drop zone is later still, with 31 per cent of women and 52 per cent of men thinking that the chances of natural conception don’t decrease until after age 44.

The study also reveals that success rates for assisted-reproductive technologies are being vastly overestimated – with reproductive specialists being expected to perform miracles.

While researchers can’t put their finger on the reason for this misinformation, experts speculate that it’s because doctors aren’t being proactive by discussing their patient’s fertility until it becomes a concern.

In addition, it is believed that celebrity stories, such as that of Kelly Preston, who gave birth to her son when she was 48, are skewing the perception that healthy fertility is the norm at any age.

I was only in my 20s when I was diagnosed with secondary infertility. After many rounds of Clomid (medication used to induce ovulation) and a miscarriage, two years later I was finally pregnant. And although I am happy to have a healthy second child, I don’t forget everything my family went through in the process. Had I been prepared for this possibility, I might have handled it a lot better.

Similarly, those without accurate information about their fertility face the possibility of a long, expensive and emotional journey on the road to having children – that is if they even want them.

It’s not fair to assume every woman wishes to bear offspring. And some still may wish to invest in their independence and focus on their career before focusing on having children. Different strokes for different folks, and all that. Let’s address a woman’s right to choose. After all, part of what the feminist movement was about was taking control of our fertility. Thank you birth control pill!

But to truly take control we must have full knowledge of our body’s capabilities and limitations. Information about the realities of female fertility needs to be readily, and widely, available. It should be discussed in sex-education classes and brought up by family physicians in young adulthood. The question needs to be raised early. “Might you ever want to have children?” If the answer is yes, then “Here are the things you need to know.”

However, should the fear that an aging woman’s ovaries might shrivel up, leaving her barren, pressure her to start considering having children she may never want?

It’s the archaic notion that a woman isn’t living up to her God-given purpose if she isn’t procreating that causes so much stress. Should she have to compromise her current desires in order to live up to society’s expectations further down the road?

These are the things a woman must deal with simply because she was born with a uterus. Pressure is coming in from all sides – “Have a baby in your twenties or risk not having them at all,” and “You better hold off on having a baby until you establish a career because old women in the workplace aren’t desirable.” Then you have the pressure to remain childless because you might use too many sick days thanks to your little snot-nosed, germ factories. You risk demotion, and possibly termination, leaving you with the financial hardship you were trying to avoid to begin with. It’s so often about the money, but that isn’t the only cost.

Putting the price of fertility treatments aside, (for example, just one round of IVF can cost as much as $15,000) the true price a woman pays comes in the form of emotional turmoil. While family doctors have some psychological training, it doesn’t replace a good old fashioned therapist. Yes, women should be offered a fertility consultation by their doctors to discuss their biology once they reach the prime age of fertility.  But the most important service they should be offered is a referral to a therapist who specializes in working with women who are considering when, and if, to have children.

Study: Social Skills, Not Good Grades, Linked with Lifelong Happiness

*Link to original post  here (Yahoo Shine)

Don’t fret if your kids didn’t make the honour roll – their future well-being doesn’t depend on it.

According to the Journal of Happiness Studiesacademic achievement has less impact on adult well-being than we might think. The study followed just more than 800 children over a 32-year period, exploring the role of academic achievement and social development on future adult well-being. For the purpose of this study, well-being is defined as a combination of a sense of coherence, positive coping strategies, social engagement and self-perceived strengths.

The results showed a strong link between social connectedness and overall adult happiness. The findings suggest that parents should focus their attention on helping their children develop social skills. Parent can do this by encouraging their children to participate in social activities such as youth groups and sporting clubs.

But isn’t it important that our children do well in school? Apparently, academic achievement has little effect on adult well-being, according to the authors of the study, associate professor Craig Olsson from Deakin University and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Australia, and his colleagues.

I admittedly was never overly stressed about my kids getting straight A’s. Of course I expected them to do their best, but I also encouraged them to forge strong bonds with classmates. As a shy kid myself, I had a hard time making friends. I did have a few, but I never really “fit in” so I didn’t want my children to go through that same painful experience.

When we held our little bundles of joy in our arms for the first time we made a multitude of wishes on their behalf:  We wished for their health and future success, but most of all we wished for their happiness. We promised to do our part to help them succeed in life. We would attend all their ball games and sit through all their school performances; we’d read to them, limit their screen time and help them with their homework.

I started out with good intentions when my girls were wee ones. They were signed up for every activity imaginable (with great aspirations of becoming Olympic gymnasts and figure skaters). They went to singing lessons and piano lessons; the list goes on. But life got in the way, as it sometimes does, and sacrifices needed to be made to preserve my sanity family harmony. And most of all, they missed their friends.

So we spent less time driving to practices, and a little more time just hanging out together. They did remain in organized activities, but not as many, and not so much that it took time away from their friends. They’d have them over to “study” but most times they’d just be chatting, as they often did during class –as evidenced by their average marks– and that was OK with me. As long as they were happy (and not failing), I was happy for them.

For now, my 11-year-old’s organized activities are limited to soccer and karate, and she has no ambitions to be a star goalie, or ninja, quite yet. I hazard a guess that it’s okay at this age to not have her life mapped out. And my 17-year-old, who has double aspirations of being a starving special effects artist and musician, spends equal time talking to friends and honing her craft (AKA jamming with friends and creating videos to share on YouTube).

While my kids aren’t the highest performing students in their class, (not for their lack of ability) they do have a healthy set of social skills. And this may be more important to their future happiness than being scholars.

Easy Meal Prep for the Time-Starved Mom

*Link to original post here

I come from a long line of women who take great pride in spending hours each day making meals for their families. They ask for nothing in return but satisfied smiles. No dish was simple. Many required hours of marinating and slow cooking. Dinner was always three or four courses. And there was not a morsel leftover at the end of the meal.

As a single, working mom, that is no longer realistic for me. When I get home at the end of the work day the last thing I want to do is spend an hour, or longer, in the kitchen playing Julia Child. Yet it’s important that my children’s nutrition not suffer because of my lack of energy and organization. I had to find a simple solution that made sense for us. So for the last few years I have been attending a bi-weekly meal prep session at SupperWorks where I spend an hour making 12 entrees.  It’s such an easy process. I go on their website, make my selections from the monthly menu and book my session. When I arrive I am greeted by friendly staff who take my purse and hand me a glass of wine.

The first thing I do is wash up and put on a crisp, white apron. Then I move from station to station, following the printed directions they have laid out for me.  All the vegetables are pre-chopped, and all the meat is portioned out. All I need to do is to measure out a few seasonings, toss everything in a freezer bag, stick on a label with cooking instructions and place it in the holding fridge. The best part is that I don’t have to clean anything up.

While you are given two hours to put together your meals, sometimes I am finished in less than an hour. All that is left to do is put everything in my cooler and transfer the contents to my freezer at home. For the really time-starved, they have a pickup option which means you don’t lift a finger!

I love how everything from the shopping, prep work to clean up is all done for me. In addition to convenience they offer gluten-free and vegetarian dishes for those with food restrictions.  And on Saturdays they allow you to bring your little ones in to give a helping hand! Dinnertime is now stress-free and nutritious. We no longer have chicken Tuesdays in our home. We get to enjoy recipes from all over the world. Sometimes it’s Greek stew, other times it’s Spanish fish bake. Tonight it’s crock pot chicken curry. What are you having for dinner tonight?

Why Working Late in Your Pregnancy May be as Harmful as Smoking

*Link to original post here

We’re often told that healthy women with low risk pregnancies are able to work up until delivery.

But should they, really?

A new study from the University of Essex shows that working past the eight month mark may be as harmful to our babies as smoking since they grow more slowly in the womb.

The research tells us that women who continued working until the end of the third trimester were more likely to have lower birth weight babies. We know from previous studies that babies with lower birth weights are more prone to developmental delays and poor health. In addition, they are less likely to be scholastically successful, which could mean lower wages and higher mortality.

The study does point out that pregnant women over the age of 24 were at more risk. And those with less education are at most risk since they are more likely to have physically demanding jobs.

Samples were taken from three major surveys, over the last few decades, dating as far back as the 70s and as recently as 2005, among populations both in the UK and US.

One of the outcomes of the study was the recommendation that women who feel the need, should take a break from work before birth, rather than just after.

These new recommendations are a far cry from what pregnant women have been told in recent years. Women have been encouraged to stay active throughout their pregnancy to prevent gaining excess weight, which can contribute to gestational diabetes. Even light jogging is considered a safe way to keep fit and possibly make labour easier.

Sure, maybe with six support bras cradling your swollen, tender breasts. There’s nothing like carrying around the extra weight of baby, placenta, amniotic fluid and the increased blood mass to motivate you through your last mile. *eye roll*

I remember how cumbersome I felt at six months pregnant with my second child. Every joint ached, and it took all I had in me just to waddle to the kitchen to address baby’s chicken craving. I couldn’t imagine having to sit at an office desk for eight hours or playing Frogger through downtown traffic to make it to an industry event on time, let alone go jogging.

This new information finally offers some rest for the weary. It’s bad enough that women are expected to do it all, but to do it all while nine months pregnant? And we place these expectations on ourselves. We compete with each other the most.

Ladies, it’s OK to put your feet up and modify your daily routine. Yes, women have bore children for millennia, but it doesn’t make the feat any less miraculous, and dare I say, brave.

So take your last month, or three, off work and start nesting. And don’t allow the big belly mamas-to-be doing the downward dog in the park to make you feel inadequate. Better them than you.

 

How to Potty Train in Three Days

Link to original article here (iVillage) or here (Yahoo! Shine)

It’s Potty Time!

No mom has ever avoided the dreaded potty training experience. Messes, being sequestered in the home, naked bums walking around the house – these are some of the things moms go through during the potty training process.

No wonder so many moms want to get it out of the way and be done with it. Enter the quick-training guide. While Dr. Sears advises against rushing a child who is not ready, some say it can indeed be accomplished in three scant days.

If this is something you wish to explore, read ahead for information to consider.

Things to Consider Before you Begin

Development: When will your child be ready?

The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends a child-oriented approach to toilet training. Most children develop bowel and bladder control somewhere between 24 and 48 months, but the muscles surrounding the opening of the bladder and bowel begin to mature around 18 months. This is generally the optimal time to begin introducing the potty.

But physical development isn’t the only factor. A child must also be psychologically ready. Click ahead for a list  to help you determine if your child is psychologically ready to begin training.

Is Your Child Ready?

– Able to walk to the potty chair (or adapted toilet seat)

– Stable while sitting on the potty (or adapted toilet seat)

– Able to remain dry for several hours

– Receptive language skills allow the child to follow simple (one- and two-step) commands

– Expressive language skills permit the child to communicate the need to use the potty (or adapted toilet seat) with words or reproducible gestures

– Desire to please, based on positive relationship with caregivers

– Desire for independence, and control of bladder and bowel function

Time: Are YOU ready?

Once development has been addressed it’s time to decide whether you or your caregiver has the time to devote to training.

The process can take anywhere from three to six months, but don’t let this information discourage you. Understanding your child’s physical capabilities can help you avoid a battle with a child who is just not ready.

Ready, Set…

Now that readiness has been established, we turn to the quick-training gurus to help you shorten the course.

Mommy blogger, Crystal, at Growing a Jeweled Rose, shares her success story “…in hopes of encouraging and empowering you to make potty training a smooth and positive transition.”

Crystal used Julie Fellom’s Diaper Free Toddlers program as described on babycenter.com.

Preparing For Your “Naked Weekend”

– Talk to your child about the potty in the days leading up to the “naked weekend” to help prepare them for the process. Reading potty training books geared toward little ones will help your tyke understand what they are about to embark upon.

– Bring your child to help pick out his or her potty to build excitement. Also let them select their big kid undies. Colourful ones with their favourite cartoon character will make them excited to shed the diaper.

– Set up a reward system. Crystal says it is particularly helpful in this program. Pick out the prizes on the same day as the potty and undies.

– Clear your calendar. You need to set aside three days (the weekend tends to be the most convenient) when you don’t leave the house.

– The most important piece of advice is that your child should be completely naked from the waist down for the entire three days.

…Go!

Now it’s time to begin the actual training. E-how recommends using positive reinforcement and praise for a job well done. Saying things like “you are such a big girl/boy,” when your child stays dry will encourage him, who wants nothing more than to please you.

Get Him Involved

Involve your child in tossing out unused diapers (much like we throw out junk food when we decide to eat healthfully). Once there are no more diapers, explain to your child that it’s time to begin using the potty.

Show her where to go pee and poo and tell her to let you know when she feels the urge to tinkle. They key message to get across is that she needs to try her best to stay dry.

Positive Reinforcement

Stay close by and monitor his expressions and remind him of the potty’s existence and purpose. If there is an accident, don’t scold or say negative things like “you are a bad boy,” instead indicate that his underwear is wet and take him to the potty to finish emptying himself.

When he finally uses the potty, make a big deal out of it. Do a little dance or sing a little song and be otherwise very excited. Now is the time to reward him with one of the prizes you picked out together. It’s not a bribe, just a treat.

Repeat this process for three days and by the end your child will have gotten the hang of using the potty. That’s not to say there won’t be accidents, particularly at night, but he will be well on his way.

Some Final Words of Advice

– Encourage fluid intake during the process and keep drinks nearby

– Stop liquids two to three hours before bedtime

– Be consistent; don’t go back to diapers

– Don’t force your child to use the potty

– Don’t let her sit on the potty if she isn’t using it

– Remember some children need to train longer