Since the pandemic started, we have been inundated with advice about physical health, mental health, parenting, safety, and more. While it is pretty easy to understand and follow safety advice such as washing your hands, it can be much harder to determine whether your self-care, coping, and parenting strategies are really benefitting you and your family. Sometimes, we try something we read about online and it goes wrong, we try it at a bad time, or we don’t quite do it the right way. Similarly, our therapist might tell us to do something specific at home, and we’re confused on how to implement it.
The best way to determine if some of the new stuff (or even old stuff) that you are trying is actually working is to keep track of it. Imagine this situation – you tell your child’s therapist your child is having a rough time with virtual school. They are getting stressed throughout the day and can’t maintain their attention. The therapist suggests you try a few minutes of deep breathing to increase their focus and relaxation. The next day, your child starts their Zoom call. They start to fidget, and you can see signs of stress in their face as they start to tear up. You immediately ask them to take a break and try some deep breaths, but it doesn’t work! They grow more upset and start crying while saying, “I can’t do it! This is too hard!” In your next session, you tell your therapist that the deep breathing did not work, and you need to try something else.
But why didn’t it work? Was it because the breathing didn’t happen before the call? Was it just an off day? Would it be more helpful if it was a routine that happened during lunch or before bed? Does your child just need more practice? These are all questions that you can’t answer after trying a coping skill or behavior technique just one time. One way to get the most out of therapy sessions is to practice what your child is learning at home. In order for strategies to be most effective, your child has to try them multiple times in different situations. Maybe deep breathing doesn’t work when your child is stressed about math, but it is really helpful when they are having trouble falling asleep.
Here are some basic tips for testing out coping skills and behavior management techniques at home:
Understand exactly what you will be doing before you do it. Make sure to ask your therapist questions and write down what they recommend or fully read the description and write down the main point of an article or blog post you are reading. This allows you to feel more confident in what you are trying and know that you are doing it similarly the next time.
Notice what happens before and after you try the new method. Even if you experience a small change, it is helpful to notice if your child seems less upset after trying something new. With behavior management strategies, it may get worse before it gets better, but it will be nice to see the positive change after trying a few times.
Try it more than twice. Just like when you have your child try a new food, you can’t rely on them trying it one time to know if they really hate it. Give strategies more than one or two opportunities to work.
Test it out when things are calm. Practicing a skill when your child is already upset for the first time can be disconcerting for them and stressful for you. If your child already has the calming yoga poses down, then they will be more willing and able to use them when they are upset (and eventually without prompting or help).
If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If you have tried something many times and in different situations and it just isn’t a good fit, take it out of your toolbox. Just because a sensory tray may seem like a fun and relaxing activity, you may find that your child just isn’t interested, it isn’t helpful enough to justify the mess, or it isn’t convenient when you need it. It’s okay if something doesn’t work. Tell your therapist and come up with a new plan.
Try different things! It is most helpful to have a toolbox full of skills for different situations. It is unlikely that you will find one method for coping or parenting that works every time. As an adult, you may find reading a book very relaxing, but you probably wouldn’t pick up a book if you were feeling really angry. The more options you have, the easier tough situations will be.
Save these worksheets (below) and use these to assess whether or not what you are trying is working for you and your family. After you have filled out a few sheets, look for patterns! See if you are noticing a bigger change after you have tried something a few times. Brainstorm whether there are other situations where you can try the method. See if there is something about the strategy you can change to make it better. Most importantly, keep trying!