Utilizing Structure to Ground and Enliven the New Year
By Michael A. Wynne, LICSW, MTS, and Maria F. Gilmour, PhD, BCBA-D
Original article by Exceptional Needs Today on http://exceptionalneedstoday.com
As if having a family member with special needs is not challenging enough, the COVID-19 health crisis continues to add unwelcome layers of worry. Parents must consider navigating contacts with playmates, making vaccine decisions, dealing with the donning of masks, and assessing how to effectively protect the health of family members, including aging grandparents. Parents and family members of children with developmental exceptionalities experience more complicated dimensions of these and other challenges as compared to raising children who are typically developing.
With a new year upon us, we have an opportunity to shift into a new gear that can be both grounding and enlivening. We need to honestly ask ourselves a few questions:
- What does taking care of yourself truly look like?
- What grounds you?
- What enlivens you?
Consider this an opportunity to take a step back and consider what really fills your cup. This is somewhat of a cliché, but it’s repeated a lot because there is truth to it: when we take better care of ourselves, we can more effectively take care of others.
After a very stressful year in 2021, we encourage our clients to use this new year as an opportunity to really slow down, give yourself and those around you some more slack, and recognize that, ultimately, we are in this thing together. From the initial heightened fear and anxiety felt during the start of the lockdown in March of 2020, to today, almost two years later, we have learned to somehow cope and even normalize living in a pandemic. We have come a long way, and adapting to such dramatic changes is certainly not easy. How about we take a collective breath to recognize that we are still here? Things might look quite a bit different working and schooling from home and dealing with such profound functional changes and emotional challenges, but we are still standing and fighting. By recognizing the weight of our experience, we validate it, and from this place of awareness, we can ultimately do more and be more. By using grounding techniques that work to maintain a healthier nervous system and emotional state in you, your children are better able to manage internal states, emotions, and outward behaviors.
An effective way to lower the stress temperature at home is to build structure into the home life. We use the mnemonic Structure Zone to remind us that we can restructure the home environment to make life easier for our kids and ourselves. Providing a Structure Zone is not hard work. Think of it as a superpower that you can put into action anytime you choose by creating and maintaining a functional scaffolding that holds the family together.
When we were growing up, we experienced different levels of structure in our homes. Some of us had a punctual family dinner every night around the table, while others were more latchkey kids. Some were on sports teams, while others spent their time hanging out at the mall with friends. The good news is you don’t have to use your childhood as the template for raising your own family. You create the environment that is best suited to meet the specific needs of you and your kids. We can take the models that were introduced to us and shape, add to, or completely revamp them to meet the unique needs of our particular family.
Where to start? Bring structure into the home life through rhythm. A rhythm is a repeating beat. Examples might include the annual rhythm of birthdays and anniversaries, holidays, the first day of school, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and now New Year’s! Milestones can be markers to track what we have done and perhaps where we might be going, or they can be tools to reinforce positive behaviors and healthier ways of thinking. What about daily rhythms? You can implement structure into your family’s everyday life by adding the word “time” after an activity. Bedtime and mealtime are examples. What about chore time? Or storytime, dog walking time, gardening time, music time, or video learning time?
What if every day at four o’clock, after homework or lessons, became cookie time? A few simple ingredients stirred in a bowl plus 15 minutes add structure and connection to the day. When you turn your home environment into a Structure Zone, everyone knows what to expect. Plus, resistance goes down and stress levels naturally reduce. Your kids need parents with even tempers at the helm. Take time to go for a walk, listen to your favorite music, paint, write, read, turn off the news, or lay on the couch. Go easy on yourself and others around you.
We are in a challenging moment in history right now, one that we will all discuss for the rest of our lives. In addition to the already complex
daily challenges of having a family member with developmental exceptionality, families are impacted by new layers of stress that we have no control over.
Unfortunately, many of these stresses seem to intersect in the home—where we are all spending more time now than ever. We can more effectively manage the ups and downs (and unknowns) in life through added structure in the home by thoughtfully considering the sources of these stresses and developing methods to shape their influence on the members of our households.
This new year brings with it opportunities to innovate, perhaps by tapping into some of the most basic forms of grounding by focusing on creating structure in our routines. When we root down in the ground and create stability in our lives, especially when the outside world seems to be shaking, our branches can achieve upward growth and reach new heights we never knew possible.