[Samantha] You are listening to episode six of She's Not Selfish. If you've been tuning into the podcast lately you know that for the past few episodes I have been interviewing the women who are the therapists and co-owners of Wild Hope. Which is a practice in Kansas City, Missouri. So for episode 4, I talked with Jessica Mostaffa all about prioritizing self-care as a busy mom. In episode 5 I was talking with Stevie Spiegel all about healing from trauma. Today, I have the final member of the trio here. Before I tell you about her, I just want to point out that these episodes have been so incredible because of all of the tools that Jessica and Stevie and Maureen are equipping us with. If you haven't caught episode four or five yet after you're done here. Make sure you go back and listen because the insights from these women are so valuable.
For today's episode, I'm talking with Maureen Francois who is the third member of the mighty trio that is the women of Wild Hope. Maureen is a wife, a mother of two daughters, and a licensed clinical social worker, certified play therapist, and of course, co-owner of Wild Hope Counseling. Maureen is passionate about supporting women through the process of mothering as well as equipping parents and children to feel more successful in their day to day lives. Gotta love that.
Maureen and I are talking today about parenting and play therapy, and you know what's super cool, is this interview was so juicy and so packed full of awesome knowledge and information, that we actually had to split it into two parts.
So today you're going to hear Part 1, and then next week we're gonna have part two with Maureen, and we'll be discussing all about play therapy, specifically in that episode. So, we're gonna jump into part one with Maureen. Oh my goodness, so many hands-on, practical tips so make sure you have your notebook ready because this one is awesome. Here we go.
Maureen, one of my frustrations as a parent, or one of my struggles I guess more accurately, and I'll be interested to hear if others who are listening share this struggle. But it's very obvious and very clear that we as parents as mothers are responsible for the physical well-being of our children. And of course, we have an important role in their mental and emotional well-being as well. The struggle is that it's not super clear about how we as people who don't have sophisticated knowledge about how to do that and what that means.
It's not super clear how we can adequately help our children and steer our children when it comes to their mental health. And that's something that I'm really wanting to dive in with you, regarding right off the bat, is what that looks like. How we as moms who want to invest in the mental well-being and health of our children how we can accomplish that. So do you have any thoughts or ideas regarding that as we start to dive into this conversation?
[Maureen] Yes absolutely. I think you bring up such an amazing point because we talk about, and you have classes on like, 'Okay here are the developmental stages. Here is what you can expect from this part of nutrition.' There are guidelines in that. I think an area in our child's development that we don't talk about, or isn't talked about as much in day to day conversation, or even with our doctors, is the emotional well-being. And so then it leaves parents being like, "I'm doing what I can, but I don't know if there's a recipe to help foster my child's mental health."
When I think of child mental health, the way I like to look at it, especially for younger children between the ages of birth to five years old, is really the social and emotional development. So what I think that really boils down to is that day to day interactions you have with your children. That is how you're fostering your child's mental health, providing love, providing connection, laughing with your child. Sometimes I think we think of a child mental health like, “Whoa why are we talking about my child's mental health?” When really, we can break it down into very tangible day to day experiences that can foster mental health for our kiddos.
[Samantha] Oh, I love that. I'm all about breaking things down into tangible pieces. So, could you give us some examples of that? I know that's kind of a big ask, but could you give us some examples of what those might look like?
[Maureen] Yes absolutely. Two things that I think are really important when we're talking about the foundation of social and emotional well-being, is creating an environment of safety. Using the language of safety most physically, like maybe your child is running towards the street. That's obviously not safe. Using the words 'that's not safe'. Having that safety be a part of our day to day language when talking to our kiddos.
Also when thinking of emotional safety, if their siblings, they're hitting each other, that's talking about safe touch, non-safe touch, things like that. Another piece that I think parents can really do is connection and I like to think of like a connection with your child in the mundane. Some things to think of there would be playful interaction, eye contact, safe and playful touch, whether that's scratching your child's back, or reading a book together. Having different things can foster those moments of time and really belonging. So what we're hoping with that is to foster a sense of belonging for our kiddos so they feel loved and feel like they matter. Does that kind of help a little bit?
[Samantha] It does. I want to go back to your first point which was about using safe talk, I think is how you referred to it, which I think is so cool and so interesting because instead of saying, "Hey don't do that." "Hey stop!" "Hey what are you thinking?" Saying, "Hey sweetheart, that is not safe." And being able to give them some context that they can understand or give them a way that speaks more to what the situation is, rather than just saying, "Don't do that." or "Stop." I find that to be a pretty helpful point that you made there.
[Maureen] Yeah, I think once we incorporate more that language of safety and us starting, first of all as parents, starting to talk about that, or even sometimes a practical thing that you could do is, maybe a car pulled out in front of you and you said, "Whoa, that's not safe." So really giving and narrating your day with your children to saying, "That car pulled out in front of me and that was not safe." And then, that kind of becomes like another language and dialogue that your children are used to hearing. They can both implement for themselves and also in day to day life.
[Samantha] Totally. See, that's fascinating because a lot of times I will hear my older son repeating back to me things that I've said, of course. Or he'll to that where he will narrate his day based on things that I have said. I can definitely see how if I start to be more intentional about that, how that could really be something that he starts to latch on to. So what are some of the benefits of our children being able to do that and picking up on that from us?
[Maureen] As I mentioned before, the foundation of safety, physical safety, emotional safety. Once we have that foundation of knowing what are things that are safe in my world, what are things that are safe at home? What are things that are safe at the playground or not safe for me to do at the playground? Then that helps us develop in the sense of when my mom was saying, "That's not safe." Her body, so them being in tune with what her body was saying, maybe you were kind of abrupt and like, "Oh that's not safe." Or being aware of what was happening when something around them wasn't safe.
Although a child doesn't fully have the language to tell you, "This is exactly what was happening when I was running out into the street." However, they'll remember how it felt, or how Mom responded in that moment. That will help them be able to know, 'Oh, if my body is feeling a little bit weird maybe I'm not feeling safe. Who is someone that I can go to to keep me safe? And what does safety look like in all the years of my life?"
[Samantha] That's interesting. So they start to build this connection between how their body is feeling, or what their body is doing, and what the situation is.
[Maureen] The big word for that is our neural connections are being formed. So with that, and that's kind of looking into some brain science. So there's really exciting stuff coming out about our brain and how it responds to different situations. When we are able to reiterate different words, different feeling words, different safety words, or that feeling of belonging with our child, then their brains are wiring together to create connections about different experiences, or different feelings within their body.
[Samantha] I think it's really interesting to recognize every single experience, every single interaction, every moment of their day is causing these neural connections, like you were saying, to be formed and recognizing that we have a role in how those connections are being formed. So that can kind of sound like a daunting role, if I'm being honest, Maureen, it's like, "Wow, everything that I do and say is impacting the way this brain is developing."
So how do you talk with parents about their role in that in a way that makes it feel accessible and doable as opposed to, 'holy cow i'm going to screw up my kid'? Do you know what I mean?
[Maureen] Absolutely. It can feel so loaded and like so much pressure. So some things we know is the brain is developing the most between the first three to five years of a child's life. That's why most of the neural connections are happening. With that, all to be said, not every parent's going to be on 100 percent of the time. Children have room and resiliency to reform some of those connections.
Something that I'll tell parents to do. It can be so hard to have all the pressure on yourself to be like, "Oh my gosh, I have to be on 100 percent of the time." Because we all know that's not realistic to be fully in tune with all of your emotions. We can't expect that of ourselves, which also then we can't expect that of our kiddos. So, if we're doing the best we can with the tools we have then you're doing it, Mom.
And there's always room to maybe reflect on your day and be like, "Oh, I did respond a little abrupt. What could make that situation better next time?"
[Samantha] Oh, I like that. Taking some time at the end of the day to reflect on the emotions that you experienced, or in this case that I experienced, and then be able to think through what triggered it, or what maybe do I need to tweet can do differently tomorrow to make things better? Right, is that kind of what you're saying?
[Samantha] That's a nifty little tool there, Maureen, I like that.
[Maureen] When you said that, that really made me think about something that I will reflect with moms about, or parents in general, of those things throughout the day that just bring rage on you. And just an example that I'm going to think of is like you see your kiddo and they pulled out every wipey out of that box.
[Samantha] I literally experience that this morning. You're describing my life.
[Maureen] Right. Oh my gosh, that's so funny.
Maybe for you, you're like, "Oh that's cool." But also, sometimes people experience like 'I just feel rage because you did that'. That was just an example. Or maybe for you, it's like okay, PlayDoh I can not stand. I feel myself on pins and needles any time my child is playing with PlayDoh. So, the reason I bring up those as examples, of thinking about yourself at the end of the day taking some time to have some introspection of like, "Man, these are times in my day that I'm being set off. Is there anything that I can remove from that?" Maybe having PlayDoh as an option inside isn't worth how frustrated you feel when it's all over the carpet.
I mean the wipey thing that's probably going to just happen sometimes. But is there another place, or a different place you could put them next time? How can we set ourselves, as parents, up for success, while also setting our kids up for success throughout the day?
[Samantha] Oh, I love this Maureen. This is so good. Because this is something that my husband and I talk about often because he's very much a problem solver and fixer mindset. So when there are things happening in our environment that are causing me a lot of stress the first question is always, "Okay, let's look around this environment, what can we change so that this does not happen again? Or at least so it's less pronounced than it was today."
Oftentimes, when we start thinking and looking for creative solutions like that, as opposed to being like, "Well this is the worst. Motherhood is so hard. I can't do this." All of those negative thoughts and emotions instead of that. It's like, "Oh my gosh, I can tweak this and this and this and all of a sudden boom, there's some significant improvement." And I think part of that is just not feeling like, "Well I have to make things work as they are." or, "I am a terrible mother." or feeling like, "I have to do all the things and if I don't do PlayDoh then my child's development is going to be stunted." No, you don't have to do the PlayDoh, it's fine. They'll be fine.
So I think that's a really helpful reframe. What does it look like, from your perspective, taking that time to think through our days and perform that introspection that you're talking about? Does that have to be intensive, big process, or can it just be like a couple of moments of time? What is your perspective on that?
[Maureen] I love everything you just said, first of all. That shed so much light to how it can be so stressful about the pressure we put on ourselves throughout the day as parents. Then, thinking about taking that time to reflect on a day could feel daunting too, like, "Do I have to pick apart my whole day?"
Something that I would maybe encourage is just do maybe a quick 30 seconds, what stands out to you about your day? What do you think was your overall feeling you felt that day? Did you feel like you and your kids were just a little bit off? Then maybe that could take you to, "What could we do different tomorrow?" And just taking that time to see, it can be really quick just 30 seconds like Cliff Note version of 'this went great'. 'Huh, this could go a little different'. And what can we do differently and how can we just enjoy each other a little bit more?
[Samantha] That is perfect. That's exactly what I was looking for. Those steps, or those specific thoughts we need to be thinking through in just 30 seconds of time.
[Maureen] The other thing, like a theme of that, to decrease a little bit of stress something I like to think of is, how can I make my environment and my children's environment a yes environment? So we're not caught up in the 'stop doing that', 'don't do this', 'you can't touch that'.
How are we starting our day when we wake up helping our children feel success when they walk into the living room, when they walk into the kitchen? There's some things, it's like you can't remove the oven from the kitchen. But, what are the things that you can do to help you feel a little bit better when you're starting your day off?
[Samantha] Oh I like that. And in doing so, not only do you feel better, but like you said your children feel better too and they feel like they're coming at their day from a place of success, I think you said, which is interesting. Is that because we're not starting off by saying no no no all the time?
[Maureen] Yes. I think there's a lot of truth to that. Then when we start our day almost in a mindset of positive intent, and what I mean by that is viewing our day as it will be successful, like, "Hey we got today. My child is gonna be awesome." When we're bringing that to our child's life to our life, it can really shift how the day goes. Whereas, if we're bringing the opposite, like a mindset of dread, like, "Oh great, he's going to wake up and he's going to just wreak havoc on our whole house." or "No one's gonna get along today." Then we're coming in with a mindset of 'It's probably gonna be horrible', and that's exactly how it's going to be. But when we set our environment, when we have our mindset of positive intent, then we're already a step closer to feeling more successful as a parent and more successful as a kiddo.
[Samantha] Okay. That's really good stuff. So, I'm curious then, it leads me to this next question. Which, for the parent or the mother specifically who is really wanting to have that positive mindset going into the day, but inevitably things throughout the day are not going well and frustration is creeping in and building. What are some of your tips in terms of strategies that we can use to manage our own frustration so that it doesn't snowball out of control and then inevitably impact the mood and emotions of our children?
[Maureen] Oh my gosh, that is such a good question. So when we start our day how do we have positive intent? Oh gosh I started my day it was going awesome, and then it's like holy cow. What is happening?
Something that I think is important to do is notice. When we notice, two things, noticing what's going well, where are we focusing our energy? And noticing our emotions throughout the day. So what that could be, is both noticing what emotions we're bringing. And maybe you have a narrative about that and you're like, "Mommy is feeling pretty frustrated right now." or, "You look like you might be kind of sad. You were hoping you had that toy." or, "You were hoping your brother didn't take that from you." So once we start noticing our feelings, a couple of things are happening. This is a word I like to use. So we have our emotional literacy. So we're increasing our emotional literacy ourselves, as well as helping our children's emotional literacy come on. So they're hearing, "Moms frustrated." "You are sad." So then our hope would be that they start using these words in moments of upset too.
[Samantha] So our children can learn emotional literacy from us.
[Maureen] Exactly. That's exactly right. They can learn the emotional literacy from us. A practical way to start doing that is by noticing. I think that gave this example earlier, noticing people around you, or maybe a child at story time was really sad. That boy over there is really sad. Maybe you're really happy, you're excited. Noticing both positive and negative emotions. But then that kind of speaks back to our point of, "How am I helping my child's mental health?" And when we're increasing their knowledge of emotions, then their awareness is there. Then I like to use this as a Tina Bryson term, but once you name it then you contain it. Then from there you can come up with strategies and problem solving but with parent and child to see what can go different next time.
[Samantha] Sometimes it can incite a lot of guilt for moms when they feel that frustration coming on, and then they respond in frustration or anger to their children. For a lot of us, that's not our intent, that's not what we want to do but it inevitably happens. Then it just feels so heavy and like, "Ugh, man, I did that again? Really?"
As you're talking about this, Maureen, I'm thinking about how you kind of alluded to this earlier in the conversation, where it's like we don't tell our son or daughter like, "Hey, you shouldn't ever feel this way. It's not okay that you're feeling frustrated or angry or sad or whatever it is." But sometimes we hold ourselves to that standard, where it's like, "Well, I should not have gotten frustrated." Correct me if I'm wrong, but it almost sounds like it's not so much saying, "I shouldn't have gotten frustrated." But it's about what we do with that frustration that really matters, and narrating it like you're talking about is maybe one component of that. And then I don't know exactly but, stopping it in its tracks before it starts impacting our actions is maybe another layer of that. Do you agree with that sentiment is there anything you want to add or say, no Samantha, that's not quite right?
[Maureen] No, Samantha, I think you're right there. I think it's exactly right. So, feeling that sense of guilt of, "I didn't mean to respond this way, I was so frustrated." And having that kind of reflecting on your day and that, or whenever it is in your day. So something that is also happening, as far as in our brains when we are narrating or noticing, when we notice what's happening or what emotion we're feeling, I like to call it, it's bringing us a little bit higher into our brain. What I mean by that, is it's bringing us in to our level of our brain where we're able to more logically think through a situation. By noticing, you're one step higher into executive functioning or logical thinking, to then be able to be like, "I could be doing something a little bit different here." So really to think of like, "I could be doing something different." or "I'm in the best I can with what I have right now."
I think the only thing to add to that would be, and by no means is it like that we need to over criticize ourselves or not allow ourselves to truly feel in those moments of maybe it is a really hard day and it's okay to have a hard day. And it is also okay to have any feeling throughout that day and to truly feel it, and then see what you can do with that feeling. And that's what we would want for our kiddos too.
Another thing I think of is with both our kiddos and with us, I think there's this notion sometimes that when the behavior happens we have to fix the behavior and it has to change immediately.
[Samantha] Oh definitely.
[Maureen] You can totally understand where that's coming from because it's like this is frustrating us, or this behavior is not acceptable and we need to change it. However sometimes what we found is if you actually take a couple of moments to name that feeling, to find a way to, the technical term would be regulation or calm in their body, then maybe a couple of minutes later, or a couple hours later, it would be better to talk through that situation, than right in that moment. And what some research says too, is our kiddos won't forget really necessarily what happened in that moment. It won't be like we have to address this behavior at the moment because they're going to forget it. Sometimes having a conversation like, "Okay, this happened before nap time. They're tired." They're not ready for us to talk about why they couldn't throw the ball at their brother. Maybe waking up while they're having a snack, be asking an open-ended question about, "So, before nap time you threw that ball at your brother, what do you think about that?" And allowing ourselves that too. To not feel like we have to fix how we're feeling, or come up with a solution in the moment.
[Samantha] That is so good., Maureen. You know, you just covered so much stuff and all of it was amazing. I want to go back for just a minute. You were talking about when we can elevate above the emotion that we're experiencing we move into, I think you called it executive thinking, is that what you called it?
[Maureen] Yep, executive functioning.
[Samantha] Executive functioning. While you were describing that, I had this picture in my mind of fog. And you know how some mornings the fog is heavy and it settles down low, but you can kind of see up above it sometimes it's just kind of at ground level? I was just imagining how sometimes those emotions feel like this heavy fog that settles on us, but it's so encouraging to be like, "There is clear air above this fog. And I just need to stand up a little bit and I'm gonna be able to see over the top of this and everything is going to become much more clear and crisp." I find that to be encouraging, as a mom. Because, certainly there are times when emotions do get the best of me when things are tough. I really appreciate you giving us that perspective. Like those emotions are, quote-unquote, valid but they don't have to have the ultimate say in how we behave and what we do from there. So thank you for that.
[Maureen] Your analogy was beautiful. That was awesome. I loved that I could picture exactly what you were saying and that was spot on. I loved that.
[Samantha] There's just so much to what you're saying here, Maureen that is so helpful. I want to bring up one more thought from what you said previously, and then we can start to move on a little bit. But for this person,, for this mom we can use me as an example. So when I am feeling especially frustrated and I'm trying to notice that frustration, notice those negative emotions, and then try to elevate beyond that. When our children are in that out of control mindset and either we are just really annoyed by that and angry about that, or we're in a public place and we're feeling embarrassed maybe by that and people are looking at us like, "Get control of your child." And we're like, "Well, this is just happening and I don't know what to do about it." Can you talk to us a little bit, Maureen, about what in that situation we can control? What in that situation we need to recognize that we don't control and release and just let be, regardless of the faces people are making at us. And how we can start to reframe our mentality around those situations where our children are working through their emotions and it gets messy and it gets loud and we just want it to stop. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?
[Maureen] Yes. Oh that's such a good point. Our kids are in that moment if upset, and they're losing it, and there's a whole crowd of people around you, and you're like, "Oh my gosh. What is happening?" Something that I think of is two things. You being there with your child is the number one thing. And what I mean by that is being there, sitting with them, maybe it's in the target aisle, maybe you move a little bit out of the main aisle entrance, and telling them, "I'm here with you. You're safe." And just being there and present is the most beautiful thing that you could do for your child. What that shows them is that, "No matter how you feel, I'm here. You matter and your important."
As a mom it's not always that easy. It's like, "Oh my gosh, what are these people around me thinking?" And also, as a child, if they know mom is here, she cares about me,I am so loved, and I just lost it at target, and she still loves me. That will make a huge impact, forever. And also shows them that their emotions are so important, and if every emotion is important and that it is valid. So that's the number one thing. You're there, you're showing them they matter. And that is just so beautiful.
The second thing of maybe more like practicality of like, "How do I do that? What do we do in this situation exactly?" is something that I think is so great, is when we're looking at redirecting the behavior with our kiddos.,getting a little bit below eye level is something that can be helpful. So maybe that's they're standing and you sit in a chair. At target, that might mean they're in the cart and you're crouched down beside them. Some things that that could portray is like, "I am not this adult that's telling you what to do. Again, you're heard, you matter.
Sometimes I'll be talking with kiddos and I can see that shift of when you get down on their level and they feel almost empowered a little bit. And in a moment of upset they're probably not going to show that as much. But if we start to foster that a little bit, and I'd be curious if anyone tries it if they notice a difference or anything like that.
[Samantha] Oh I'm definitely going to try it. I will let you know.
[Maureen] Yeah, let me know.
[Samantha] Do you think that when it comes to preventing that type of situation, which as parents we all want to know, "How do I stop this from happening before it happens? Because it just feels like it snowballs out of control as soon as it starts." And I'm talking specifically about when kids are having these meltdowns or whatever word you want to use. Do you think that part of that preventative process is just taking those steps, and over the course of reminding them that they're safe and that you're there for them and not trying to be the fixer but trying to get down at their level, like you were talking about, and being there for them. Do you think that learning that is kind of the, quote-unquote, secret to dealing with this type of thing, so that eventually it will become less prevalent and less of an issue as they start to really own that truth? Or is there more to it? Is there something beyond that that we can be doing proactively to cut down on these unpleasant experiences?
[Maureen] That's a great question. So what can we do to prepare ourselves for an outing or something like that? It could be anywhere, not even an outing, at home too. But a couple of things that I think of first are, are their basic needs met? Have they had a snack? Have they had water? Kind of doing a little checklist of that like, "Okay, we just had lunch, they just took a nap." That check, check. We kind of got that going. Then I think of, "Have I had a really busy morning? Have I maybe had an appointment that usually I don't have and we have more time together?" And this doesn't have to be something that you spend a long amount of time thinking about, but just like, "Okay, what's been different about our day? Is there any routine that's been different?" So, I guess what I'm saying is thinking of what's your typical routine? Has there been anything different in that? Then, have you had moments of intentional time with your kiddo throughout the day too? Maybe you read a book that morning or something like that throughout the day to kind of help feel that belonging again, that connection throughout the day.
So what I would say is, have you taken time to connect in those moments where it's been a little out of routine? I think Thanksgiving is a great example of that. Things are all a lot of routine, you're going to different places, nap time is very different. What has been out of routine? Have I taken intentional time with my kiddos? And is there anything else that we could make our outing, or whatever we're doing, a little more successful?
[Samantha] Okay those are helpful tips. Because it's always nice to know, "What tools do I have my tool kit to keep things from getting crazy before they get crazy?" That's really beneficial insight. Thank you so much for that, Maureen.