Parenting is challenging. We all try so hard to give our all to our children. We desperately want them to feel loved and connected. But somehow there is often a disconnect. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, or that we don’t seem to speak the same language as our children, or just all of the “disconnection” that our kids are dealing with in today’s frenetic world. What are steps that parents can take to help their children feel loved and connected? As a part of our series about “How to Raise Children Who Feel Loved and Connected” we had the pleasure to interview Natasha D’Arcangelo of Headspace Health.
Natasha is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) in the states of Florida, Oregon and Washington, a Florida Qualified Supervisor, a Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC), a Certified Clinical Trauma Professional (CCTP), a Certified Compassion Fatigue Professional (CCFP) and a Compassion Fatigue Educator. She works with adolescents and adults in her role as a staff therapist for Headspace Health. She is especially passionate about working with clients who are struggling with trauma and anxiety.
Thank you so much for joining us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know a bit about you. Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?
Sure! I am from New York city originally but now live in Florida. I am the proud child of immigrant parents and describe myself as Guyanese American. I have a little brother who is 4 years younger than me. I loved being raised in a city with such diversity. I always knew that I wanted to be a helper and I was previously an educator before I became a therapist.
Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?
When I was a classroom teacher, I struggled with feeling like I was making enough of an impact in the lives of my students. It felt like there was too much emphasis on having students pass their state exams and not enough on helping them as individuals. I decided to leave teaching and went to work for the Boys and Girls Club where I had much more freedom in developing programs that helped the children there. I then moved down to Florida and had the opportunity to get a master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Argosy University, Sarasota. I am privileged to feel as though I have found my calling and I love what I do. I have previously worked in community mental health, an inpatient setting and private practice. I am currently working for Headspace Health on the care team as a full-time therapist with a caseload of clients. I do public speaking on the side and try to normalize the concept that it’s okay to not be okay. I’m also a Certified Compassion Fatigue Professional and I do presentations to groups of caregivers on preventing and managing compassion fatigue and burnout.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the core of our discussion. This is probably intuitive to many, but it would be beneficial to spell it out. Based on your experience or research, can you explain to us why it is so important to forge a strong connection with our children?
I think it’s important to forge a strong connection with our children because it is the foundation of how they will deal with everything in their life later. The connection that we form with our children determines the kind of relationships they will have as a friend, as a romantic partner and as a professional. I think that most people want to provide a better life for their children than what they had growing up. The most important part of that is not in what you can buy for your children, it is in how you meet their emotional needs. It’s also worth thinking about what life will be like with them at age 5, 10, 15, etc. If your connection with them is based on fear, they will hide things from you and that leads to more tension in the house. Forging a strong connection with your children allows you to be their safe place when they are struggling, regardless of what the issue might be.
What happens when children do not have that connection, or only have a weak connection?
When children do not have that connection or that connection is weak, you will often see behavior that can be hard to deal with. Your children might become withdrawn and seem to be anxious or depressed. As I mentioned above, they might get into a pattern of hiding things from you. If that is happening, it is because they are afraid of telling you things. If they are school age, it is likely that their grades will suffer. You are also probably going to witness them having them a hard time relating to their peers. They may be the aggressor and you might get complaints about them taking things from other children or yelling at them. It’s also possible that they are withdrawn. They seem to fear interacting with other children and you might see them at a child’s birthday party standing off to the side by themselves. They don’t really have friends and seem to be anxious with starting conversations with peers. Without that strong connection, they don’t know how to appropriately express themselves or build relationships with others. If that connection is lacking, your child is probably going to struggle with low self-esteem and low self-confidence. They are not going to believe in themselves and might use language where they put themselves down.
Do you think children in this generation are less likely to feel loved and connected? Why do you feel the way you do?
I think it is possible that children in this generation might be less likely to feel loved and connected. So much of our world is built around technology that we can lose the ability to relate to people when they are physically in our space. Social media tends to project a façade for how people are living their lives in a way that is not based on reality. You might throw a Pintrest perfect party and have fantastic pictures to post, but how much time are you spending genuinely being present with your child? I also think that as a society we are talking more about the importance of mental health and emotional intelligence. There are many videos available on YouTube and Tik Tok demonstrating gentle parenting techniques for example which people may have never heard of before. So, I also think that because there is a lessening stigma around mental health, people are more likely to get help for themselves and their children. They are also more likely to try and parent more effectively than their own parents which should lead to children in this generation being more loved and connected.
We live in a world with incessant demands for our time and attention. There is so much distraction and disconnection. Can you share with our readers 5 steps that parents can take to help their children feel loved and connected? Please include examples or stories for each if you can.
- I think the most important thing that any parent can do to help their children feel loved and connected is get into therapy. Many of the clients that I work with have traumas from their childhood that are preventing them from being the parent they want to be. If you never take the time to process through your own stuff, your children are going to keep triggering you. That can be a very toxic cycle, but you have the power to break that cycle and choose to do things differently. Therapy is a non-judgmental space to work through things from your past.
- Listen to your child and validate what they are saying, even if you don’t agree with it. You might take your child out for dessert and the ice cream shop is all out of your child’s favorite flavor. For you, that’s not a big deal and your parents never took you out for ice cream so having your 5-year-old start crying and screaming might lead to you wanting to yell at them. Instead try getting on their level by bending down, demonstrate taking a deep breath and acknowledge that it is upsetting that the ice cream shop is out of their flavor, and you’d be upset too if your favorite flavor was all gone. You can offer an alternative flavor and give them the choice of what they’d like to do next. This might seem like a minor issue, but what you are showing your child is that it is okay for them to have big emotions, there’s a certain way to handle big emotions (not by screaming) and the things that are important to them are important to you. Fast forward to your child being 17 and having their first heartbreak in a romantic relationship. If you take the time to listen to them when they are 5, they will come to you when they are 17 because they know that you are going to listen and support them.
- Schedule time to do things with your children. If you ever watched the movie “Inside Out” they talk about the concept of core memories. You want to build core memories with your children. I guarantee you that 30 years from now they will not remember what you got them for Christmas 2022, but they will remember making cookies for Santa with you and having flour end up all over the kitchen floor. You can take your child traveling, make regular trips to the library, plant a garden together, go to museums or attractions in the places where you live. It’s even better if you can take your child to something that they are interested in. For example, if they love animals, take them to the zoo. If they love airplanes, bring them to the nearest airport and watch the planes land. It doesn’t have to be expensive for it to be quality time.
- It’s important to do research and understand what your child’s developmental level is. Become familiar with what typical behavior looks like at age 3 when compared to age 5 for example. Sometimes we are expecting our children to understand something that they just can’t grasp yet because of their developmental level. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have high expectations for your child or encourage them to excel, but it will help lessen frustration levels for you and them if you are keeping in mind that their brain is still developing. You might be trying to teach them the concept of the word gentle when it comes to how to approach the family dog. What your child will understand about gentle is different when they are 2 as compared to 8 as compared to 13. Keep that in mind during your interactions with them and it’s okay to do some research to figure out what that looks like. Once they are school age, your child’s teacher can be a great resource.
- Normalize the idea of apologizing to your child. It is inevitable that you are going to mess up at some point and yell at your child for something that you later feel bad about. You set a powerful example of being capable and worthy of love even when you mess up by apologizing to your child. It is one of the foundations for creating a secure attachment with them. They will grow up learning that even when they mess up, you still love them, and they still have worth as a person. If they are trying to pour themselves a glass of milk and they drop it and break the glass think about how you want to respond. Haven’t we all broken a dish at one point in our lives? Yelling at your child doesn’t help to clean up the mess, it teaches them to be afraid of you. If you do yell because you are scared they are going to get hurt, come back to them after you have cooled down. Explain that you yelled because you were afraid, but that wasn’t the best way to handle that situation. Say you’re sorry and mean it. They will learn how to handle situations when they mess up from you, including how to give a real apology.
How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?
I define a “good parent” as a parent who is willing to do their own work. If you take the time and put in the effort to address what you are bringing from your childhood into your parenting relationship, you are going to be a better parent for it. I work with many clients who have realized that because of their childhood trauma, they tend to fly off the handle and yell at their children for minor things but then feel bad about it. If you process through your traumas in therapy, those kinds of events won’t be a trigger for you. When you have more insight into what makes you tick, you will have more patience. As a result, you will be a better parent and spend less time being remorseful. It’s also a good thing to role model for your child that going to therapy is normal. It means that you value yourself and are willing to learn and change things which is a lesson they will take with them into adulthood. A good parent is one that is willing to learn and keep working on themselves. There is no such thing as a perfect parent, we are all works in progress.
How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?
The best way to inspire your child to “dream big” is to encourage them and believe in them. If they tell you they want to cure cancer or be the president or own their own company, don’t tell them that they can’t. You can help them understand why school is important to help them achieve those dreams, but it’s important that you believe in them too. An example of this would be if your child struggles with spelling but they want to compete in the spelling bee. Rather than telling them that they are not good at spelling so they shouldn’t try, let them know it will take hard work to succeed at the spelling bee. Then offer to help them study and practice with them. If they want to be in the NBA someday, let them know how important it is that they practice regularly to keep getting better at the game.
How would you define “success” when it comes to raising children?
I think this is a very individual answer. I would define success as raising a child who feels confident in themselves and has empathy for others. If they have those skills, they will be successful in whatever endeavors they want to try no matter what field they end up working in. I would also add that having a relationship with your children that is based on trust not fear is a measure of success. If they feel comfortable coming to you when they get a 50 on their math test or want to quit the soccer team or aren’t ready to go to college at the age of 18 then you have succeeded.
This is a huge topic in itself, but it would be worthwhile to touch upon it here. What are some ideal social media and digital habits that you think parents should teach to their children?
I think it is important that we not assume our children know what safe behavior is online. When I worked in private practice, I was shocked by the amount of personal information that young clients would give to complete strangers on the internet that they thought were friends. It’s important that you monitor what they are doing online to ensure their own safety. They might not be happy about it, but that doesn’t make it any less important. You should also think about your child’s developmental level when it comes to digital habits. Your child that is in kindergarten needs much less access to the internet than your high school junior who is taking AP classes. Also remember, you are your child’s first teacher. If they never see your eyes leave your phone, they are going to think that is normal behavior. Model for your child what electronics free time looks like. You can engage in activities as a family like putting phones away during dinner so you can all talk to each other or play board games once a month.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?
I think everyone should be familiar with their own ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) score. It is a free tool readily available online comprised of 10 questions. It assesses different areas of trauma, neglect, or abuse that you might have experienced as a child. What we know from trauma research is that the higher your ACES score is, the likelier it is you will experience negative mental health symptoms later in life which are going to impact how you parent. If you are aware of what is impacting you, then you can work on making healthier decisions for the next generation. Along those same lines, the book “The Body Keeps the Score” is a great explanation of how our bodies unconsciously holds on to traumas which then impact our day-to-day behavior. Developing awareness of this connection is key to becoming a better parent. Dr. Eric Gentry is doing amazing work at the Forward-Facing Institute where he works with people every day from all walks of life to learn skills they can use for self-regulation. You don’t have to be a clinician to understand what he does and it has transformed the lives of the clients I work with.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite “Life Lesson Quote” is from Victor Frankl who wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning”. It is, “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”. This has been relevant for me in my life because this is the foundation of the trauma work that I do with the clients I work with. I help them to find that space between stimulus and response even if they have an extensive history of trauma. This instills a feeling of hope and allows them to see that their past does not have to define their future.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would hope to normalize the concept that it is okay to not be okay. Mental health is so stigmatized, and I want to live in a world where it is normal and encouraged to talk to a professional if you are struggling with your mental health. This comes down to interactions that we have in our everyday lives where we can talk openly and honestly with our loved ones and friends about what we are going through. This would then be followed up with encouragement to get help and assisting those we care about to find appropriate treatment.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
About The Interviewer: Pirie is a TedX speaker, author and a Life Empowerment Coach. She is a co-host of Own your Throne podcast, inspiring women in the 2nd chapter of their lives. With over 20 years in front of the camera, Pirie Grossman understands the power of storytelling. After success in commercials and acting. She spent 10 years reporting for E! Entertainment Television, Entertainment Tonight, also hosted ABC’s “Every Woman”. Her work off-camera capitalizes on her strength, producing, bringing people together for unique experiences. She produced a Children’s Day of Compassion during the Dalai Lama’s visit here in 2005. 10,000 children attended, sharing ideas about compassion with His Holiness. From 2006–2009, Pirie Co-chaired the Special Olympics World Winter Games, in Idaho, welcoming 3,000 athletes from over 150 countries. She founded Destiny Productions to create Wellness Festivals and is an Advisory Board member of the Sun Valley Wellness Board.In February 2017, Pirie produced, “Love is Louder”, a Brain Health Summit, bringing in Kevin Hines, noted suicide survivor to Sun Valley who spoke to school kids about suicide. Sun Valley is in the top 5% highest suicide rate per capita in the Northwest, prompting a community initiative with St. Luke’s and other stake holders, to begin healing. She lives in Sun Valley with her two children, serves on the Board of Community School. She has her Master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica and is an Executive Life Empowerment Coach, where she helps people meet their dreams and goals! The difference between a dream and a goal is that a goal is a dream with a date on it!