Mindfulness: My New Year’s Resolution

It’s day 4 of the new year.  I had intended to post about this a few days ago, but illness has befallen my household.  Since New Year’s Eve it’s been like dominoes at my house with one family member after another falling with what appears to be influenza.  So resolution one is to actually get up from the couch (I’m the latest victim) and then sanitize every surface in this house.

But resolution two is to increase my daily practice of mindfulness.  Mindfulness may bring up mental images of Buddhist monks or hard-core yoga folks “omming” away in a lotus pose.  Those things are great, but more practical mindfulness is as simple as noticing your thoughts and feelings and being fully present in the moment.

Our increasingly harried lives are full of so many things drawing our attention away from being mindful.  Smart phones, full-time jobs, kids’ activities, family obligations…you get the idea.  I can relate to clients and friends who report feeling over-scheduled, busy, anxious, and stressed.  Increased mindfulness can help with those feelings and a variety of resolutions you might have made for this year.

For example:

  • Mindfulness in eating = stopping when you are full
  • Mindfulness in fitness = noticing your body’s need for movement and doing it
  • Mindfulness in parenting = less Dinosaur Mom
  • Mindfulness at work = increased focus on important tasks
  • Mindfulness in decision-making = giving a best yes (I’ll post about this later)
  • Mindfulness in relationships = being present and enjoying time together (a.k.a back away from the smart phone)

Great.  So how does one go about this?  Here are a few easy-to-do ways to begin:

  • Deep breathing.  I like 4-7-8 breathing: breathe in for 4, hold for 7, then out for 8.  It feels like a really long time to hold for a count of 7, but a couple of those sequences can be very calming.
  • Naming your feeling.  So you’re stressed about something at work and it’s coming out at home.  With mindfulness, get specific about the feeling behind the stress, such as disappointment a project did go well or feeling undervalued by a supervisor.
  • Recognize your self-talk.  We’ve all got a coach in our heads either building us up or tearing us down.  If your self-talk sounds like “I’m a loser.  How could I mess up like that!  I’ll never get past this.” etc., work on changing those thoughts into more positive ones like “I made a mistake.  Mistakes happen. I can work to make this better.”
  • Gratitude.  I love this one.  Be mindful of positive things in your life.  Take a time every day to focus on one aspect of your life for which you are grateful.

Here’s to a mindful 2018!

No More Grapes Until You Finish That Donut (and other words you never knew you’d say as a parent)

“No more grapes until you finish that donut…”  Yep.  That’s a direct quote that came from my mouth a few years ago as my two-year-old consumed the only breakfast item she cared to eat at that meal.  If I ever write a parenting book – that will be the title.

Reflecting back, there are so many words I’ve said as a 30-something parent that 20-something me would never have imagined.  These words I say multiple times a week:

  • No singing at the dinner table.
  • Don’t scratch the table with your fork.
  • Feet off the table.
  • Don’t touch your feet at the table (is this just my kids? so many are about dinner)
  • Where are your pants?
  • You’re not the parent (stop bossing your sibling).
  • Yes, you have to pick up your mess.
  • I can’t hear you over your whining.

Then there’s the mundane of life that I get really excited about.  Potty training, for example.  I have behaved like I just won an Olympic gold after my child went potty.  Jumping, flailing, high fives, beaming with pride.  I make up potty lyrics to popular songs (my favorite being Potty Rockin’ in the House Tonight) and sing them for what feels like hours on end.

20-something me would be appalled at how often my mother’s words just fall right out of my mouth.  The most notable being “Be quiet…I’m on the phone!”  It’s not just those words but the way I say them.  And I get it now.  The entire house can be calm but as soon as a parent gets a phone call, every child in the house will begin to ask for cookies, play with the loudest toy in the house (drum set), and engage in a shouting match with a sibling.  It’s just a rule.  I did it to my mom.  My kids do it to me.

Some of these are funny examples, but there are some I’m less proud of.  I distinctly remember rocking an inconsolable infant after many nights of lack of sleep and telling my husband, “we are never doing this again” (meaning have another child).  That was during a refining stage for me where some of the selfishness of singledom and early marriage had yet to be sifted out.  Obviously my opinion changed (two more times, to be exact), but the point is there are things I might wish I could unsay as a parent.  And some others that I can only laugh at and try to do better in the future…including “no more grapes until you finish that donut.”


I just love On This Day that comes up in my facebook feed.  Don’t you?  It’s the first thing I check.  I’ve been on this facebook thing for a smidge over 12 years, which I know because On This Day reminds me of what I was doing then.  And what I was doing on today’s date in years since.

Five years ago this was my post: “So it only took 12 days of trying to stuff two children and all their paraphernalia into our RAV, but today we bought a (gulp) van. Yes, I now drive a minivan.”  In the words of a good friend, Kyle and I left a part of our youth on that car lot five years ago.

I consider my minivan one of many sacrifices I make as a mom.  It’s not sexy.  It’s not fun or sporty or even clean.  It has a scratch on the bumper from not pulling far enough into the garage.  It’s white – the most popular color according to Forbes (story here) and also the most boring (according to me).  Supposedly white shows less dust (according to my husband), but somehow my van always looks dusty.

But on the upside of #VanLife…it is so convenient!  I can push a button and the door opens on the back passenger side.  This is a lifesaver in a busy parking lot while toting a baby carrier and holding a toddler’s hand while the other slightly larger toddler walks around to get in on that side.  Also I can park in fairly tiny parking spots because those doors don’t swing out.  And I can hold EIGHT people!  {Note: I did drive a sedan in college that we managed to fit 11 people into one night to get late night Bob’s Diner, but thankfully that predates my facebook days and there is no photographic evidence to come up in On This Day}

So one last On This Day regarding #VanLife – two years ago a picture came up of my son playing soccer and my comment was, “at least now I have a child playing the sport that matches my van.”  And it’s true.  I’ll be the soccer mom and drive the non-sexy, non-sporty, non-fun vehicle.  This is my current life stage.  But someday my kids will be big enough to open their own doors and not hit the car parked next to us.  I’m guessing that will be about the time my daughter is getting ready to drive.  Maybe the mini will get passed on to her.  And she won’t truly appreciate it until she blows that 11 person record out of the water on a late night Bob’s Diner run.


Back to School *MORNINGS*

For the first time in almost three decades, I’m not heading “back to school” this time of year.  In the past, I’ve always either been a student or been working in a school (or both).  It’s a little strange now that I don’t have that seasonal fresh start for my work, but I still get to do the “back to school” thing as a parent of an elementary schooler and two preschoolers.  I’m grateful to have at least 16 more “back to schools” to go.

A huge consideration with starting back after summer break is the morning routine.  I hope your kids had a summer filled with popsicles, tons of outside play, and relaxed morning routines.  Now’s the time to start moving the bedtimes and wake ups a little earlier each day (10-15 minutes) until you hit the target start for a regular school morning.

Regarding sleep, the American Pediatric Association recommends the following:

  • Children ages 3-5 should sleep 10 to 13 hours per 24 hours (including naps).
  • Children ages 6-12 should sleep 9 to 12 hours per 24 hours.
  • Teenagers 13-18 should sleep 8 to 10 hours per 24 hours.
  • Adequate sleep duration for age on a regular basis leads to improved attention, behavior, learning, memory, emotional regulation, quality of life, and mental and physical health. Not getting enough sleep each night is associated with an increase in injuries, hypertension, obesity and depression, especially for teens who may experience increased risk of self-harm or suicidal thoughts.
  • In addition to these recommendations, the AAP suggests that all screens be turned off 30 minutes before bedtime and that TV, computers and other screens not be allowed in children’s bedrooms. (www.aap.org)

I highlighted two parts above.  The first is the improved outcomes for kids who get good sleep.  Each one of those is an area I might work on with a client.  I’ve had many families over the years who didn’t promote good sleep and their child showed negative behaviors as a result.  Set your child up for success and have a good routine and a consistent bedtime.

The second part I highlighted was screen time.  I will write more about this in the future, but regarding sleep the important part is that screens are not in children’s bedrooms.

I’m including a morning chart I created for my own kids.  The first one is for a four-year-old who loves life so much that he moves rather slowly through it.  He doesn’t struggle to “stop and smell the roses,” in fact, he stops to smell ALL the roses.  This makes everyday tasks take much longer than his mother would like them to take.  The chart has been very helpful for him to focus.  The second chart is for a six-year-old who can read some words.  Feel free to download and modify these for your family.  I laminated ours and my kids use a dry-erase marker to check off each item.  The best part is I don’t have to nag and say “did you brush your teeth?” or “hurry up and put on your shoes!”  Now it’s up to them.  My house is a nag-free zone in the mornings.

4-year-old morning chart (click here)

6-year-old morning chart (click here)

What is Play Therapy?

The official logo of Horizon Mental Health says “Sarah Olson, LSCSW, Certified Play Therapist” and I suspect many reading that may wonder what exactly is a play therapist.  I’ve gotten interesting questions and comments since adding that credential to my professional title.  One question was “So does that mean you teach kindergarten?” and comments often are something like “Oh cool.  You get to play with kids all day.  How fun!”  These comments are well-meaning and I don’t take offense.  I’m happy to talk more about it.

First let’s get into why I sought out play therapy training.  I have a master’s degree in clinical social work, meaning I’m a trained and licensed mental health therapist.  For 12 years I worked in public education with clients ages 3-18.  For the majority of the time, I worked in a K-6 elementary school.  In 2016, I completed post-graduate education in play therapy from Mid-America Nazarene University to enhance my work with children.

The Association for Play Therapy’s website defines play therapy as:

“a way of being with the child that honors their unique developmental level and looks for ways of helping in the “language” of the child – play.  Licensed mental health professionals therapeutically use play to help their clients, most often children ages three to 12 years, to better express themselves and resolve their problems.” (a4pt.org)

These are some of the kids of issues for which my child clients might come to therapy:

  • Disruption(s) in attachment (such as foster care)
  • Death of a parent or other loved one
  • High level of aggression
  • Difficulties with impulse control
  • Difficulties with emotion management
  • Parents divorcing or re-marrying
  • High levels of anxiety, including specific fears
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Bullying as a victim or target

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it does give the reader an idea of what kinds of issues a play therapist might treat.  In addition, I work with the systems in which the child operates.  I may see the child in session one-on-one, but I take what I learn from the child and the skills I teach there and work with parents/caregivers/teachers to carry those skills over to other areas of the child’s life.

In the future I’ll share specific techniques I might use to help children with various issues.  But for now, if your child is struggling and you’ve exhausted all the resources and know-how that you currently possess, I hope you’ll consider play therapy as a way to help your child and your family.

I’ll close with a short video from a professor at John Brown University with an overview of play therapy (click on the title to view):

Overview of Play Therapy



Why Horizon?

Welcome!  This is the blog associated with my therapy practice, Horizon Mental Health.  This being my first post, I thought I should explain why I chose “Horizon” for the name.

A few years ago I went though a difficult time in my life.  Perhaps I’ll discuss that more in future posts, but for now I’ll focus on what it felt like at that time.  I had a very specific metaphor that kept coming back to me, that of being in a vast body of water.  It was cold and I was weary from treading for so long.  It was all I could do to keep my head above.  I was exhausted and I didn’t know which way to go.  I could see land but it was so far away on the horizon I didn’t believe I could get there.

So I went to a therapist.

And it was incredibly helpful.

Sticking with the metaphor, she threw me a life preserver so I could take a minute to catch my breath.  She helped me refocus on the various directions I might go and reminded me that I already know how to swim.  My therapist also reminded me that the one who created the sea and who walks on water was with me and would not let me drown.

Ultimately, I made it to that distant place that I had seen on the horizon.  And I arrived there stronger, more fit to manage life’s challenges, and better able to make it to the next place on another horizon.  Seeing a therapist also showed me that I have the skills to ‘sit in the other chair’ and that I am called to do that work.  Therapy is not magic.  But it can have an impact that feels almost magical in the way it can transform lives.

I don’t know where you are in life.  But if you are struggling, I want you to know that therapy can be incredibly powerful and life-changing.  It’s difficult admitting that you don’t have it all together, calling a therapist, or accepting help.  I shared this post in my hope that someone reading it who is in a vulnerable place might have the courage to seek therapy.  You have no idea what might be on the horizon.

FYI I’m not officially open for business yet.  Insurance credentialing takes some time.  But hopefully in a month or so I’ll be ready to go.

“Should” is a Cuss Word

My 2018 New Year’s Resolution was to increase Mindfulness and I’d like to address mindfulness in the words we use, especially the ones in our own heads.  This idea of self-talk is important.  The words I tell myself absolutely impact my mood, my approach to life, and my well-being.

Many of us are guilty of using the word “should” frequently in our self-talk.  It sounds like this…

  • I should be thinner/more fit/more attractive
  • I should spend more time with my kids/partner/family/friends
  • I should work harder/ get that promotion/earn more money
  • I should be more organized/keep up on housework/finish projects

Psychologist Albert Ellis coined the tongue-in-cheek term “musterbating” to describe this concept.  Musterbating is not that helpful, it doesn’t actually get the things done, and it’s a general drain of emotional energy.

Mel Robbins is a motivational speaker and talks about The Five Second Rule, which is “If you have an instinct to act on a goal, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will kill it.” I love this.  Rather than sitting around making mental lists of all the things we’re not doing well – take the first one and make any one step toward that goal.  I find Mel’s words inspiring like a little motivational java hit.  Check out more at: https://melrobbins.com/blog/five-elements-5-second-rule/

Start noticing that word should in your self-talk.  Recognize when it’s not helpful to you.  Find something different to focus on.  Take a step toward the goal.  You really should.

Dinosaur Mom

I have a confession to make.  I have previously shared that patience is not my best skill.  When I get out of the zen zone, it follows a predictable pattern of 1) impatience 2) authoritarian dictator-like yelling (“hurry up and finish eating” and “get your shoes on” being the most common phrases and 3) sarcasm (which is not helpful with, for example, a two year old).  I am not proud of this behavior.  My kids have given it a name: Dinosaur Mom.  I pray every day to have more patience with my kids.  I succeed and I fail.  I apologize.  Most days are pretty good but there can be a string of not so good ones every now and again.

I’d like to thank all the wonderful elementary and preK teachers who have taught my children and implemented positive behavioral supports such as a green-yellow-red light or pull a card systems.  These systems have varied by teacher but basically they’re intended to help kids self-monitor.  You’re on green…keep it up.  You lost your warning cube…let’s turn this day around.  Pulled your red card…parent phone call.  Things like this.

One morning a couple months ago on the way to school and my son said “Mom, you didn’t yell this morning…you stayed on green.”  I almost died.

Then I inquired more about what happens if I do yell.  He and my daughter then started devising an elaborate system that goes something like this:

  • Green: no yelling, leave the house on time, everyone is calm and respectful
  • Blue: I lost my warning cube with impatience
  • Yellow: I yelled
  • Red: I’m not even sure because we’ve never gotten there, but I think they have to borrow my phone to call their grandparents on me

We talk about this system in the car literally every morning.  I don’t know if it’s helpful or just one more thing they can tell their own therapist some day, but it has added an element of humor to sometimes troubling times.  I’ve been on green a lot lately.  Maybe having this mommy positive behavioral support is in place is working.

To all the other Dinosaur Moms – wishing you a green day or maybe even purple, which my kids say is above green and is reserved for days when I’m “extra nice…or it’s someone’s birthday.”

Anniversaries – not the happy kind

I am very poor at remembering dates.  I probably know only about a dozen birthdays and a handful of anniversaries outside my immediate family.  It’s not my gift to remember such things.  But it is for some people.  My Grandpa Walt, for example, was a vault for significant dates.  He remembered everybody’s birthday, anniversary, the date they moved into a new house.  These are happy dates.  He also remembered dates related to his service in World War II – when he went to basic training, the date bombs were dropped on Japan (as he was en route on the Pacific Ocean), the date he got home.  Not all of these are happy anniversaries, or at minimum bittersweet and complicated.

Maybe you have some unhappy anniversaries as well.  I have a couple.  Two years ago on September 29, we nearly lost my mom or believed we were after getting a terrifying middle-of-the-night phone call.  What followed was the fastest trip down I-70 I’ve ever taken, lots of praying, emergency brain surgery, ICU, and a difficult six months of chemo and radiation.  Some of that time was really hard.  It was really hard on her.  And it was hard on our family.  I can’t help but think about what I was doing two years ago around this time.

Maybe you have some not-so-happy anniversaries.  Traumas such as the death of a loved one, car accident, divorce, or illness.  Some clients I work with have difficulties with anniversaries.  They say things like “this is the month my baby would have been born” or “the last week of May is hard because that’s when we lost my brother.”  When these anniversaries are causing impairment in work or social functioning, therapy can help a person to sort out their feelings, process grief, and develop new coping skills.  They might remember the anniversary in new ways – an annual balloon release or picnic, for example.  It can be a time to draw together with others who share in the not-so-happy anniversary.

If you struggle with a not-so-happy anniversary, know that you are in good company.  There is hope for moving forward.  The anniversary will always be significant, but your ability to to manage the not-so-happy anniversaries can improve.

Coffee Time Part 2: get your village people together

So last week I wrote { this blog } about Coffee Time being our secret to not getting a divorce.  A friend who shared it noted that Coffee Time is not just for couples – and she’s so right!

We all know it takes a village to raise a child, but I want to add that it takes a village just to stay mentally healthy.  Sometimes I’m working with clients who are anxious or depressed and I ask about social support and they report having little or none.  They have no village people.  One of our goals might be to help them find those supports.

In undergrad when I was searching for a career/purpose in life/way to pay the bills, I had a family studies class where we read this great article by Robert Putnam titled Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.  It was life-changing for me and informs my work with clients today.

Basically Putnam has researched civic engagement (a.k.a. spending time with your village people) and found kind of scary trends that indicate we are becoming more socially isolated.  Bowling Alone comes from this idea that even though the number Americans bowling was increasing, participation in leagues was decreasing (find more at http://www.bowlingalone.com).  Not joining a league means not having the camaraderie of teammates – folks who know you and are a support for you, a plus for your mental health.  Similar trends were found in other areas of civic engagement.

The picture above is from last Saturday morning drinking coffee with my sister while sitting on her front porch on a peaceful country road.  She’s a village person for me.  As are a number of other family members, friends, and neighbors.  Although it’s easy to neglect to nurture those relationships, they are so important!

So it’s almost the weekend – why don’t you text some of your village people…set up a coffee date, happy hour (Sonic version if that’s more your thing), family dinner, or game watch party (KSU vs. Vanderbilt perhaps)?  It’ll do your mental health some good.

Coffee Time a.k.a. our secret to not getting a divorce

I have a secret that I’d like to share with all the couples out there.  It’s called Coffee Time.  And in my household it is sacred time.

Coffee Time is my favorite time of the day.  It occurs on the back patio at my house when it’s nice weather, inside when it’s not, or at my office (where my husband also offices).  At the office is my favorite location.  See photo above.

We have been doing Coffee Time for years and rules have developed over time.  It lasts at least 15 minutes and it is a kid-free time.  At our house this is tricky because our three kids don’t think Coffee Time should be a thing.  Instead they want someone to spread peanut butter on their waffle, take them potty, or start Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.  But Kyle and I refuse to do these things during Coffee Time.  Because, for the love, we do those things 99% of the rest of our waking hours (or at least it can feel that way).

During Coffee Time my husband and I connect.  Sometimes it’s making plans (what are we doing this weekend? do you have a plan for dinner?); sometimes it’s talking about the news or weather; sometimes it’s reading our devotion for the day; and sometimes it’s just checking in (how are you doing with that project?  are you feeling better about that thing you were worried about?).

Coffee Time fills my bucket because it’s meeting my need for quality time.  Gary Chapman wrote this really great book called The Five Love Languages (http://www.5lovelanguages.com/).  The book is a pretty quick read it you’re looking for a little boost in your relationship.  Basically he outlines five ways we give and receive love:

  • Quality time
  • Acts of service
  • Words of Affirmation
  • Physical Touch
  • Gifts

We each do all of these things it’s just that some are more meaningful for us.  Also we tend to show love to others via the way we receive love.  This is great if your partner has the same primary love language, but often that’s not the case.

So, in reality, the secret to not getting divorced is more complicated than just Coffee Time, but if you want to strengthen your relationship with your partner, find out your primary love languages.  For the quality time folks out there – I’d start with Coffee Time.



Dear Lord, grant me more patience.  I pray this every day.  ALL THE TIME.

The Bible says love is patient and kind…so why am I the least patient with the people I love the most???

I don’t know where you are on this, but many parents I know share a similar struggle.  Parents of clients.  Clients who are parents.  Friends.  Family.  Me.

So what to do?  Here are a few ideas I’ve known to work, both personally and in working with clients.

  1. Self-care.  This is airplane mask theory.  Put yours on before trying to assist other passengers.  For me it means getting up earlier than my kids to work out, hiring out help (childcare, housecleaning, take out), and date night.
  2. Prepare.  When is patience the hardest?  For example, if you’re snapping at your child at dinner because he is being whiny, look at setting yourself up for success through planning.  Maybe he needs a snack earlier so he’s not so hungry or maybe your family needs to go over the expectations regarding table manners.  Either way, prep time in advance can help parents stay level-headed.
  3. Hit pause.  I’m working on some mindfulness practice at the moment.  For me it’s very basic, just pause to take a step back from the situation, breathe, and look at my thoughts and feelings in a way this is non-judgmental.  It’s both really easy and really difficult.
  4. I use Conscious Discipline (www.consciousdiscipline.com) in teaching clients who are parents ways to manage themselves first so they can then respond to their children.  Dr. Becky Bailey, the creator of Conscious Discipline, has some really sound ideas about parenting.  And even though I know those strategies as a parent myself, I don’t always use them.  Sometimes it’s good to go back for a refresher.  These ideas stood out to me regarding patience:
    • Power of Perception: No one can make you angry without your permission
    • Power of Free Will: The only person you can change is you
    • Power of Acceptance: The moment is as it is
    • Power of Love: Choose to see the best in others

Wishing all the other parents out there patience.  And should you find yourself not always using patience, know that 1) you’re in good company and 2) it’s never too late to start developing skills to become more patient.


Eclipse Day is Here

I know this will come as a shock to most of you, but a solar eclipse is happening today.  Yep, today.  Right through Hiawatha, KS.  For a whole two and a half minutes we will experience total eclipse magic.  And I fully expect it to be magical.

But all this eclipse talk had me thinking about expectations and how sometimes our expectations of amazing-ness get in the way of really great experiences.  The roots often lie in perfectionism.  As a recovering perfectionist myself, I understand this line of thinking all to well.  It’s a chain reaction that starts with setting an impossibly high standard, feeling anxious about not being able to meet it, and then either working really hard to attempt to meet it or completely avoiding it altogether.

The whole experience can seem like a waste because it didn’t go perfectly.

It’s the family holiday where someone didn’t attend.  The scale that doesn’t say the number you’d like.  The wedding where the flowers showed up all wrong.  The job where you didn’t get the promotion.  The marriage where one’s partner makes mistakes.

All of these things and infinitely more.

I hope you get a chance to see the eclipse today.  Maybe it will be absolute eclipse-ical magic.  Or maybe it won’t be quite as magical as anticipated.  Most likely it will be something in between.  A more realistic expectation might be that it will be “really cool.”  That’s what I’m shooting for.  That way when my child needs to go potty one minute before the two and a half minutes of amazing, and we forget to take a family photo the entire day, and the traffic is crazy, and we can’t actually get into any restaurant after the whole thing is over…I’ll remember that the half a minute I did get to see was really cool rather than stressing about all the ways it didn’t go perfectly.

Because I feel pretty confident that it will be “really cool.”