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Please Sweat the Big Stuff

Please Sweat the Big Stuff

“Don’t sweat the small stuff” is valuable advice. It’s easy to get worked up over little things when stress is mounting. Not sweating the small stuff requires some kind of reset of perspective. But there are two caveats: timing is everything, and the scale is subjective. You have to realize it’s just not that important in the grand scheme of things to avoid ‘overreacting.’

Overreactions are only overreactions after the recognition that they’re out of proportion. Until that moment, the emotions seem scaled to fit the moment. Telling someone to settle down in the midst of their tantrum is only likely to escalate the tension. Yet, there are precisely four situations when a dramatic emotional response is called for. In order of increasing importance, they are respect, trust, health, and safety.

When any of these four are violated, it’s time to pull the ripcord. The reason is simple. What follows an underreaction to them is harmful. More importantly, they are interdependent. A breach of any of the four affects the others. What’s more, if you allow respect, trust, health, or safety violations to go unchecked, there’s a risk of sanctioning the tolerance. Let’s go through them one by one.


The way people should treat each other is modeled first in the home. Kids observe their caregivers like squeezed sponges near puddles as they soak in childhood lessons. In the mind of a child, whatever they experience is ‘normal.’ So, if dad treats mom like dirt, that’s the way dads are supposed to treat moms. Families are wise to call some kind of a time-out when anyone says or does anything to anyone that is disrespectful. Once the interaction has been frozen in time, make sure everyone knows what the expectations will be moving forward. Then, make sure to behave consistently with this stance in the exchanges that follow.


Over time, parents put themselves out of a job by empowering their kids to become independent. Autonomy is a developmental acquisition. Yet, parents hold the reins on the timing and degree of freedom allowed. Freedom must be earned by making responsible choices. The more responsible the child, the longer the leash. Of course, the opposite is true. Short leashes are designed as external controls when internal controls aren’t enough. Whenever you show me that I don’t need to track your accountability, I back off. If your behavior communicates that you can’t be trusted, I have no choice but to exert control.


Wellness is the foundation of effective coping. Nutrition, sleep, hygiene, and exercise create a platform for physical, emotional, and cognitive health. We have more energy, feel more balanced, and make better decisions when this foundation is strong. Slippage, however, is insidious. Neglected wellness is often the consequence of prolonged stress. Unfortunately, neglect gets normalized over time, especially if it is gradual. Like the proverbial plates spinning on sticks, keep an eye on the aspects of wellness that are wobbling and give them a spin before they crash.


Most parents have an urge to bubble-wrap their kids. There is a delicate balance between exposing them to growth opportunities and protecting them from danger. Every developmental stage increases their capacity to make good judgements while, at the same time, raising the stakes of failure. It’s all about measuring readiness accurately and responding resolutely when your assessment misses. Kids never learn to get up if they’re never allowed to fall. Yet, setting limits when they are tempting danger is a message of love.

Respect, trust, health, and safety. Please sweat the big stuff.

About the Author

Steve Ritter, LCSW is the Founder and Executive Director of Elmhurst Counseling. He has served as a teacher, author, consultant, human resources director, health care administrator, and licensed clinical social worker since 1977. A fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives, Steve has provided coaching, therapy and team development services to thriving schools, businesses and organizations.

How to Fight (or: How to Love)

How to Fight (or: How to Love)

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of your last fight? It doesn’t matter if it was an argument with another adult or your child. In either case, your recollection probably starts with all the ways that person wronged you.

We can’t help but cast ourselves as the main character in our personal narratives. We’re each the center of our own universe. The most mature among us can recognize that there are two sides to every story, but when emotion comes into play, that skill usually goes right out the window. Vulnerability equals self-absorption: it’s instinctual and protective.

It’s easy to get stuck when we’re vulnerable. But there’s a workaround if we spend time cultivating it. First, imagine we each incubate seeds of feeling inside us. Seeds of happiness, pain, safety, sorrow, awareness, love, contentment, worry – all within each person, and all vying for time in the sun. If we pay attention, we can see them as clearly as the outfit someone’s wearing.

Next, think about which ‘feeling seeds’ have been fertilized most inside the person you’re facing. It could be that pain grew wild and unchecked for years, and has been choking out the other seedlings. Maybe safety hasn’t been watered very much lately and is struggling to take root. For some, an unresolved trauma might have altered their soil conditions.

It’s very likely the fight was more about the state of their greenhouse than what appeared to be the triggering event. And it’s just as likely that your response was more about the state of your own greenhouse rather than the surrounding circumstances. Both are usually true.

So next time, think about trying something different. Instead of nurturing the defensive seedlings in the midst of a conflict by pouring water on neglect, anger, and inadequacy, look for the positive seedlings that could use more TLC. Giving those helpful seedlings of love, appreciation, and understanding some nourishment will greatly benefit you both.

Because when it comes down to it, we’re all living in the same garden.

About the Author

Kerry Galarza, MS OTR/L is the Clinical Director and a pediatric occupational therapist at Elmhurst Counseling. She provides specialized assessment and intervention with children of all ages and their families. Kerry engages clients with naturally occurring, meaningful home-based methods to empower autonomy and maximize functioning.

Parenting: Tilt-a-Whirl or Lazy River?

Parenting: Tilt-a-Whirl or Lazy River?

For many families, the end of the school year means the start of trips to amusement and water parks. Unsurprisingly, my personal experience of those outings has steadily shifted as my children have grown from toddlers into teens. The change has been a pleasant one, but maybe not for the reason you’re thinking.

When my kids were small, visits to entertainment parks meant a lot of stress. As someone who’s easily overstimulated anyway, I had to brace myself against overlong days and too much of everything. Too much activity, too much noise, too much interaction. The depletion of my energy would begin just thinking about the variations of ‘too much’ that were about to drain my parental reservoir.

Beyond that, my natural tendency towards hyper-vigilance didn’t help matters. I tried to manage every facet of every moment. One of my kids was always on the verge of getting hurt, so I was always braced in the ready-stance that moms assume to prevent catastrophe. I frequently operated from a flight-or-fight mode, and I desperately tried to stay in control.

Metaphorically, it felt like a constant ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl. My hands stayed gripped tightly around everyone’s wants and needs, and sometimes I had to muscle everything in the opposite direction to prevent my family from spinning out. I didn’t know when I’d be able to stop to catch my breath, and during the brief calm moments, it was all I could do to try not to feel dizzy.

In fact…that’s pretty much how parenting very young kids felt for me in general.

Now that my kids are older, their immediate needs have lessened. They also (usually) do a better job of exercising responsibility, independence, and self-control. You’d think their new autonomy would allow me to loosen the reigns. But here’s the surprise: their blossoming maturity hasn’t reduced the opportunities for parental stress. It has just changed the source of anxiety and, needless to say, the stakes are higher.

At every new age, there are just as many moving parts and endless ways for me to try, and fail, to control the experience. Eventually, I figured out I had a decision to make. Should I continue to wear myself out by tightening my grip and trying to muscle things in the ‘right’ direction (read: ‘my’ direction), or just disembark from the Tilt-a-Whirl?

If you haven’t already guessed, I chose to hop off that ride. The Tilt-a-Whirl was supposed to be fun, but when it came down to it, it was mostly making me feel sick. I do accidentally step back on it sometimes, but I spend the majority of my time on a different attraction these days.

It’s the Lazy River for me now.

I’m liking the Lazy River parenting style much more. I get to relax, go with the flow, and savor the ride. That’s not to say I’m not actively engaged in the chaos of raising kids. I often crash and need to push off again in order to course-correct. I get turned around plenty and sometimes I’m seriously stuck. Even so, I know I’ll get back on track with a little space and some gentle momentum.

On the Lazy River, I’m still guiding the experience. But now I’m slowing down, taking things as they come, and happily soaking it in as I go. Best of all, I’m no longer dizzy.

About the Author

Kerry Galarza, MS OTR/L is the Clinical Director and a pediatric occupational therapist at Elmhurst Counseling. She provides specialized assessment and intervention with children of all ages and their families. Kerry engages clients with naturally occurring, meaningful home-based methods to empower autonomy and maximize functioning.

Why We Need a Why

Why We Need a Why

Feeling happy is a pretty universal goal, but we can’t always put a finger on exactly what it means. Everyone has fleeting moments of joy or elation. But when we ask someone, Are you happy? we’re usually talking about a deeper sense of contentment.

We might feel it when we’re overcome with wonder about the world around us or when we notice beauty and love in our lives. Happiness can also go hand-in-hand with gratitude as we take stock of our good fortune. Although we’re able to recognize its presence, it can be strangely difficult to put into words.

A random poll of friends and family members would probably result in a different definition of happiness from each of them. But as I settle into my middle age, I’m beginning to feel that true happiness – the broader, longer-lasting, soul-fulfilling kind – is almost synonymous with another noun most of us take for granted: purpose.

Research increasingly suggests that having a purpose is the key to a meaningful life — and a happy life. Purpose and meaning are connected to what researchers call eudaimonic well-being. This is distinct from, and sometimes inversely related to the feeling of elation (hedonic well-being). One constitutes a deeper, more durable state, while the other is superficial and transient.

Way back in eighteenth-century Europe, a movement started to help people with emotional struggles rehabilitate through creativity. It didn’t take long to discover that the therapeutic value of engagement in purposeful activity was radically more effective than previous treatment models that were associated with brutality or idleness. This idea eventually became the origin of Occupational Therapy (OT).

There’s a reason the philosophy of OT has withstood the test of time. Having a purpose – something that makes us feel alive and absorbed – is as vital to our well-being as food and water. Purpose simultaneously connects us to the rest of the universe and brings us back into ourselves. We can find it both in a broader life-calling and in discrete events. Purpose becomes the link between us and our environment. We become more and, as Occupational Therapists see regularly, we become well.

Scale doesn’t matter as much as fit. The focus of your purpose can be solitary, quiet, and private. It simply has to embody something that fills you up and gives you a sense of personal enlargement, of swelling out beyond yourself. You know you are aligned with your purpose because your power grows. You feel a part of something bigger than yourself. Time flies.

You may find purpose by nurturing the relationships in your life, expressing your unique talents through the cultivation of a hobby, pursuing a stimulating career, or contributing to your community. The avenues are limitless. But if you’re feeling a gap, try asking yourself the question – and then, more importantly, take the important step of answering it.

What draws you in, ignites your energy, and pulls you forward?

About the Author

Kerry Galarza, MS OTR/L is the Clinical Director and a pediatric occupational therapist at Elmhurst Counseling. She provides specialized assessment and intervention with children of all ages and their families. Kerry engages clients with naturally occurring, meaningful home-based methods to empower autonomy and maximize functioning.

I Get To…

I Get To…

Spring activities have begun, end-of-school-year craziness is starting to fill your calendar, and your family’s long-sheltered immune systems are struggling to keep up against the season’s usual bugs. All of this is piling on top of the usual stressors: the house is a mess, the weekend grocery haul already ran out, there’s another note from school, the mail’s stacking up, and you have to make dinner again. You’re pretty much running on fumes.

Just for fun, let’s add one more thing to your list. You’ve probably been encouraged for the thousandth time by yet another blog or a well-intentioned friend to also “practice self-care”. The phrase is as overused these days as “unprecedented times” and “new normal”. But please try to hear me out as I join the bandwagon – because I’m about to propose a gratitude exercise.

Seems like a ridiculous suggestion when you can’t even shower without interruption, I know. I’m the first to admit that it feels impossible some (most?) days. Yet gratitude remains one of the most overlooked tools that we all have access to every day, and the benefits are enormous.

Dozens of studies tell us that feeling gratitude has a wide range of perks, including reducing stress and improving relationships. Scientists at Indiana University even found that it can change your brain, making you happier and less prone to depression. Maybe even more importantly, they discovered that it makes you more receptive to gratitude experiences down the road. In other words, it can kickstart a positive snowball effect.

So how can we realistically get more gratitude into our stressful days? Here’s a fairly easy trick to try out. The next time something makes you smile, just make note of it in your head, but start with the words, “I get to.”


Begin with the easy observations:

I get to watch my son shine on the soccer field.”

I get to enjoy a fun evening out.”


Once you have that nailed, do the same thing with the less obvious stuff:

I get to have some alone time at Target”

I get to savor this sip of coffee.”


Finally, the real challenge – apply the words to the moments that make you want to escape:

I get to practice patience while stuck in bad traffic.”

I get to help my daughter navigate this tantrum.”


No one can do this successfully all of the time, or even always believe the words in the moment (I’m looking at you, tantrum example). But those three little words – “I get to” – are deceptively powerful, because they lend you an important, subconscious shift in perspective. The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace.  Even the tough stuff means that you get to experience life in all its beautiful and ugly splendor. And acknowledging that simple fact is the true essence of gratitude.

About the Author

Kerry Galarza, MS OTR/L is the Clinical Director and a pediatric occupational therapist at Elmhurst Counseling. She provides specialized assessment and intervention with children of all ages and their families. Kerry engages clients with naturally occurring, meaningful home-based methods to empower autonomy and maximize functioning.