September 21, 2022

The Umbrella Effect: Jen Forristal, ND

Life isn’t always sunny. As parents, we spend a lot of times wishing the storm clouds away because we don’t know how to guide our kids through them, preparing them for any challenge that lies ahead. In The Umbrella Effect, Dr. Jen Forristal explains step-by-step, what kids really need as they learn to navigate the ups and downs of life, discover how to cut through the noise and to focus on the big picture of your child’s wellbeing, keep a pulse on how they’re doing and evaluate their coping skills through each stage of their childhood.

Through casual conversation starters, research-based principles and easy parenting shifts, you’ll get a clear picture of where your kids are thriving and what they need next. Invest in their future happiness today and help them develop the skills they need to weather any storm. Here’s my conversation with Dr. Jen Forristal.

Welcome into Author Hour. I’m your host Benji Block and today, I am thrilled to have Dr. Jen Forristal with me. She has just authored a new book titled, The Umbrella Effect: Your Guide to Raising Strong Adaptable Kids in a Stressful World. Jen, thank you for joining us.

Jen Forristal: Thanks for having me, Benji.

Benji Block: I am excited to talk to you about this, taking on a topic that is a necessary one and really important obviously for the parents listening and anyone who is an aspiring parent. So give me context because The Umbrella Effect, the title of the book really is also coming from The Umbrella Project, which is the work that you do. So, talk to us a little bit about The Umbrella Project and then what happened or what triggered you to go, “Okay, now, it’s time to write this book.”

The Umbrella Project 

Jen Forristal: Yeah, for sure. I guess my work career started in naturopathic medicine and I was seeing a lot of families and primarily specializing in pediatric mental health you know, in doing that, came to recognize that there are some really fundamental things as parents and in schools that we are not teaching kids. 

We are, I think, no longer preparing them for the world that they’re going out into and decided to develop a curriculum actually for schools, that’s The Umbrella Project, that teaches kids some really fundamental principles, you know, the first one being that we’re not getting out of life without some challenges.

So you know, it’s important to anticipate that life isn’t always going to be perfect but that we’re not also powerless to do something about that and we can build ourselves a set of skills that we call an umbrella, and basically, they all leave together to help protect us from challenges and you know, in doing that work, I think schools really resonated with that message and really saw that there is an issue right now with kids feeling like something has gone terribly wrong every time you know, something normal but not that great happens to them and also recognizing that schools cannot tackle the challenge of kid’s mental health alone. This is a multi-stakeholder challenge and parents are you know, a big part of that dynamic too.

If we want to raise strong, adaptable kids and the next generation of kids who are going to have to tackle some pretty big challenges I think in the world, we need everybody to be involved in teaching these important skills and this message and helping kids swallow the big pill that life isn’t always going to be easy but also actively prepare themselves.

So, writing a book sort of fell into my lap as a way to help parents understand what their role can be in this and how they can proactively prepare their kids for challenges instead of waiting for something to go wrong and then trying to fix it.

Benji Block: Yeah, did COVID give you, like the extra kind of time in a sense, the extra push in that season where you’re like, “I need to write this book now” or what was the beginning of going, “Okay, I want to take on a big project like this?

Jen Forristal: You know, I think it’s funny, the universe sometimes gives you challenges that are very aligned with what you’re teaching to make sure that you are walking the walk or walking the talk. I actually decided to write this book in September of 2019 and then found out I was pregnant again with my third child in November of that year and for any of those parents out there who have been pregnant, we all know that’s not an easy time to build and create.

I certainly found it difficult and then, of course, COVID hit not long after that. I really felt like the universe provided me with a lot of stumbling blocks in getting this book out into the world but a lot of validation that working through struggle is so important.

Life is not going to be the linear path that you think it’s going to be, it’s actually going to be present you with all sorts of different challenges and you know, to me, really allowed me not only to write the book but to dive into all the skills and teachings from the book and you know, really validate for myself how important that message is. It was an interesting time to write a book, that’s for sure.

Benji Block: Yeah, I can imagine. Okay, so the last question that’s sort of like a behind-the-curtain question and we’ll dive into some of the actual content here but as you’re working on it in this intense season of taking on a project like this and all the other things life is throwing at you, who are you imagining that’s like pulling this project forward? Who is the ideal reader that you’re writing this for?

The Ideal Reader

Jen Forristal: You know, I think especially during COVID, a lot of us really came to realize, I have not only a toddler but I have two teenagers as well and I think a lot of parents got a real eye-opener during COVID of what coping skills our kids really have and which ones are hard because COVID was a struggle for – especially for teenagers and all the little gaps in their coping skills really came to the forefront.

I think, like, who this book is for is every parent who is committed to trying to do the best hat they can to prepare their kids for the world ahead and I don’t know a parent who didn’t realize, at least during the last two years, how incredibly necessary all of these skills are for their kids. So it’s really just my hope and my wish that it is a valuable tool to help parents really see the big picture of their kid’s well-being and it’s those parents that I think the book is written for.

Benji Block: Okay, so let’s dive into this. Just walk us through why you chose the umbrella metaphor and explain the umbrella metaphor a little bit.

Umbrella Metaphor

Jen Forristal: Sure, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to talk to somebody about stress and coping but it’s not a very sexy topic, let’s just say. It certainly doesn’t resonate with most and in my practices, I found as soon as some of those words would come up, especially with kids, eyes would glaze over and you know, like, there’s nothing getting through. 

So somewhere along the way, I tried to create something that everybody could understand, you know, that parents could talk to their kids about, that kids could visualize what all these pieces, why do we talk about empathy and how is that related to growth mindset and how is that related to my stress and my cognitive flexibility and my sense of purpose.

I think we throw around a lot of these things in a very haphazard way for kids and so the umbrella metaphor just really came to me one day and as I started really thinking about each of the big pieces of research that we know about wellbeing, each one of them fits actually so perfectly into this metaphor but it’s one that is easy to visualize, see, understand.

For example, you know, when you’re thinking about parenting and you’re thinking about the journey from when your kids are very little to when they’re adults, really, you can visualize the idea that as a parent when your kids are young, you’re supposed to be protecting them with your umbrella of coping skills, right?

That’s a pretty natural thing that we do as parents but at some point, your kids need to build their own umbrella, they need to pull out from under your umbrella of coping skills and build their own and so, you know, how we do that is by slowly releasing control and allowing them to take on some of these challenges, watching what happens, coming back, debriefing, teaching skills, right? Allowing them to step into their own confidence when it comes to coping. 

So that’s an example of you know, how this metaphor has really, I think, shifting the way that I’m able to talk to parents, families, schools, about what the goal is here for everyone because I think I don’t know the default for parenting for sure is to protect your kids as much as possible to help them thrive, right? 

But when we’re doing that, often kids are happy under our nice big umbrellas of protection but when you take those umbrellas away, kids are no longer coping on their own. So I hear all the time, from you know, university professors that they still have parents coming in arguing for their kid’s marks for example at that level and I think often how that happens is, those parents fail to recognize along the way that their kids were happy not because they had their own umbrella of coping skills but because they had their parents umbrellas to really help them navigate, right?

This metaphor is a way for us to visualize what we’re doing as parents and see the big picture in order to make sure that our kids are coping on their own and not just via our protection.

Benji Block: It makes me want to jump back a generation or maybe we just zoom out for a second because we talk about parents potentially having these coping skills, having these established umbrellas. In a sense I’m like, isn’t it kind of like faulty parental umbrellas that are leading to the lack of coping skills in the next generation? How do you think about that?

Jen Forristal: Yeah. I mean, it’s different for every person and that’s why in the book, we have actually an assessment tool that allows both parents and kids to assess their own coping skills, see what’s strong, see what’s weak. We can really, you know, over-rely on one of two skills. So I don’t know if you know friends out there who maybe are just so empathetic but that’s like the main skill that they always use and you can see how much is burning them out over time, right? 

They might be getting by but they’re doing it on this one skill, right? Or they might be totally over-emphasized on grit and think that everybody needs to just buckle down and get it done, right? And really, our coping skills are much more nuanced than that. So there are lots of them in the research that we need. We need autonomy, we need to be able to think for ourselves, we need a sense of purpose, we need self-compassion, we need to be kind to ourselves, right? 

There’s a lot of different pieces that go into healthy coping. When we look at it like an over-dominant parenting umbrella, it might not be that umbrella is not filled with good coping skills. It just might be dominant in one space or another and kind of overused. So I really think when it comes to like, healthy, parenting, it starts with the parent.

The healthier your coping skills are, the easier it is for you to be able to hold the space that your kids need for all the other pieces, right? The healthier you are, the more self-compassion you have, for example as a parent, the less likely your child is to be anxious, because the less you’re beating yourself up when things go wrong or when your child is struggling, the less you feel like you need to fix it in order to be a good parent, right? You can step back a little bit and just be kind to yourself in that situation too.

It all weaves together and I think that is why the book is so interesting and valuable is that it allows everybody to take a big step back and just say like, “Where are we now? You know, what do I have, what am I missing as a parent? What does my child have, and what are they missing? How can we build this together, how can we start from where we are and you know, celebrate the strengths that we have and then fill in the missing pieces that inhibit our ability to cope well?”

Benji Block: I wonder on the assessment, like, I could see that being a great tool upfront. Is it something you just say, “Hey, like, parents and kids could do this as an activity together” and then how often is that something that you revisit or call back to mine for both the child and the parent?

Jen Forristal: Yeah, I had a funny experience once actually. I was working with a school and one of the teachers, you know, we did the umbrella assessment for all the educators there and then I had a chance to follow-up with them later and the on teacher said, “You know what? I printed out this assessment and I took it to my extended family Thanksgiving and passed it around and I said, we all need to do this assessment, we all need to understand what’s going on with our coping skills” and I do think it is like that. 

It’s great when everybody does it themselves and then, you know, everybody can work together to work on the strong and weak spots, and you can revisit it really as much as you want. I find, I’ll redo it with my family when thing’s changed or, one I can see that you know, a skill we might have been working on is actually getting quite a bit stronger, we might redo it to see like, “Okay, what’s next?” you know, what’s the next skill that we can tackle?

I have a parenting course too and in that, I recommend parents do one thing at a time because this is really a long game. When we think about good coping for kids and parents, it does not mean doing a gratitude journal in the morning and you know, doing this activity in the evening and everybody’s volunteering after that and playing this sport and going outside for a while. It’s really easy to overwhelm yourself as a parent and actually become way less effective if you try to do everything. 

The umbrella effect is really about understanding, what is the one thing that I can do for my child right now? What is the one skill that if we put some energy into it, would fill in that little piece of their umbrella, make them a little bit better at coping, a little more likely to take on a challenge next time because they feel a little more prepared, right? And then what? And then what? And it’s kind of this building over the course of your parenting journey. 

So, that’s a really important part of it too is that overwhelmed parents do not parent well and even if you’re overwhelmed with all the good things you’re trying to do for your child, that’s still not a good place to be.

Benji Block: From that place too, it’s so easy that, “Oh, we have to do all these things” and then you kind of looking past the kid instead of being there present and engaged and that’s where growth actually happens, right?

Growth in Conversations

Jen Forristal: Exactly. One of the things that are actually in the book at the end of each chapter is just a conversation to have with kids about what that chapter is about or you know, about their feelings, their experiences because I think that’s another piece of it too. A lot of parenting actually just happens in the dynamics of conversation with kids and there’s some really easy tweaks that we share in the book to just improve that one little thing, right?

Just be a little more, what I call curious empathy, right? Just a little more curious about your kid’s experiences, a little more empathetic and how you do that in order to really help them build and foster the skills they need. So, it’s not…

Benji Block: One of the ones that you have mentioned actually that I was going to end up bringing up, well, I’ll bring it up here because it fits so perfectly, is you talk about creating a suck but normal category and like, just teaching that to your kids. Would you go down that road just a little bit because I think part of it is like, that conversation falls under a principle and it’s the first principle in the book but accept that there is a hundred percent chance of rain in your child’s life.

So we know that intuitively but then there are these conversations that even though we know it as adults, we might not be having it with our kids in any sort of meaningful way, creating a category like sucks but normal is fantastic. Can you just talk about that and then what that conversation might look like? 

Jen Forristal: Totally and I think this is a big one not just for teaching our kids but also for understanding as a parent because I think every parent would say, of course, life isn’t always perfect and that’s the way it is but when your child is actually struggling with something, the first reaction is to try to make that thing go away in some way for your child. 

It just feels like the right parenting thing to do to be like, “You’re struggling, I am going to make this go away for you” or “I’m going to tell you that this is actually wrong” or “Your coach isn’t right” or “Your teacher didn’t evaluate you properly” or whatever the thing is just to make this feeling go away because it’s hard to watch your kids struggle. 

I wrote this book and I hate it when my kids are struggling, I did everything I can do not to just try to make that struggle go away. So that sucks but normal category is a great reminder for everybody that there are things in life that sucked and are also normal like people aren’t nice a 100% of the time. 

I’ve asked a thousand rooms of this, “Is anybody in this room nice 100% of the time to everybody that they know including their kids and their spouse?” and I’ve never had anybody put up their hand because that’s just not the way it is, right? You will be on the receiving end of somebody being unkind to you and when that happens, it does feel like something’s gone wrong instead of something’s gone normal. 

This category I think is a funny way to help kids reflect on and even I love doing things in advance, right? Sitting down with your kids just like, “Hey, what do you guys think goes in this sucks but normal category?” and you know, as they think of these things, “Yeah, okay. Actually, that is pretty normal, yep. No, people get called names sometimes. Oh no, yep, that’s normal too.” 

“Okay, people don’t do as well as they wanted on a test or they get in trouble” or whatever but what that does is it creates a narrative for your child in advance of challenges happening that says this is normal, this happens to everybody, it’s okay, right? Nothing has gone horribly wrong and the more we can pre-narrate experiences for kids like this, the easier it is for them to feel bad but not, you know? —

Benji Block: Not give up, yeah. 

Jen Forristal: Yeah, not create stories for themselves that are actually not true like, “Nobody likes me. I’m not smart” you know? That’s what tends to happen when these things kind of blindside us instead of proactively preparing your kids like, “Okay, let’s think of all the things that are normal, that are normal parts of life that just make you feel bad” right? It also allows them not to have to not feel feelings. 

I think there is a lot of talks out there right now about toxic positivity, which is like that feeling that you have to just be always like, “Oh no, I’m fine, everything is good. No, I’m not hurt, I’m not sad, I’m not angry” right? This is like, “Yeah, you’re hurt. Yeah, you’re sad and angry, and also, it’s normal. It’s okay.” 

Benji Block: Yeah, that’s so important like to feel those things and then also have like the level of being able to step back and know that it doesn’t determine who you are or they’re not detached to your identity. Some of those like extreme statements that you brought up of like, “Well, that must mean I mean I am worthless” or I am whatever. It’s like, “Oh no, we can reframe that slightly” and come to a different outcome and I love that about those types of conversations. 

The other one that I want to mention is you have a principle around building an appetite for obstacles. This seems like you just would have to be on it but I was wondering if maybe we could even highlight and example like how could a parent start finding the right types of opportunities to dip their kids’ toes into the waters of challenging their comfort zone, getting a little bit outside because there is definitely a push and pull there but it seems like such a big deal to create an appetite for some obstacles. 

Jen Forristal: Yeah, I’ve said this many times like if there was one wish that I had for this generation of kids it’s that they build this appetite for challenges that they are not afraid when things get hard in life because I think that’s the only way we really grow. When we stay as much as we can in our comfort zones, our comfort zones just slowly shrink around us until almost everything feels anxiety-inducing or uncomfortable. 

We need to push into the walls of our comfort zone, if you can imagine that and make it bigger and bigger and then less and less of life’s experiences actually fall outside of your comfort zone, right? 

Benji Block: It’s a very good image, yep. 

Jen Forristal: Yeah, you can take on more and more. I have two ways that I love to think about how you might do that for your kids, two easy quick thing that you can try. The first is getting a little more comfortable again with risky play. This is kind of a positive way to do it and a thing you can seek out as a parent is we have become very risk-averse for the most part in our society. 

For example, most parents drive their kids to school even though walking is accessible because they are afraid of what might happen to their child between home and school and actually, the research shows that they are much more likely to be injured or have something happen to them in the car on the way to school than they are walking. However, there’s this perception of keeping our kids safe all the time. 

So risky play is a great way to start to build a little bit of that appetite for challenges. It allows your child to do something a little bit scary and then feel that exhilarated feeling on the other side. I remember like as a child, one of my favorite things that my sister and I used to like to do is find creeks and rivers that look just farther than we thought we could jump and then try to jump across them, right? There was this feeling on the – 

Benji Block: That’s awesome. 

Jen Forristal: Yeah, on the other side especially when you made it, right? Like, “Ooh, that felt good. I like that” right? That is how a lot of challenges can feel for us in life but you have to get a taste for it, right? You have to allow your child to do it. One of the experts in risky play recommends the 17-second rule and I love this, which is basically just that when your brain as a parent says you want to yell at your child stop or stop climbing. 

You know, we’ll use an example of climbing a tree. You watch them, you count in your head to 17 and you watch them go just that little bit higher and you wait and see what happens because what often happens in that 17-second window is that your child stops themselves, right? They take a risk, they go a little bit further but they stop themselves at a certain point but our parenting instinct is to jump in before that happens. 

So if we allow that little margin to just watch them, and observe them, we can see where their risk brain kicks in and what they do in that situation, and then either we can coach them on how they might challenge themselves or keep stay safer next time or we build a little bit of trust and they build a little bit of trust in themselves. 

Benji Block: I like that. 

Jen Forristal: Yeah, I think that’s a great way to start to think about that challenge mindset and so for those of you who haven’t heard of risky play, usually that’s play with speed, with heights, with fire, with water, with getting lost, with sharp objects and so I am sure you can imagine all the different ways that you might allow your child to just push a little bit into those boundaries and then the second one that I really like comes up when kids are afraid of things. 

So maybe your child is afraid of the dark and instead of coming up with this parenting strategy that you think is going to work and putting in place, what I love to do with kids is just ask them what is the tiniest step that you can imagine taking towards that fear instead of away from it and so, for a child who is afraid of the dark basement, maybe the very first step that they’re willing to take is to sit at the top of the stairs with the lights on in the basement and just sit there for five minutes and that’s it. 

Then once they’ve done that, okay, they’ve checked a little box. They’ve accomplished something that they chose themselves. Then the next step might be to sit at the bottom of the stairs with the lights on, right? Just sit there and then slowly if you engage them in choosing their own baby steps towards their fears, I often see in my practice and with my own kids that they start to again, get that appetite for like, “Look, actually that felt pretty good.” 

I accomplish something that was scary for me, right? What else might I be able to do, what else could I do? That’s kind of what we want them to be asking themselves, right? “Oh, I did that. What else can I do? What else is available to me?” and I think that’s another great example of how we could build more of a challenge mindset in our kids. 

Benji Block: As we start to wrap this conversation up Jen, I wonder, I’d love to hear some stories, some examples because I think of the principles that you outline in the book and I love how you have just the skills guide on the back half but what have you seen with the kids you’ve worked with, what are some of those success stories? Because I think that would be just a great picture to paint before we start to close out today. 

Examples of the Principles in Action

Jen Forristal: Oh gosh, there’s so many. I think one that I share in the book that I am particularly fond of is a little girl that I saw in my practice who had a lot of big fears. A thunderstorm, you know she was trapped in a tent once during a thunderstorm with her family and was terrified of that. She was afraid of the basement, she was afraid of fires at school, and there was all sorts of things that she was afraid of. 

So we worked with her in these baby-step way, so I think she sat inside cuddled up in a blanket with her mom’s arms around her watching the rain one day and then you know, worked towards running around on the lawn while it rained in her bathing suit and so on and I remember one day her coming into my practice and our mom sitting down and saying, “Okay Dr. Jen, we’ve got a question here.” 

So now, she was seven at the time I believe, she wanted to walk to the park alone and she was like, “Is that safe for a seven-year-old? I’m not sure anymore.” So by the end of this exercise, her daughter was looking for these challenges and actually, the mom had the opposite problem, right? It’s like now, not only did she like challenges but she wants these challenges I am not even so sure about like, what do we do about that now? 

I just loved that story so much because it just shows how flexible the brains of kids are. If you just implement easy, small steps, a lot of them are fun too. You can really help your child develop the tools that they need to thrive, and I think it’s so easy to become a problem-solving parent and you know, your child is having temper tantrums. You Google temper tantrums in a child and you do whatever it says to try to make that thing go away. 

Whatever behavior or a thing you are trying to fix but a lot of times the strategies that we use for that aren’t actually zooming out at all into the big picture of what we want our kids to be, which is adaptable and strong and resilient and so that’s what the umbrella effect really is, it’s that chance to see the bigger picture of where your child’s at and make sure that your parenting strategies and your problem solving aligns with where you are hoping your child will end up, you know, at the end of your parenting journey. 

Benji Block: I think that’s a great way to sum it up and I love that as an example, what an incredible before and after if you will. To imagine being in that space and you’re right, we can continue to grow and try things and going back to what we were talking about at the top of like being the type of parents that model this for our kid and show the fun that it can be to walk outside of your comfort zone, there is just so much growth to be had and kids invite us as parents into that growth as well. 

I love this book, I love the concepts you’re talking about. Clearly, this isn’t a very actionable look with assessments and all these types of things that we can actually implement as conversation starters, but I wonder like when someone walks away, is there a feeling you want them to get from this book Jen? Is there a main thought that you want people to have, anything that you are kind of hoping for the reader as they complete the book?

Jen Forristal: Best-case scenario for me is that after reading this book, parents just take a deep sigh of relief knowing that it’s okay. It’s okay to be where you are. It’s not an easy job to parent kids, it’s the hardest thing to do because you are not the only input in their lives and everything doesn’t work the same even week to week, right? Kids are always changing; they are gaining new perspectives from their friends and school, and they come back. 

So I just really hope that from this book parents feel validated in all of the great things that they have done to date and know that this is a long journey and one that doesn’t need to destroy your own well-being in the process that you can be happy and you can work towards your kids being happy even on the rainy days. Even when things seemed like they’re at their worst, often those are the things that will create a strong and resilient human. 

So just that feeling of you know, being okay with the ebbs and flows of life and feeling proud of the work that you’re doing as a parent I think that’s it. 

Benji Block: Well, the title of the book again, The Umbrella Effect: Your Guide to Raising Strong Adaptable Kids in a Stressful World. Jen, for those that want to check out The Umbrella Project, they want to stay connected to you, obviously, we’re going to tell them to go get the book on Amazon but what are the best ways to stay connected with your work? 

Jen Forristal: You can find us on the main spot is our website, umbrellaproject.co. We are also on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook at Umbrella PJCT and we put out lots of parenting information there too. So wherever you get your information, hopefully, you look us up. 

Benji Block: Well, Dr. Jen Forristal, thank you so much for being on Author Hour. It was a pleasure to have you on and discuss the new book.

Jen Forristal: Thank you so much for having me. I am really proud of the struggle that it took to get here and I hope everybody loves it. 

Benji Block: Awesome.