CERTIFIED PARENT COACH
MENTAL HEALTH ACTIVIST
FOUNDER, THRIVE WITH A GUIDE, LLC
Are you starting to be concerned about your child's behavior?
Or are you fully immersed in a challenging situation?
Maybe you're facing a crisis as you read this.
No matter where you are in your parenting journey, I have been there and I understand. I have amassed a wealth of knowledge that I want to share with you, from parenting children with behavioral and mental health challenges to selecting therapeutic programs.
The first step is opening up, then together we will find a better way forward, to improve your relationships and to change your life.
My name is Vanessa Elias and I am the founder of Thrive with a Guide, LLC. I am a certified parent coach and a mental health activist, and I serve as a lead voice in my community connecting parents to professionals, resources, and thought leaders. I specialize in considering siblings when creating a personalized support plan for parents. I am also a facilitator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Child & Adolescent Network (NAMI-CAN) and have led parent support groups since 2015.
While my focus has been local, my message has resonated deeply and garnered national attention. At the heart of my approach is my ability to partner with mental health professionals, parents, school districts, community organizations, and politicians.
As the president of the Wilton Youth Council (2015-2019), I was part of the team that engaged acclaimed researcher Suniya S. Luthar, Ph.D., to survey local high school students. The result was the Privileged and Pressured presentation and a community-wide reckoning about the unhealthy obsession with achievement. It was the subject of NPR's The Perils Of Pushing Kids Too Hard, And How Parents Can Learn To Back Off, where I talk candidly about the students’ feedback, "People don't talk about these things. Families often struggle silently, not realizing that their friends' or neighbors' kids are experiencing the same struggles. So having an opportunity to create a conversation about this was really important."
Supporting children with cutting-edge training for school staff is essential. In 2017, I partnered with Kim Zemo, LCSW, to host a 3-day DBT Skills Training for Emotional Problem Solving for Adolescents (DBT STEPS-A). Joining us in completing the training were K-12 mental health professionals from Wilton and three other Fairfield County districts. It was led by the curriculum co-authors, James Mazza, Ph.D. and Elizabeth Dexter-Mazza, Psy.D.
Concerned parents, including myself, were the driving force behind the creation of the Free Play Matters Task Force. We sought out collaboration with Peter Gray, Ph.D., and Lenore Skenazy, co-founders of Let Grow, and Dr. Kevin Smith, superintendent of Wilton Public Schools. The goal is to educate the community about the critical importance of child-directed play. One of my outreach initiatives is Big Block Party Weekend, which promotes face-to-face connection and free play among neighborhood kids. It's now a beloved annual event in Wilton. Another is the "How to Raise an Adult" (by Julie Lythcott-Haims) parenting book discussions that Kevin Smith and I co-lead. Task force members hope to change state law, too. I was one of five task force members to testify in the Connecticut legislature in support of a bill to remove the threat of police or child protective services involvement when a child is enjoying unsupervised play. The task force was featured on PBS NewsHour's Why helicopter parenting may jeopardize kids' health.
I was honored to be named a “Wilton 25” in 2017, celebrating 25 extraordinary Wilton residents for their talent, entrepreneurial spirit, generosity, expertise, and philanthropy.
I earned my bachelor's degree in psychology from Boston University. I am passionate about learning the current evidence-based practices in mental health and have completed trainings including Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE), DBT Therapy Skills with Multi-Problem Adolescents at Silver Hill Hospital, Emotional Dysregulation in Families: Treatment and Support at the Yale-NEABPD Conference, and the QPR Suicide Prevention Gatekeeper Program.
My husband and I have three daughters currently in middle school, high school, and college. I was born in Germany, grew up in the U.S., and raised my children in Utah, London, and Zürich before moving to Connecticut in 2013. Having experienced very different parenting environments, I am acutely aware of how a region's parenting culture affects children's emotional well-being. The rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide have increased steadily in the U.S. My mission is to talk openly and often about mental health, and to guide parents to life-changing, and often life-saving, resources.
Vanessa receiving Wilton Magazine’s Wilton 25 Award for Most Dedicated, Most Creative, Most Intriguing
Vanessa with Lenore Skenazy and Dr. Peter Gray
Vanessa with Julie Lythcott-Haims
Vanessa with Dr. Kevin Smith, Dr. Suniya Luthar and Genevieve Eason
Vanessa with Genevieve Eason, Dr. Kevin Smith and Dr. Michael Hynes
My Story - How did I get here?
When I was pregnant with my first child, I was pretty confident about being a parent. I had always enjoyed children, had tons of experience babysitting, and was even a nanny one summer. Countless parents would tell me what a great mom I would be someday and how incredible I was with kids.
Then my first daughter was born. Her temperament was “tricky” and sensitive from birth. As a new mom, I was vulnerable to the judgement of family and friends and from the get-go, felt like it was my fault that she wanted to be held all the time, wouldn’t stay in a stroller on a walk like all the other babies in my new mom’s group, or just generally needed things differently than other kids.
When she was five and was still having tantrums, but her two year old sister wasn’t, I knew I couldn’t be solely blamed and we first sought out professional help.
As the years went on, things would be better and we would be hopeful, then suddenly worse, then at some point better again. I could never pinpoint what was working or what wasn’t — it seemed to randomly come and go. Through that time I read countless books on parenting, became more structured and when that didn’t work, less structured, tried stickers charts, reward plans and consequences — and none made a lasting difference and in fact often made things worse.
Her behaviour was affecting the entire family and we often felt like prisoners to her needs. When she was just 11, her behaviour became more extreme and looking back that is when her OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) really took a front seat, a driver’s seat in her life and as a result, our entire family’s lives.
For me, I felt alone and desperate. I was in tremendous pain because I didn’t know how to help my daughter. For the longest time, it was a secret. My daughter was well liked and loved and no one saw the other side. How could anyone understand what is happening in what I would call “our circle of terror?” And how embarrassing — I felt like a failure as a mom. When I tried talking to friends or family about what was happening in our home, I would get shocked stares and feel shunned or responses like, “I wouldn’t tolerate that in MY home.” We tried countless therapists, received different diagnoses, and I worked hard every day to get her help.
When my oldest was in middle school, she became so upset about homework that I became worried about her safety. I doubled down on my determination to figure out how to help my daughter and threw myself into educating myself about kids' mental health, took parenting classes specific to her needs over an hour away, and just when I thought things would be ok, she got worse and so did our family life. By the time she was a junior in high school, we had exhausted our resources, feared the worst. We had her taken to wilderness therapy in Utah for three months, followed by a year of a residential treatment center/therapeutic boarding school in North Carolina. As you can imagine, it was hell for us all.
I am forever grateful for making those hard choices. This is when the deep work and real healing began for our entire family and I have learned so much. It also gave me strength to know that my experience would help someone else on their journey. I’m so very grateful for the hell that we have been through, because it got us where we are today. A beloved and beautiful place.
Am I a perfect parent? No — and impossible. Are we a perfect family? No — and impossible. We are all doing the best we can with the skills and tools we have. We are humans and we make mistakes — and we learn with each one. What matters more than the actual mistake is how we learn and grow from them. We are a strong, connected family with meaningful relationships and I wouldn’t change a thing.
Every parenting and family journey has its own path, but unlike me you can have a guide. You won’t be lost in the dark woods. You will have someone that knows where the cliffs are, which trails are deadends, and most importantly, where the light is through the trees. Our children are incredible teachers and can take us on a life changing journey we never wished for, but for which we are forever grateful.