CERTIFIED PARENT COACH
MENTAL HEALTH ACTIVIST–CHANGEMAKER–THOUGHT LEADER
FOUNDER, THRIVE WITH A GUIDE, LLC
If you are a parent, I can help you.
Parents seek me out because what they’ve been trying doesn’t work and hasn’t improved life for their children, for themselves, and for their families.
Simply put, It’s a problem when it’s a problem. If it interferes with everyday functioning, you don’t have to wait until it’s a crisis to act.
The first step is reaching out, and then I serve as your objective guide – walking on the path with you, finding a better way forward, and helping you achieve healthier family relationships and lasting, meaningful connections.
My name is Vanessa Elias and I am the founder of Thrive with a Guide, LLC. I am a mental health activist, certified parent coach, speaker, and writer specializing in whole-family synergy and well-being. Together we problem solve, shift your lens, and develop actionable steps to change and improve life in your home. I am also a group facilitator for both the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Authentic Connections Groups (AC Groups).
Vanessa with Dr. Kevin Smith, Dr. Suniya Luthar and Genevieve Eason
Vanessa with Julie Lythcott-Haims
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."
Concerned parents, including myself, were the driving force behind the creation of the Free Play Matters Task Force, inspired by the work of Peter Gray, Ph.D., and Lenore Skenazy, co-founders of Let Grow. 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. 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 am the programming liaison for collaborations with the Wilton school district. 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). The training was taught by the curriculum co-authors, James Mazza, Ph.D. and Elizabeth Dexter-Mazza, Psy.D. Joining us in completing the training were K-12 mental health professionals from Wilton and three other Fairfield County districts. Another collaboration are parenting book discussions, which I co-lead with the superintendent and other senior district leaders. Books include "How to Raise an Adult" by Julie Lythcott-Haims and “Breaking Free of Child Anxiety and OCD” by Eli Lebowitz, Ph.D.
In 2022, I co-founded the Wilton Mental Health Task Force. The task force's mission is to build awareness of mental health needs, bring together the resources that already exist, and collaborate to expand current services. Task force members include clinicians, school administrators, and parents.
I am a founding member of the Wilton Coalition for Youth (2020-present). The purpose of the coalition is to strengthen the connections among organizations that serve youth and families in Wilton to prevent substance misuse and promote the mental health and emotional well-being of youth and families. Coalition meetings are a forum for learning and sharing ideas. Expert speakers present information on timely topics such as understanding trauma, fostering resilience, vaping prevention, and tolerance and inclusion, and lead discussions about how member organizations can support the youth they serve.
For Wilton women who want to connect, create community, and have fun, I founded WoW - Women of Wilton (2016-present). Our lives today are so busy and time is limited–between paid or volunteer work, home demands, and our family's schedules–that our relationships and connections get sacrificed. Friendships take time and energy, something we are all short on, but through them we feel a sense of belonging and they make us happy. I organize regular get-togethers for this group.
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.
Vanessa with Genevieve Eason, Dr. Kevin Smith and Dr. Michael Hynes
Vanessa receiving Wilton Magazine’s Wilton 25 Award for Most Dedicated, Most Creative, Most Intriguing
Vanessa with Lenore Skenazy and Dr. Peter Gray
I am passionate about learning and sharing innovative, evidence-based practices in mental health and have received certifications and trainings from the leading practitioners in the field including world-renowned authorities on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Yale Child Study Center’s Eli Lebowitz, Ph.D., the developer of SPACE (Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions). I have completed trainings in “Emotional Dysregulation in Families: Treatment and Support” at the Yale-NEABPD Conference and the QPR Suicide Prevention Gatekeeper Program. You can see a full list of my certifications and trainings here. I earned my bachelor's degree in psychology from Boston University.
My husband and I have three daughters currently in college, high school, and middle school. 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.
My mission is to talk openly and often about mental health, redefine what it means to be a good parent, and guide parents to discover their power - to transform their lives and bring deep connection and joy back into their families.
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.