When Santa Lives Paycheck-to-Paycheck

Many parents are concerned about how to provide a wonderful holiday experience for their family when money is very tight.  This entry is designed to provide strategies to provide magic on a budget. (Much of this material is discussed from a Christmas perspective, but is easily adapted to other traditions.)

• Kids need and value time with you much, much more than presents. Give decorated coupons for fun activities and trips together (e.g., good for one trip for an ice cream cone, good for one bike ride/walk around a local lake, good for two hours of board game playing, good for one fishing trip).

• Remember: crisis = pain + opportunity. Yes, it hurts to not have the money to spend on presents to a degree that you are used to. Give that pain its due. But, when you’re done, wonder what opportunities await you and your family because of this pain.

• The magic of the holiday season can be created, expanded and enhanced with very little expenditure of money. For instance:

√ Get a cheap stuffed elf, reindeer or snowman and declare that it is a magical creature that travels to the North Pole each night with a report on how your child behaved that day, only to then return in the morning for a new day of scouting (there is a commercial product that does this titled Elf on the Shelf). Kids love looking for the new location each morning.

√ Encourage your child to write letters to Santa as often as he or she likes, asking questions throughout (e.g., what is Mrs. Claus’ favorite desert? What do you do when the reindeer get into arguments?) Tell them Santa wants to get to know her or him as a person so the letters should not just be about requests for presents. Then, put the letter(s) in your outgoing mail receptacle, or tape them on your door (make sure to use Santa’s address and a “magic stamp,” which can be a sticker of your choosing that you make magical by dipping it three times in reindeer food, which can be oatmeal in a pouch); later swap out the letter with a return letter from Santa.

√ Buy another cheap stuffed creature and leave it for your child, with a letter from Santa, declaring that it is a magical being that gets warmer whenever Santa is in the vicinity. Practices such as this can cause bigger pupil dilation than presents.

√ Arrange for your family to give service to others. Many churches, soup kitchens, and charitable agencies could find something helpful for your family to do. These kinds of experiences can create warmth and magic.

√ Check out the website www.noradsanta.org, especially on Christmas Eve (they offer regular video updates of Santa’s travel around the globe).

√ Establish as many joyful rituals as you can: sing holiday songs at home, bake cookies from scratch, create photo montages, join a group that travels from house-to-house singing carols, make holiday decorations, offer to help your local town or church decorate, and so forth.

When it comes to actually buying presents, consider the following:

• You can get more bang for your buck at discount and dollar stores. The visual image of lots of wrapped presents, each of which can be very modest in cost, can help to create that response I know many of we parents want from our kids when they first look under the tree.

• Use websites that compare the pricing of a wide assortment of retailers (e.g., www.pronto.com, www.pricegrabber.com). Also, be sure to do an internet search for coupons for the retailer you have chosen.

• Lots of families chase the hottest, current generation of electronics. This means that the reseller market (e.g., as found in this newspaper, on ebay, and on Craigslist) is often jammed with opportunities to purchase the previous generation(s) at slashed prices.

• Look for sellers who offer refurbished items, or ask retailers if they have floor models or open box items they are willing to sell at discounted prices.

• You might be surprised at the quality of merchandise that can be found at garage sales and auctions.

When all is said and done try to avoid sacrificing your wellness on the altar of commercialism. Your child benefits much more from you being well than from some gizmo that will lose its charm after a short period of time. Moreover, no research exists, as far as I know, that correlates child happiness and wellness with the amount of money spent on a kid’s presents. But, plenty of research associates child wellness and happiness with the quality of the parent-child relationship, the presence of enjoyable rituals in the family’s life and the wellness of the parent(s). As the poet e.e. Cummings noted, the world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful. Money is not required to enjoy this wonder and magic, even during the holidays.

What Do You Want to Focus on This Holiday Season?

black family, white background We look forward to them for so long, that it’s easy to end up feeling pushed around by the day-to-day stresses and to be left with a sense of disappointment at the end. One of the ways to combat this is to decide on three things you’d like to focus on during the holidays. Then, in the midst of the (usually) joyful craziness you can anchor yourself in what matters most to you. Here’s a dozen sample ideas of things you might decide to focus on:

  • Spending one-on-one time with each of your kids.
  • Praying each day.
  • Expressing gratitude to a certain person (e.g., search the for term “gratitude letter” above).
  • Being sober.
  • Lightening the load of your spouse/partner.
  • Forgiving someone for an old injury (this needn’t be done collaboratively, though it can be).
  • Practicing the Serenity Prayer when surprising and un-welcomed events happen.
  • Responding with kindness when another adult acts in an uncomplimentary fashion (e.g., bragging, acting stingy).
  • Being of service to vulnerable people (e.g., someone who tends to be marginalized in groups, the poor, someone with a disability)
  • Promoting magical experiences (e.g., you can find multiple ideas for Santa rituals to do with kids on this blog site).
  • Organizing family experiences that promote bonding (e.g., baking, caroling, playing board games).
  • Focusing on your health (e.g., getting 8 hours of sleep, completing one hour of physically exerting activity and eating whole foods).

To keep your focus, it’s a good idea to put your three priorities in places yochristmas snowman sign for blogu’ll see them (e.g., on your computer’s or cell phone’s desk top, on a sticky note you place on your bathroom mirror) or by setting alarms in your cellphone.

There are three traps to avoid:

  • There is usually no good purpose to beating yourself up if you have a day when you fall down on one or more of your priorities. You do well when you judge yourself for your intention and effort and avoid conscious or unconscious expectations for perfection, something that we parent-lunatics fall prey to all the time.
  • When doing something nice for someone else it’s a good idea to not expect a certain response. Sure, it’s nice when someone is grateful, reciprocates or otherwise shows a positive reaction to your outreach. But, when that response becomes an expectation–be it conscious or unconscious–the outcome of your act of kindness can too often be increased tension and bitterness.christmas squirrel with note

• Expecting that others will join you on the high road. Holiday stresses can regress just about anyone, especially when large groups of family come together. It’s lovely when others follow your lead but expecting that can too often end up leaving you feeling empty and frustrated.

I want to close by thanking my wife, Lia, for suggesting this week’s topic and by expressing my hope that your holidays will be packed with meaning, joy and rejuvenation!

Four Holiday Stress Busters for Parents

Of course, the holidays are quite stressful, even as they offer us joy. There is less light. The weather is colder. Your life’s circumstances may not be in concert with a “joy to the world” message (e.g., you’ve suffered a recent loss, your child is ill). You may be faced with having to interact more with people with whom you have less than a peaceful relationship. There is a lot of hustling and bustling and, of course, financial pressures often mount. So, I’d like to review four stress busters. I’m not going to cover obvious ones such as maintaining a good diet, getting enough sleep (8-9 hours/night) or getting enough physical activity. Instead I’d like to cover a few that may be less in the front of your mind. I’ll first review a common trap and then suggest a potential antidote.

Trap #1: To overspend

Antidote: Focus on relationships

Discussion: At some point in time it got embedded in our collective parental psyches that acquiring a lot of expensive stuff for our kids is the way to give them a magical holiday experience. And, if we don’t, we guilt ourselves with the notion that we may be depriving our kids. However, research indicates that shared positive experiences with us is much, much more important to our kids’ happiness. For many years I’ve been asking people, up and down the age spectrum, for their best and worse memories. I can’t remember the last time someone told me that a best memory was the acquisition of some expensive thing. But, I’ve had countless people recount a family ritual or interpersonal moment as a best memory. For some ideas on ways to promote holiday magic, mystery and meaning for your kids, on pocket change, click here.

Trap #2: Act like you don’t have limitations

Antidote: Kind declines

Discussion: We know that our possessions all have their limitations and we are not surprised when our things break if we ignore those limitations. Many of us are also aware of our kids’ limits and likewise try to not exceed them. However, we often act like we are the only humans on the planet who don’t have limits. We work, serve, transport, host, donate, wrap, bake, cheat sleep and pin-ball around creation like frenetic hamsters on crack. On a related note, it is interesting to me that when I suggest to parents that one way to become more fulfilled and happy is to love more effectively many will respond with things like “how can I be expected to give more?!” Or,” My veins are empty doc so I have no more to give!” However, this may be more of a western, industrialized bias as many other traditions realize that loving and cherishing oneself goes hand-in-hand with loving others. Sometimes one of the most loving things we can do for those around us is to realize our limitations and graciously decline invitations and pleas for us to exceed those limits. You’ll find resources for self-care and self-compassion on this blog site.

Trap #3: Letting one’s mind or body be tense for extended periods of time

Antidote: Daily calming

Discussion: I don’t know how much the Dali Lama would be willing to participate in the crazy busy lifestyle many of us lead during the holidays. But, if he did, even he’d likely experience a tense body and mind. When our minds and/or bodies remain in a tense state for extended periods of time we become more susceptible to an assortment of physical and psychological symptoms (e.g., headaches, irritability, stomach pain, sadness, worsening of illnesses, anxiety). One way to combat this is to create a daily practice of calming ourselves and focusing just on the moment before us in a non-judgmental way. Some sample ways of doing this include starting a meditation practice (e.g., click here), using biofeedback strategies (e.g., for a device you can purchase click here), doing a pleasing and relaxing activity that limits our focus (e.g., knitting, going for a walk in nature) or just trying to sit still and quiet for a few minutes (e.g., click here). Even 10 minutes a day portends to offer dividends over time.

Trap #4: Maintaining unrealistic expectations

Antidote: Acceptance

Discussion: Despite years of experience that would suggest the value in throttling down our expectations, many of us go into the holidays expecting to engineer heaven on earth for ourselves and others. As the old saying goes “people make plans and God chuckles.” I think its fine to make plans, and even ambitious ones (as long as the previous traps are avoided). However, we do well to accept whatever comes along knowing that obstacles, surprises and changes are woven into the fabric of our lives. (To read more about how this antidote applies to holiday meals with family, click here.)

Here’s wishing for a meaningful holiday season for you and those you love. And, if you have other ideas for holiday stress busters I’m very interested to learn about them.

Thanksgiving in Trumpland

As anyone who has experienced them knows, negotiating holiday meals that involve combinations of families, generations and single adults can be exceedingly challenging. This may be even more true this year as so many of us are divided around our politics. Let me offer suggestions.

Try to avoid:

√ Idealistic expectations. Like Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, many of us can develop idealized expectations regarding how these days should go off. We so look forward to them, especially given how hard we work. We so invest in preparing. We so much love some of the people we’ll see. And, we so much miss spending time together. All of this can cause us to create expectations that mere mortals would have a difficult time realizing. When people then let us down (i.e., act like humans), it can cause us to feel hurt, angry or sad. Best to just expect the speed bumps and enjoy whatever blessings come along.

√ Conflict resolution. Once the day kicks into gear (and especially if the wine starts flowing), it’s easy to be tempted to try to let so-and-so know about his or her significant opportunities for growth. However, rarely do people welcome such unsolicited counsel, no matter how sagely conceived and expressed; in fact, they may then be tempted to return the favor, and then others may join in, creating the psychological food fight. Best to keep such thoughts between yourself and your guardian angel, at least during these get togethers.

√ Intoxication (i.e. transient brain dysfunction). Ok, this one is already pretty clear so I won’t go on and play the role of Dr. Obvious.

√ Pressing other people’s hot buttons, especially during this political climate. Trump supporters may be tempted to share popular slogans. Trump detractors may be tempted to question the decency and humanity of trump supporters. As both sides offer evidence and rhetorical constructions supporting their point of view, tension rises. Plus, even if a winner could be declared, what’s the prize? An empty bag, resentment and a compromised day. Best to let it go for now. If you’re concerned this could happen, here’s a draft email to work off of: I have a favor to ask regarding Thanksgiving Day. Would it be okay with you if we did not discuss politics? Some of us have some very strongly held views that are not in agreement with each other. I’d like to make the day not about discussing those differences, or trying to win debates, especially during this time of national division. Instead, I’d just like to focus on things that are uplifting. Please respond back to the group and let us all know if that’s okay with you and your family.

√ Displaying irritation or anger. How often does expressing such emotions turn out well oncheerful-family-copy turkey day? Sure, even a broken clock is right twice a day. But, we’re talking odds here. Best to belly breathe, change the topic, or use whatever you may to calm yourself down.

Try to embrace:

√ Opportunities to express gratitude. Gratitude focuses our mind on the good parts of our lives and has been found to offer many psychological benefits. Write a gratitude letter (click here for my blog entry on gratitude letters), pull someone aside and let him or her know what he or she means to you, express thanks for what you see before you or what is true about your shared lives, and so forth. (Two cautions: don’t offer such expressions with the expectation of a response, and don’t pressure anyone to offer such thoughts and feelings, especially teenagers.) Finally, you can also express gratitude to the hosts by offering to share in the day’s labor (those sporting a y chromosome may need to overcome a biological imperative to collapse in front of a TV once tryptophan crosses the blood-brain barrier).

√ Opportunities to let others strut their stuff. Many people derive validation from having loved ones recognize and value their accomplishments. Ask others for their favorite memories from the year or what they are most proud of. Then, let yourself come aglow with happiness for them. (To an ambivalent listener, this can seem like bragging. But, even when it’s bragging, what’s the harm? Just imagine someone crawling towards you, begging for a drink, and you have a bucket of water in your arms. Would you not do the kind thing?)
√ Adaptive thinking. I have two suggestions here. First, try to remember that crisis = pain + opportunity. Opportunity is pain’s Siamese twin. So, if things don’t go off as planned, or some unfortunate event happens, look for the opportunity imbued within. (The classic movie A Christmas Story manifests a great example of this in how the family responds to the fact that invading hounds have gulped down their holiday meal.) Second, try to remember that we’ll all blink three times and be looking back at our lives from the perspective of our death beds. Just think, when you’re at the end of your life, how much you’d give to come back and relive the day at hand. As death’s gift to the living is perspective, such thinking can help you to find your wisdom.

shutterstock_223597855√ Empathy. Those you are with may express sadness or share other failings or frustrations. Empathy and agreement are different things. Being empathic says that you care, even if you privately disagree.

√ Loving kindness. It’s amazing how operating in accord with these two simple words keeps one on a high road, promotes joy and expands meaning. If in doubt about what to do, it rarely fails to respond in accord with whatever insights this question offers, “what’s the loving and kind thing to do?”

May you and yours be blessed during these challenging days for our nation.

 

Promoting Post-Traumatic Growth After a Loss

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 11.39.02 AMThis is the third post in a series on grieving. The first regards grieving in the first year or two. The second regards how to help a child to grieve. In this post I’ll review factors that promote post-traumatic growth (PTG) after a severe loss.

PTG is the process of experiencing growth because of the pain you have experienced. As one poet it, pain is a dragon guarding treasure. To get to the treasure, the dragon must have it’s way and the clawing can be terrible, sometimes even breaking a person. But, at some point, if you have gotten to the other side, the treasure is always present. And, while the pain often stops, or is at least is significantly reduced, the treasure keeps on gifting.

To check the truthfulness of this assertion, survey your life for the most painful events that are now behind you. Are there any ways you are better now because of that suffering? Or, look at PTG from another angle. Consider the best things in your life. Could any of them have existed were it not for suffering, either on your part or on the part of someone close to you?

The PTG concept does not suggest that the treasure is worth the loss, nor does itScreen Shot 2017-08-12 at 11.36.57 AM suggest that the circumstances of the loss had inherent meaning. While one or both of those things can be true, they are often not. So, the first thing to wonder, after your grief has subsided enough, is, what treasure has this (often terrible) loss made available to you?

I previously outlined 13 tips for promoting adaptive grieving. Building upon those, here are six strategies for promoting PTG:

1. Develop a daily gratitude practice. If you enter the word “gratitude” in the search bar above you will find several offerings on this topic.

2. Practice random acts of kindness. This can be applied to both family members and to strangers. Again, use the search bar above to find related blog posts.

3. Practice self-compassion as much as you can. I will be writing on this topic in the future, but for now can refer you to this website for a plethora of information on self-compassion: http://self-compassion.org. Note that you can find a questionnaire on this site for understanding where you stand on the self-compassion dimension.

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 11.44.59 AM4. Practice forgiveness. This is the hardest thing for many of us to do, and our culture often misunderstands the nature of it (e.g., forgiveness is not allowing ongoing damage, it does not require the other person to express remorse, it does not involve minimizing, or require forgetting, the assualt). Click here for a post I devoted to this topic.

5. Develop and live effective missions. Developing effective vocational and personal mission statements goes a long way to producing a more meaningful and satisfying life. I provide a introductory structure for getting there in this post.

6. Pursue the truth. This regards your thinking (e.g., depression always involves believing things that are not true). This regards how you view others (e.g., a harsh judgment always reflects a lack of information or a distortion of the truth). It involves everything. Yes, the truth can be challenging in the short run–I believe it is Gloria Steinem who noted, “the truth will set you free but first it will piss you off.” But, the pursuit of it is a guiding principle of high road living. By the way, it’s remarkable how often pursuing a path of loving kindness overlaps with this goal.Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 11.47.13 AM

This is complicated stuff. So, if you’d like to find an ally for figuring it all out, and applying it to your life, consider meeting with a skillful mental health professional. For a referral, click here.

 

 

 

Helping Your Child Grieve a Loss

shutterstock_301610618No engaged parent is happier than her least happy child. It is very difficult for any of us to see our children in pain. However, grieving is adaptive suffering and knowing how to help our children through it, instead of suppressing it, is an important parenting skill. I will split my tips on this topic up into two sections: when you are not affected directly by the loss and when you are.

When it is not your loss also

Your teen might have been dumped by a crush. Or, your daughter may have failed to make the travel soccer team. Or, perhaps your child’s only and best friend moved away. There are many kinds of loss. Here are 10 suggestions for helping:

• Validate your child’s pain. It makes sense to hurt over a loss. Allow your child to express those thoughts and feelings without offering immediate reassurances. This is gruelingly difficult to do. However, many of us benefit by having company when in pain. Moreover, premature reassurances came come across as “please stop feeling badly now.” Later the odds are high that your child will appreciate your empathic companionship.

• Ask your child how she’s doing but don’t insist on a conversation. Part of grieving is choosing when to not think or talk about the loss.

• Ask other family members to reach out to your child, shutterstock_63342151checking in on a semi-regular basis; it isn’t sufficient to say to a child, “let me know if I can help.” Again, though, the emphasis should be that it is your child’s choice whether to talk or not when the other person reaches out.

• Encourage your child to memorialize the loss. There are so many ways to do this. Writing a letter–whether it is sent or not–drawing, creating poetry and creating art projects are all ways this can be done. Again, though, don’t insist.

• Try to avoid supporting numbing behaviors such increasing a diet of processed carbohydrates or oversleeping. That said, indulges here-and-there are usually harmless.

• Try to encourage regular fun activities that are (a) novel (b) social and (c) involve physical activity. This trifecta maximizes the release of mood lifting brain chemicals. Once a week or so is fine.

• If you share a spirituality with your child, suggest using it to process the grief. Praying together, going to services and sharing readings that are targeted for your child’s age can all be helpful.

• Try to keep as many of your rituals in place as possible. Rituals are islands of stability within the torrential currents of stress that our culture presents.

shutterstock_385425094• Make sure to spend one hour a week doing special time. You can get a summary of how to do special time by clicking here. To get the full description, read the first chapter of my parenting book. Remember that special time is not the same thing as quality time.

• If your child becomes unable to accomplish his major developmental tasks (e.g., academics, socializing), arrange for him to be evaluated by a child psychologist who is experienced in providing cognitive-behavioral therapy for youth. I would insist on an initial evaluation and not require your child to agree that it is a good idea.

When you share the loss with your child

• As difficult as it can be to help your child grieve, the situation is significantly more complicated when you are suffering from the same loss. Here’s the most important point: your healthy grieving should be a top priority. As an illustration, and quoting researchers Werner-Lin and Biank: “A child’s adjustment to the death of a parent is greatly influenced by the surviving parent’s ability to attend to his or her own grief-related needs.” For this reason, please see this blog post on tips for promoting your effective grieving.

Here are half a dozen tips for your shared grieving experience with your child:

• Let your child know that you are hurting too. The older your child, and the healthier she is from a psychological perspective, the more open you might choose to be about your pain. This can be especially challenging for men. When it comes to vulnerability, the research indicates that we men are often asked to be vulnerable, but when we are we can be less liked and even punished, sort of what women go through with being assertive (please see the body of work by Brene Brown to learn more about this).

• You might schedule times in advance to do some shared grieving.

• Memorializing projects can have more meaning if they are shared and displayed.

• Try not to be too upset with either of you for the vulnerabilities that result secondary to forgiveness as keyyour grieving. You may go through a period when you are grouchy or unmotivated or dour. Likewise, your child may go through a period when he is defiant or sullen or rejecting of your affection. These are often transient reactions; part of what helps them to not take root is to not overreacting to them.

• Seek parenting allies if you need a break. It can be hard for those of us who are proud or independent minded to reach out for help with parenting. But, ask yourself: how would you want a friend or loved one to think about the possibility of asking you for support if your roles were reversed?

• My final suggestion–that those of you who read this blog can see coming a mile away– is to seek out the services of a good family therapist if you are both suffering to the point that you can’t meet important goals in life. For referral ideas click here.

A Baker’s Dozen When Grief is New

headache backgroundThough they can inspire similar feelings, depression and grief are different. Grief is healthy while depression is not. Grief involves coming to terms with a loss. Depression involves needless suffering secondary to believing painful things that are not true (you can find several articles I’ve written regarding depression using the search bar above). The more important the loss the more intense the grieving. Healthy grieving is regularly remembering and feeling the loss of the person, across a wide array of memories and experiences, while simultaneously (1) memorializing the person, (2) maintaining effective engagement in life (including self-care) and (3) avoiding unhealthy. self-numbing behaviors. How long it takes to get to the other side of grief varies wildly from person-to-person. But, a general guideline is that it can take one year for the worst of it to be done and two years until it seems like life is mostly okay again. Here are 13 tips for those who are within the first two years of grieving:

  1. Find ways to memorialize the person who died. This can be extravagant (e.g., starting a foundation, creating a golf tournament) but certainly need not be. Indeed, sometimes people have made their grieving harder by taking on too much labor too soon after the loss. So, creating photo collages, works of art, videos and so forth can be helpful to memorialize the person.
  2. Don’t resist. When it comes to grieving suffering = pain x resistance. Allow the grief to come if you don’t have something you must do (e.g., go to work, attend a child’s recital). This feels counter-intuitive as we fight depression when it comes, as we should. But, grief is not depression. Each tear drop brings you that little bit closer to getting to the other side.
  3. If you have a hectic life, schedule time to grieve. When the time rolls around, bring upset man, black backgroundout mementos of your lost love and let the waves come.
  4. Try hard to get eight hours of sleep a night. If you can’t, consider tip #13. Everyone has sleepless nights but try to trend towards the eight. A rested body can grieve more effectively. (See this blog entry for some other tips regarding insomnia that might be easily adapted for your situation.)
  5. Limit numbing. Try to maintain a healthy diet and keep substance use to a minimum. Comfort foods should really be called numbing foods, and a numb person is not a grieving person. Again, we’re talking about trends. Everyone numbs some of the time.
  6. Be active. Try to get daily doses of physical activity. Sleep, diet and physical activity are the legs of the tripod upon which effective grieving is built.
  7. Be kind. While it’s helpful to be kind to others (of course), this tip is primarily referring to yourself. For example, don’t allow yourself to beat yourself up for mistakes, including–and couple, happymaybe even especially–ones that may be haunting you regarding the person you lost.
  8. Lean into spirituality. If you are a spiritual person, tap into your Higher Power daily. People do this in different ways: praying, reading, writing, meditating, going to services, talking with a spiritual director and talking with friends can all be helpful.
  9. Set boundaries. Set these up with people in your life. For example, you may need to tell co-workers that you prefer to be the one to bring up the topic of your loss. Having someone else bring it up, when you are trying to do something else, could be counterproductive.
  10. If others are experiencing the same loss, open up to each other about your shared experience on a regular basis. However, if either one of you doesn’t want to talk about your loss in a particular moment, it’s important to respect that also.
  11. Stay engaged. Try to socialize and have fun regularly. You may not feel like doing this much of the time. And, certainly give yourself permission to curl up into a ball with a blanket some nights. But, as a trend, try to do fun things with others on some regular basis.
  12. Tap your wisdom. New problems will surface during this difficult time as that’s the nature of life. Each of us have deep wells of wisdom within that we can tap in these moments. For example, ask yourself how you would decide about a problem you are facing if you were living the last week of your life. Or, if you have a child, ask yourself what you would counsel your child to do in the same situation 20 years from now. Another very helpful technique is problem solving, which I describe here.
  13. Consider CBT. We all battle with internal enemies. Sometimes we use friends, or therapy etchingself-help books or mentors or prayer or other personal assets to help us with these battles. At other times, meeting with a therapist to do an evidence-based and skill building therapy can be extremely help. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is often the treatment of choice for dealing with grief related challenges. (If you enter “cognitive behavioral therapy” in the search bar above you’ll find a few articles I’ve written describing this treatment approach).

In subsequent blog entries I’ll write some tips for helping a child to grieve, suggestions for those whose grieving is further along, as well as a few other grief related topics.

 

Making the Most out of New Years Resolutions

excited man pointing, long hair, tieMany of us will soon make New Year’s Resolutions. This entry is designed to increase your odds of success. I’ll review four planning steps and ten strategies for promoting effective outcomes.

The first step in the planning phase is to visualize what you like about yourself. I’m skeptical that your self-improvement project can survive and thrive if you do not know and enjoy your strengths, not only at the start, but consistently throughout. I like a prayer that British psychologist Robert Holden recommends in one of his books: “Oh God, help me to believe the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is.  Amen.”

The second step is to picture yourself as the most fulfilled version of you. What is different about that person? What changes, that are under your control today, would help to get you there? (If any of us drove a car as reliable as willpower, we’d soon scrap it. Yet, many of us continue to rely upon will power as if it could be consistently counted upon.)

Third, list the obstacles you’ll experience in taking this voyage. This is a step worthy of your most honest and thorough consideration (many of these obstacles are authored by the person in the mirror).

challengeFourth, what steps can you take to reduce the obstacles and lessen your reliance on will power?

A problem that many of us run into is called “present bias.” The person who we are when we make a resolution–present me–is steely eyed and filled with gritty resolve. However, present me may also be inclined to be harsh (“okay, you really need to stop being so weak!”), excessively ambitious (“I’m going to never yell again!”) or inclined to invest in ways that aren’t always helpful (e.g., purchasing expensive equipment the like of which has never been used before). The problem is that present me is not the same person who will be doing the heavy lifting; that person is future me. If present me doesn’t adequately understand future me’s strengths and vulnerabilities, then present me is destined for disappointment.

Each of us are like snowflakes, completely unique. Thus, a strategy that helps another person make substantive changes could be a horrible idea for you. Use your world’s leading expert knowledge of yourself to develop a plan that is supportive of future you. Use her strengths. Establish support for his vulnerabilities. Some of the following ten tips may help:

1. Set daily goals. Avoid goals like “I’m going to lose 30 pounds.” Instead, try “today I’m going to eat a balanced diet and get 45 minutes of physical activity.” (Goals like this are very nice if you mess up as tomorrow is a new day!)

2. Keep a daily log of those behaviors that are most important to your goal(s). persistenceMany self-destructive behaviors occur when we disassociate from ourselves (i.e., only partially notice what we’re doing). Writing stuff down combats disassociation and increases the odds that you will remain self-aware and in the moment.

3. Join with others. Two things characterize those who are successful in setting aside entrenched and self-limiting patterns: they work on themselves and they surround themselves with people who are striving towards the same goal(s). Relying on others could involve partnering with friends, starting counseling, or attending support group meetings. (To find a therapist near you click here.)

3a. Ask your partners for help. Many people are willing to help your future self reach your present self’s goals. All you need do is share your vulnerabilities and ask for ideas and/or assistance. For example, I know one pair of friends who committed to playing a rotating aerobic game before work each day (e.g., basketball, racquetball, etc.). They rotated the role of cheerleader for those days when one or both of them was tempted to cancel.

ideas4. Establish rewards for yourself. For instance, so many days of doing as you vow earns you a treat. Also, give yourself hefty mental pats on the back for success along the way.

5. Take lapses as opportunities to learn more about your vulnerabilities and how present you can do a better job of supporting future you. Avoid being cruel and harsh with yourself as this risks putting your goals further out of reach (i.e., don’t tolerate bullying!). I’ll sometimes ask clients, who are parents, to react to themselves as they would react to their child if their child showed a similar lapse (sometimes this involves projecting forward in time and imagining their child at their age, having fallen prey to the same vulnerability).

6. Use music if that motivates you.

7. Focus your mind on the positive behaviors you want to do rather than the negative behaviors you want to avoid. It’s better to focus on what healthy breakfast you want to eat rather than trying to use white-knuckle willpower to resist the unhealthy version. A great book I recently discovered that does this well is The Happiness Diet, by Graham and Ramsey

8. Have present you write encouraging and positive messages for future you that you put in your electronic calendar.

9. Make a plan to remove as much temptation as possible from the eye line of spiritual manfuture you (remember: will power is unreliable).

10. If you are a spiritual person, lean on that part of your life as much as you can.

Good luck! And, remember, high road life is less about outcomes and more about being in the right fights 😉

Preventing and Responding to Anxiety

anxious childResearch indicates that kids are sometimes born with a temperament that predisposes them to develop an anxiety disorder. This temperament, called “behavioral inhibition,” can be identified in toddlers. Such toddlers tend to have nervous responses to novelty or unexpected changes; they also tend to be more clingy and fussy than their peers when faced with separation from a primary caregiver. Toddlers with this temperament are then at higher risk for developing an anxiety disorder. What follows are six tips for trying to help such a child to not develop an anxiety disorder.

1. Avoid avoidance. This is one of the most important guidelines. This means not avoiding those developmentally appropriate situations that make your child feel nervous. When our kids hurt we parents hurt worse. So, it’s a natural reaction to just let our child avoid any developmentally appropriate situations that make her feel nervous (e.g., being left with a babysitter, getting on a school bus, joining a rec soccer team). Avoiding such situations reinforces the notion that they are dangerous and also tends to promote them becoming even more threatening over time. Moreover, this sort of a coping strategy tends to spread: your child may end up wanting to use it for more and more situations. Barring other complicating factors (e.g., the presence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), avoiding avoidance usually comes with initial distress but is followed by calm and a sense of accomplishment. (“Eventual” often ends up being just a few minutes.)

2. Promote your child’s comfort as you avoid avoidance. This can be coaching soccerdone in any number of ways. One of my favorites is to gradually expose your child to aspects of the feared situation in doses before the due date. For example, you might play soccer with him on the field where the first practice will be held or arrange for her to sit on the empty school bus before the first day of school. You would usually stay within these situations until your child seems calm, using some of the other tips in this article. This can also be done in smaller chunks prior to the due date.

3. Teach belly breathing and pasta muscles. Have your child pretend that his lungs are in his lower belly, instead of his chest cavity, while breathing deeply but comfortably, both in and out. Relatedly, ask your child to make her muscles as soft as a piece of cooked pasta. Click here for a free 15-minute audio training module I created that can promote this sort of muscle memory. These behaviors short-circuit the fight-flight response, which is the brain system that becomes activated whenever someone feels anxious. (When in the anxious situation your child should not tense then relax his muscles, as is done in the training module. That is only done for practice. When in the anxiety provoking situation, only relaxation and belly breathing should be used.)

tape over mouth4. Avoid reassurances, especially those that are excessive. Few things will trigger your child’s anxiety more quickly than your reassurance that a safe situation is safe, especially when those reassurances that are issued with emotion or conviction. I tell the parents in my practice, “imagine I told you not to worry about the ceiling over us collapsing on top of our heads. You’d probably instantly start wondering what sort of a dangerous situation you might be in.” Kids often hear many parental reassurances as, “time to start freaking out!” Moreover, when you are separating from your kid (e.g., leaving the practice, leaving the school), leave as quickly as you can. Your presence, and especially if you are issuing reassurances, will often tend to promote the very anxiety you’re trying to mitigate.

5. Get control over your own anxiety if that’s a problem. This temperamental vulnerability, by definition, usually runs in families. If anxiety is interfering with the quality of your life, you would do your kid an awesome solid by seeking out cognitive behavioral therapy for yourself.

6. Get help if these efforts don’t work! Anxiety disorders in anyone, including kids, is usually very treatable and in a short period of time. The aforementioned cognitive-behavioral therapy can be delivered to kids and teens and has a ton of research supporting its efficacy. For a referral, click here.

 

 

 

Promoting Teen Friendships

2 happy teens, african-americanAs we start a new year, my attention is drawn to The New Yorker article by Maria Konnikova titled, “The Six Most Interesting Psychology Papers of 2015.” I’d like to blog on one of these six articles, from the British Journal of Psychology, titled “Best Friends and Better Coping: Facilitating Psychological Resilience Through Boys’ and Girls’ Closest Friendships.”

In this study the participants were 409 “socio-economically vulnerable” British adolescents. The researchers found that having a close friend served an important resilience-promoting function. They concluded: “Findings revealed a significant positive association between perceived friendship quality and resilience…We suggest that individual close friendships are an important potential protective mechanism accessible to most adolescents.”

This is not a surprising result for those who are familiar with the resilience literature (e.g., social competence is a well established protective factor). Here are a few tips parents can use to promote friendships among their teens:

  • Create a space in your home that is teen friendly. Key ingredients aretwo women fun things to do in a space that feels separate from parents and siblings.
  • Encourage and support extra-curricular involvements that tap into your teen’s strengths. This can be a wonderful way to develop and support friendships.
  • In instances when your teen may be struggling with peers, partner with teachers in identifying potential friend-candidates to invite over.
  • Also if your teen is struggling, see if there are any groups being organized by school counselors that your teen might be eligible to join (e.g., social skills training, divorce coping, grief); these groups can be useful for forming bonds.
  • Whenever practical and consistent with your morals, support your teen’s efforts to acquire conforming clothes, music and so forth. These are common methodologies teen use to try to feel comfortable around, and to fit in with, peers.
  • Whenever practical and consistent with your morals, allow your teen to have access to pro-social networking sites and technology (e.g., texting). Not having access to such can serve to isolate a teen.
  • happy latino coupleGiven how critically important this domain is, please consider obtaining an evaluation from a good child mental health professional if your teen is struggling with peer relationships. For a referral click here.

This complex topic goes hand-in-hand with another complex topic: parental monitoring. Please use the search bar above, or my parenting book, to find content along those lines.

 

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