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Using Positive Psychology in Parenting

happy Asian familyPositive psychology (PP) is that branch of psychology that studies what promotes emotional experiences of joy and cognitive experiences of meaning. Instead of asking the question that clinical psychology traditionally asks (i.e., “how can problem x be healed?”) PP wonders, “what can each of us do to feel happy and satisfied?” As parents we do well to both model and teach these strategies to our kids.

Parenting walk and talk are both important. However, the walk seems to matter more. In this context, how happy we are has a great deal to do with how much energy we have for parenting and how often we parent with intention (i.e., doing and saying those things that we most wish to do and say, instead of reacting out of fatigue or pain). Moreover, our kids our affected by our modeling in profoundly impactful ways, and often in a manner that is outside of their awareness The type of world we live in (i.e., mostly happy versus something else) predicts the type of world they live in and the type of world they will live in in the future.

Below are my 10 favorite PP strategies to practice and to teach your kids about:

• Practice gratitude. This can be by way of a daily, weekly, monthly or intermittent practice. This can be an internal event (e.g., counting one’s daily blessings before bed or in the shower) or a specific exercise (e.g., writing a gratitude letter).

• Practice acts of kindness. The “helper’s high” is an empirically established happy black woman backgroundphenomenon. This can be done in simple ways both with strangers (e.g., paying for the coffee of someone behind you in the drive through) or loved ones (e.g., doing someone else’s chore) or can be more elaborate (e.g., volunteering at a pet shelter, taking a loved one to a vacation spot they’ve been aching to visit).

• Think adaptively. This can involve using coping thoughts to lift your mood (i.e., keeping true thoughts in mind that give you energy) or thought testing to reduce the impact of painful thoughts that are not true.

• Use your strengths. This supposes that you know what your top strengths are. You then make sure to use them on a regular basis, preferably weaving them into your vocational life.

• Be mindful. This involves tuning into the details of the moment of time you are in—and I mean all of the minutia of the moment. Cognitive and affective pain tend to live in the past and the future while peace tends to live in the present.

joyful couple• Live by the crisis = pain + opportunity formula. When hammers hit give them their due (i.e., experience the pain without denial or suppression) but then look for the opportunity that is always there, and to a dose that usually surpasses the dosing of the pain.

• Forgive. Forgiving is like flushing a toxin out of the body. It can also produce profound experiences of meaning.

• Sleep, eat and exercise well.

• Be kind to yourself. If what you tell yourself about yourself were all written out in a book what would the overall tenor be? This strategy includes talking to yourself the way you would have others talk to your child.

• Practice the serenity prayer. (You can be an atheist and benefit from this.) This practice combats codependency and helps you to have an adaptive response when you experience injustice. (I’m convinced that the more a person lives a high road life the more that person will experience injustice.)

Want to learn more about these strategies? I have three suggestions:glasses and book

#1: Enter what you want to know more about in the search bar above. I’ve written articles on several of these techniques; some of those blog entries also include suggestions for further reading.

#2: Read my parenting book. I end each chapter with specific exercises for parents from the positive psychology literature.

#3: Sorry, this one is only for people who live by me in Northeastern PA. This June and July (2014) I will be running an 8-session happiness seminar. To learn more, visit www.explorehappiness.com.

Good luck!

 

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Spicing up the Romance

alienation, long termLet’s face it, having kids is a romance crusher. Time for romance shrinks dramatically. Then, when you do MAKE the time, one or both of you is often physically, cognitively, emotionally or existentially exhausted. However, if you give in to that, and don’t think of your relationship as something that requires ongoing and consistent discipline, your odds go up that you’ll be turning your coin over to a divorce attorney. Here are 30 ideas designed to create a good feeling between you (I’ll end with some caveats):

Initiatives for the person with traditional masculine interests

• Get tickets to a sporting event

• Arrange to go bowling

• Go to some sort of racing event

• Take a trip to a casino

• Go target shooting (hey, it’s the road less traveled!)

• Go fishing (yes, you can wear latex gloves if you must)happy latino couple

• Take golf lessons together

• Give him a foot rub (no, you cannot wear latex gloves)

• Learn how to make beer or wine together

• Go to a car or aviation show

Initiatives for the person with traditional feminine interests

• Write her a poem regarding either your love for her or great things about her (no, it doesn’t have to rhyme sparky)

• Take her to get her nails done

• Do her toe nails for her (be nice and slow and meticulous)

• Take a trip to the closest outlet mall to buy her something nice (only positive comments and no fretting allowed)

• Brush her hair for an hour

• Set her up in with a luxury bath while you take care of your smelly progeny–finger food, sweet aromas and gentle music are all pluses

marriage in progress• Take her to get her makeup done, letting her know that she never needs such things when it comes to you

• Arrange to go dancing and then, as Souza suggested, do so like no one is watching

• Arrange to chauffeur her and her friends for a girls night out (man, you’ll learn all kinds of stuff!)

• Hand carry her flowers to her work

Either

• Set up a picnic in the park

• Go to wineries for tastings

• Offer an hour massage

• Write and deliver a gratitude letter

• Take a regular walk around your neighborhood

• Make his/her favorite meal and serve it in a part of your residence where you wouldn’t normally share a meal. (it’s amazing how intimate a card table, a simple table cloth and a candle can make any part of any residence…as long as you medicate the children first, or turn them over to some other humans for the night…I’m kidding about the medicating your children part…or am I??)

• Go to a comedy club

• Get a babysitter and do an overnight to a nice hotel, prepping the room first yes i can(e.g., flowers, chocolates, champagne)

• Go horseback riding (what great pictures you can get!)

• Play a round of tennis or some other racquet sport

A few caveats:

• Don’t do anything nice with an expectation for a return or a certain reaction. If you do, the nice gesture could make things worse. Think of this as something good you are doing for it’s own sake, regardless of how your spouse may respond. This REALLY takes discipline and practice.

• Never act like you’re sacrificing yourself for your partner’s sake.

• Don’t act like this is a quid pro quo scenario. For instance, if you’re the one who tends to pursue sex, don’t do so after doing one of these gestures.

• Stay away from any gestures that get you into sensitive areas with your partner (e.g., you’ve complained that your partner never gives you a massage and then you offer one).

• Set a weekly date night. Lots of times you won’t feel like it or be tired. DO IT ANYWAY, most of the time that is. Anything that we do only when we feel like it, or only after life’s obligations have been met, will be half baked.

marriage counseling• If these sorts of interventions seem to worsen things and/or your relationship has gotten toxic, please seek out the services of a qualified relationship counselor. For a referral, click here.

Good luck. And remember this is hard for everyone. After all, at the point in human history when some yuck-a-buck came up with the concept of “till death do you part” people tended to die when they were in their early 30s! 😉

Tax Day Stress? Thoughts and Behaviors for De-stressing.

money pushed up a hillAs a recent national survey from the American Psychological Association indicated, a great number of us are under significant stress, and not dealing well with it. With tax day stress looming here are some strategies for taking the edge off.

Using Coping Thoughts

Just like we can swap out an uncomfortable pair of jeans for a comfortable pair, we can swap out a painful thought (that is usually untrue), that is serving no good purpose, for one that is more adaptive (that is usually true). Here are some to try. You should only use those that you believe to be true

woman pointing• Quoting Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert in the movie Happiness: “The difference in happiness between a person making $5,000 and $50,000 is dramatic. However, the difference in happiness between a person making $50,000 and $50,000,000 is not dramatic.”

• “I work my butt off. That’s all anyone can do at the end of the day.”

• “I can control taxes about as much as I can control dust mites. I’ve done the basic management strategies that I can so now it’s time to let it go.”

• My blessings are…(usually pretty impressive and important)

Using Behavioral Choices

• If you’re in a financial hole, seek out an expert. This might be an money expert who can help you to develop a plan for a flat fee. If you have a spending pattern you can’t control, then seek out a qualified mental health professional.

• Make sure to have fun and relax each week. Many believe they can’t make the time to do this because they have too much to get done. But, that’s like someone running a race with a ball and chain attached to the ankle. When someone hollers to them a willingness to cut it off they yell back “I can’t. I’ll lose ground in yogathe race!” If you want to maximize the benefit from your fun make it social, novel (i.e., stuff you wouldn’t normally do) and physically active, at least to a degree that is healthy for you.

• Your wellness is stacked on top of a tripod, the legs of which are sleep, physical activity and nutrition. If one or more of those are problematic, prioritize fixing that. Experts are available to help with each of these.

• There are a number of strategies from the field of positive psychology that can help. Here are three to get you going: writing gratitude letters, performing acts of kindness and taking mini vacations.

Good luck and, in your worse moments, comfort yourself with the knowledge that there are many, many of us in the same boat!

10 Tips for Surviving Your Kid’s Graduation

Your kid’s graduation, be it from high school or college, is a major family event. This entry includes my top 10 suggestions for getting the most out of the experience.

#1 Determine a figure that you plan on spending and stick to it unless you have a compelling reason to do otherwise. If there are other adults contributing it’s a good idea to partner with him, her or them in this decision. (If you don’t get along with the other person or persons arrange for a neutral party, that everyone trusts, to join the discussion.) It is so easy to spend an amount of money that is toxic for you, which is no favor to your graduate (i.e., in the months following the graduation she’ll benefit more from having a relationship with a well parent than from a stressed out parent). If your graduate gets pushy about celebrating his graduation in a way that exceeds your budget ask him what his plan is for coming up with the extra cash.

#2 Partner with your graduate in deciding how the money will be spent. For instance, your graduate may prioritize putting together a down payment on a car over having a party.

#3 Collaborate with your graduate on who will be invited to share in the celebration. You would want to have an important reason for overriding your graduate’s wishes along these lines.

#4 If you fund a party for your graduate’s friends make sure that it is chaperoned well enough to keep everyone safe and legal (e.g., not allowing underage drinking).

#5 Realize that celebrations hardly ever go off as planned. It is almost inevitable that one or more people, the weather, mechanical things, food or something else. will disappoint. Keep in mind that something like this is almost always bound to happen, that it is really only as hampering as you decides it needs to be and that what really matters is the graduation itself; such insights can keep a speed bump from causing a major crash.

#6 Include a present that has an emotional impact; this is the sort of gift that stands to keep on giving much longer than material presents. For instance, you might write a gratitude letter for your graduate (see my blog entry on this method), create a photo slideshow, with music, of your graduate from infancy up to the point of graduation, write a poem that expresses your thoughts and feelings about your graduate, and so forth. In getting in the mood for creating this gift imagine what it will feel like to watch your baby walk across that stage and take a diploma in hand.

#7 Assuming you are not hiring a professional for this purpose, ask a responsible friend or family member to do the picture taking and video recording. If you assign this task to yourself you will not only be in fewer of the images but you will be one step removed from taking part in the celebration.

#8 Respect the value of a good night’s sleep. While graduations are festive, they are also stressful. Stress plus a weary body can facilitate an assortment of unpleasant outcomes (e.g., irritability, compromised decision making, diminished concentration and impairing fatigue).

#9 Form a plan with your graduate, in advance, for how she will thank any who gave her presents or participated in the celebration (i.e., the method and the date by which it will be completed). This makes it less likely that you’ll be cast in the role of hound afterwards. (For less mature graduates you may need to form a contract stipulating that access to a privilege you provide–e.g., usage of a car–will only happen after the thank you cards are mailed.)

#10 Take at least a few moments to pat yourself on the back for all that you did to get your graduate to this place in life. Parenting is tough work that we all stink at it sometimes, but our efforts and intentions are selfless and beautiful and deserve to be recognized. In the instance of a graduation it is clear that your parenting was at least good enough to facilitate your kid successfully finishing a major educational hurdle. So, take an existential moment or two and enjoy that about yourself!

Neurotic Parental Guilt

As a child psychologist, dad and friend of many parents, I’ve noted that neurotic guilt is common among we parents. Sometimes these feelings are mere flashes while at other times they are thematic. Of course there are situations in which experiences of guilt are not neurotic as they are helpful (e.g., situations where a parent is abusing or neglecting a child and the guilt feelings motivate change). But, here I’m thinking of instances when we engage excessive self-reproach for having human limitations or for having normative human experiences. In this entry I’ll first describe some common scenarios that evoke such quilt and then suggest seven strategies for coping with it.

The first common scenario is when there is a separation at hand:

• A child leaves for college, especially if the child leaving is the first born. (Many parents report feeling shocked at how quickly this day has arrived.)

• A parent departs for an extended period of time. This commonly happens when mom or dad serves in the military, but there are many examples of it in our run-and-gun culture (e.g., as a phase of relocating to another part of the country).

• A parent is on his or her death bed.

In these and other related situations we can be swept away with thoughts that we did not get the most out of our time with our child. We can mercilessly beat ourselves up with thoughts that we should have spent more one-on-one time, done more shared activities, communicated our love more effectively or just been a better parent. A famous quote by Kahil Gibran comes to mind “Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”

The second common scenario is after some positively anticipated event or period of time is over such as:

• A vacation is finished.

• A holiday period is concluded.

• A weekend is over. (I wonder what percentage of neurotic parent guilt happens on Sunday nights.)

In these and related scenarios I might kick myself for moments of conflict, boredom or disengagement. I so much looked forward to having a joyful or meaningful experience with my child. And, when reality almost inevitably falls short of my high expectations–what I refer to as the “Clark Griswold Syndrome”–I kick myself with self-reproach and feelings of guilt.

I believe at the root of neurotic parental guilt is the overwhelming and gut wrenching love that we have for our kids. It is so encapsulating and powerful, that it makes us lunatics much of the time. So, my fellow lunatic, let me suggest some antidotes for this neurotic guilt:

Strategy #1: Use what we psychologists call “coping thoughts.” Coping thoughts are true thoughts that provide comfort. Wearing a pair of jeans that are so tight that they hurt serves no purpose. So, sane people swap them out. This type of neurotic guilt serves no purpose, so we do well to swap it out. Here are some coping thoughts to try on for size:

√ “Everyone has moments of stupidity, impatience and frailty. There is no escaping my humanity.”

√ “I love my kid more than my life. It isn’t possible to love someone more than that.”

√ “I do (have done) all kinds of things for my kid such as….”

√ “Conflict and disengagement are woven into the fabric of human interactions. There is no being together, for any extended period of time, without them.”

√ “Life is not a fairy tale, it’s better. But, that comes with mess for everyone.”

Strategy #2: Imagine you are in the future and your child is a parent. He or she is now coming to you for help with the exact same type of guilt you are now experiencing. What advice would you offer your future child? If your like most, this can lead you to a more wise and kind stance with yourself. (This is also one way to get in touch with what I have referred to as your “wells of wisdom.”)

Strategy #3: If your child is still living with you, or lives close to you. Try hard to do at least one hour of “special time” each week. If you do this exercise consistently you are taking a mighty step towards promoting an effective relationship with your child. (Special time is different from quality time. To learn more about how to do it see Chapter One in my parenting book, or download this article that I wrote.)

Strategy #4: Write a gratitude letter for your child. Click here for a blog entry on the specifics of this method. This can be a most profound human experience. (Be careful not to expect reciprocation though. It’s wonderful if a letter comes back at you later, but no one is served if you experience resentment secondary to a frustrated expectation.)

Strategy #5: Apologize for any real mistakes that you made and, if it’s a pattern, try to both understand the underlying cause(s) and take steps to either improve or resolve the situation. Steps for improving could include such things as spiritual direction, psychotherapy, improving health habits and enhancing your self-care (i.e., parenting from the cross is rarely effective), and I speak as someone who has taken abundant advantage of each of these self-improvement measures.

Strategy #6: A more elaborate version of the coping thought strategy would be to make a list of your parenting strengths and successes. This could be a one-and-done exercise or a weekly effort. It is a list of things you have done, or do, well as a parent. It can also include evidence of good outcomes that your child experiences or has experienced.

Strategy #7: Get helpful feedback. My personal criteria for such a consultant is that (a) he or she is wise about parenting (i.e., by experience, by training or both), (b) he or she cares about me and (c) he or she is as likely to agree as to disagree with me (i.e., someone who is only going to agree with me is of little use for this service).

In closing, and to beat one of my most treasured and favorite drums, if you think you could benefit from speaking with a good child psychologist, pick up the phone! 😉

Manufacture Joy: Take a Daily Mini Vacation

As part of this holiday series, I’m next covering the strategy of creating mini daily vacations, an idea I’ve adapted from psychologist Dr. Barbara Fredrickson’s book Positivity. The idea is to treat yourself with an enjoyable respite from the busyness of your daily life by doing something fun, meaningful or relaxing. Here are two dozen ideas to get you started:
• Rather than work on a project at your desk, take it to a local coffee shop or bookstore, order your favorite drink, and work on it there.
• Have lunch at a restaurant, whether by yourself (reading something fun or interesting) or with a friend.
• Go to a local library and read or listen to something funny or interesting.
• Start a game of chess with a friend, or a stranger, and make a couple of moves each day.
• Go for a walk with an eye towards paying attention to nature.
• More elaborate, but if you can spare a couple of hours, go see a movie.
• Find a quiet space, put on some headphones, and listen to relaxing sounds on a music player (e.g., ocean waves, rain, birds).
• Click around YouTube.com for some funny videos, then forward any treasures to friends (for my top 10 funny parenting videos click here).
• Read a guide book regarding the location of your next vacation, even if it’s far off. If you don’t have a vacation planned, do that instead.
• Click onto some live streaming of a favorite location (an internet search will yield many options, this is just one example).
• Go to a shop that sells your favorite guilty pleasure (e.g., chocolate, baked goods), order something modest, find a quiet spot and eat the treat very slowly with an eye towards savoring every morsel.
• Call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while just to say hey and to see what’s up.
• Read something regarding your favorite hobby.
• Start a file of affirming things people send you, then, over time, read that.
• Eat your lunch while strolling through a museum.
• Look through a file or scrapbook of photographs.
• Watch parts of one of your favorite TV shows or movies (e.g., take a DVD to work, log onto a video streaming service such as Netflix.com).
• Go for a swim in an indoor pool.
• Go play some sets at a bowling alley during lunch, whether by yourself or with a friend.
• Kick your shoes off, get a good drink or snack and read a few chapters of a good novel.
• Play with a pet.
• Visit a florist and buy a plant for your daytime space.
• Find a quiet place, light a candle and offer your Higher Power prayers of gratitude.
• Plant something.
• Make an agreement with your significant other, or a good friend, to alternate giving each other 10 minute shoulder massages. Alternate days if need be.

I would love to hear your ideas for creating a daily mini-vacation.

Other offerings in this series:

Write a gratitude letter

Perform acts of kindness

Happy People Live Longer & Have Better Health

Earlier this year researchers Drs. Ed Diener and Micaela Chan published a comprehensive review of the scientific literature examining the association between subjective well being (SWB; the research term for happiness), longevity (as in length of time someone is alive) and health. To get an electronic reprint of the study click here. In this blog entry I will summarize some of their findings and suggest one evidence based strategy to promote happiness.

In considering the positive and significant association between longevity and SWB the researchers reviewed 26 longitudinal studies (a study that follows subjects over an extended period of time, usually decades). These studies cumulatively examined 316,911 individuals. In the “Take-Home Message” portion of the article the researchers write: “If high SWB adds 4 to 10 years to life compared to low SWB, this is an outcome worthy of national attention.”

In considering the positive and significant association between health and SWB the researchers reviewed 17 longitudinal studies; these studies cumulatively studied 121,096 people. Quoting the researchers: “…moods and emotions are consistently…associated with…blood pressure, cortisol, and inflammation, as well as indicators of disease such as artery wall thickening…(this) occurs in addition to the effects of negative feelings and depression, suggesting that positive affect may have distinctive biological correlates that can benefit health.”

There are many things adults can do to promote happiness. For instance, in an earlier blog entry I described a family exercise involving writing gratitude letters. Another strategy is to practice acts of kindness as the “helper’s high” is scientifically validated phenomenon. To do this make one day a week your kindness day (maybe one that has traditionally been a struggle). Here are 10 ideas to get you started:

• Write a thank you note to a person who cleans a space that you routinely traverse.

• Leave some money at a drive through for the customer behind you.

• Take out an add in a local newspaper recognizing a teacher’s excellent service.

• Stick a couple of movie passes in a package of diapers at your local grocery store with a note “I know it’s tiring to take care of a baby. Please use these to lighten the load some night. A friend who has been there.”

• Spend an hour volunteering at a local soup kitchen.

• Put coins in strangers’ meter that looks like it could use it.

• Give blood.

• Invite someone with young kids with her or him to cut you in line at the grocery store.

• Leave a note of appreciation for your mail carrier’s service.

• Bring a box of baked goods in for the office at your child’s school.

I review other ideas for acts of kindness in my book Working Parents,
Thriving Families: 10 Strategies that Make a Difference
. I’d also very much like to hear ideas from you, my reader 😉

Six Tips for Having a Thankful Thanksgiving

Ever feel like you didn’t get as much out of Thanksgiving as you wanted? Here are six tips to try to have a truly festive, uplifting and rejuvenating turkey day this year.

• Be mindful. The mindfulness movement blends the best of eastern traditions with western science. In short, it involves paying closer attention to the here and now. It’s remarkable how much doing so can promote peaceful feelings. For example, try eating your first few bites of each type of food slowly. Savor the nuances of the tastes. Try also smelling the food and enjoying its aroma. The same goes for beverages.

• Be calm. Try to create some moments when you breathe deeply into your stomach instead of your chest. At the same time try relax your muscles, settle into the furniture and take in what’s around you. Notice the details: the beauty of someone’s hair, the love you feel for someone, a wonderful smile.

• Be thankful. There are so many ways to do this. Write and deliver a gratitude letter. (This can also be done as a family exercise.) Encourage everyone to say something they are thankful for before digging in at mealtime. Let your Higher Power know about that which you are thankful. Try to linger in the glow of such thoughts.

• Be patient. Thanksgiving often produces stress on those responsible for aspects of the day, on relationships that are not peaceful, and on those who may be hurting going into the day. If irritations flare, try to not react in kind. Instead, try to appreciate the human condition explaining the irritation and be soft and gentle, even if it means turning the other cheek. (By the way the psychological wisdom behind the concept of turning the other cheek recently occurred to me. When one doesn’t turn the other cheek, the resulting activity consumes one’s life.)

• Be affirming. Proportionate and specific praise for things you believe can create uplifting moments for both you and the person you are affirming (i.e., instead of keeping such thoughts to yourself). I know when I’m the recipient of such, I try to create ways to remember the moment so that I can unpack it when I’m soul weary.

• Be kind. So often these days don’t go off as planned. Try to be a person who lets everyone know that that’s okay (including yourself) and even to be expected. Problems are like dust mites, they are woven into our existence. (I like the saying: “People make plans and God chuckles.”)  However, if I clench my fists at the heavens and protest why a problem is happening I now must suffer two kinds of pain: the pain imbued within the problem and the pain of my reaction to the problem. It’s remarkable how often kindness works, both towards oneself and towards others.

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