Tag communication

Parenting Through COVID-19

Many parents are confused regarding how to parent through COVID-19. This entry addresses  three qualifications, three guidelines and two common questions.

Three qualifications:

1.    Most children who were free of psychiatric problems prior to being exposed to a trauma do not develop a psychiatric condition after the exposure. Children can be surprisingly resilient.

2.    Advice from mental health professionals is most effective when it supports and informs, but does not supplant, your intuition. You are one of the world’s leading experts on your child. Suggestions from experts should be filtered through that lens.

3.    Some of the suggestions below would not apply for children who have become symptomatic; for such children it would be best to consult with a mental health professional in order to develop a tailored plan.

Three guidelines:

1.    Intermittently let your children know that you are available to talk but do not try to force a conversation. Children are like adults; sometimes we cope by trying to put something out of our mind. Assuming the topic has upset her, your child might not be in the mood to talk about such at the same time as you. Following your child’s lead can communicate that you are sensitive and respectful.

2.    Try to create a venue and manner that makes it easier for your child to communicate with you. For instance, some teens might find it easier to discuss difficult feelings and thoughts while not making eye contact (e.g., while driving) while younger children may communicate through their play. Regardless of the age range, though, it is important to not jump in too quickly with reassurances. Once we parents start self- disclosing, even if for the purpose of being reassuring, it can have a dampening effect on our child’s self-disclosure.

Once your child has finished with his or her initial statements reflect back what you’ve heard and provide empathy (e.g., “I understand why you could be african woman's half facefeeling more scared these days”). This will feel very difficult to do as your entire being wants to be reassuring, but suppress that urge initially. This may cause your child to tell you even more. When it seems that your child is finished that would be the time to offer your thoughts and feelings.

3.    Let your awareness of your child’s developmental level and/or vulnerabilities guide your self-disclosure. No matter your child’s age, it is important to not say things that you do not really believe. Doing so is often ineffective and may damage your credibility. Selective truth telling would seem to be advisable; selective based upon your child’s developmental level and vulnerabilities.

For younger or vulnerable children you may want to only share those thoughts and feelings that are positive. For older children, who are also doing well, you may choose to share some thoughts and feelings that are unpleasant. Sometimes life is painful; honestly acknowledging that, with an older child who can handle it, can be educative and facilitate a closer relationship.

Two common questions:

1. What do I say to my children about our safety?

Much of this will be determined by how you rationally answer this question for yourself. What do you believe are the odds that your family will experience significant physical or financial consequences from COVID-19? Once you have answered these questions for yourself, selective truth telling–based on the principles listed above–may be advisable.

2. Is there anything I can do to protect my children from all the fallout?

Any of the following may help:

• Aggressively pursue your own adjustment. If I am afflicted I will have a more difficult time helping my child. If I believe we are significant medical or financial risk, then it ‘s important to develop an action plan for coping with and responding to this. Consultation with a good psychologist or mental health professional can be very helpful in this regard. Many psychologists now offer video conferencing services.

line of kids• Try to maintain as many functional rituals and routines as you can. Few things give a child a clearer message that life is safe than adaptive routines and rituals (e.g., maintaining the same routines at meal time, bed time, birthdays).

• Keep your child’s developmental level and wellness in mind when deciding how much he or she should have access to ongoing developments in the news. A good guideline for anyone stressed by COVID-19 new stories is to limit the exposure to once a day or less.

• Try to turn a sense of passivity into an active plan for healing and helping. Your family may decide to pray for the suffering, make donations, write letters, create art, and join online efforts to heal and to help.

• Think of any self-quarantines as a welcomed staycation instead of an apocalyptic retreat. How many of we parents have had the thought, “when we get some extra time together we’ll…” There are so many possible ideas: have a family campout in the family room, play balloon baseball, have a bracketed gaming tournament (including making up new and fun games like who can balance a grape on their face the longest), view old family videos, have a cupcake baking contest or any one of a hundred other ideas you can get by doing an internet search for “staycation ideas.” Doing this well will cause your child or teen, 10-15 years from now, to reminisce with a warming smile, and say, “remember in 2020 when we…”

• Once every day or so do an internet search for “good news COVID-19.” In doing this I’vehappy hispanic family learned that new cases in China have dropped dramatically, that some of the first identified cases in the U.S. are now well and the early science out of China indicates that warmer weather slows the transmission of COVID-19 For teens, reviewing a graph like this may be helpful.

• Maintain a healthy lifestyle for the entire family. This would include things like maintaining good diets and schedules for physical activity and sleep. Social distancing does not require becoming shut-ins. Activities like walking in nature, biking and stargazing may be safe, practical and energizing.

• Manifest for your family the psychological truth: crisis = pain + opportunity. COVID-19, like all pain, is often akin to a dragon guarding treasure when it does not kill us. Yes, we need to experience the pain and give each other empathy for it. After all, denial can take a heavy toll when it’s the driver. But, then we can wonder where the treasure is. If your children can reach age 18 knowing this deep truth about suffering they will have a Captain America Shield against life’s slings and arrows.

• If you child seems to be having a hard time adjusting, or otherwise has changed for the worse, seek out a professional consultation. Doing so may improve your child’s adjustment. To find a psychologist click here.



Why Do We Get So Defensive When Our Kids Complain About Us?

combative momWe parent-lunatics, as much as we are hard on ourselves about our parenting mistakes, can be remarkably defensive when our kids come to us with a complaint about the same. The purpose of this entry is to consider possible causes for this dynamic and to suggest some coping strategies.

Possible Causes

• We love our kids to a degree that is indescribable. I suspect there is part of us that believes that if they totally got this they’d cut us more slack. And, when they don’t, we imagine they are missing how much they mean to us.

• We bust our tails in service to our kids and we (perhaps unconsciously) believe that if they truly recognized that that they’d be more often keep their complaints to themselves. It’s almost like we voluntarily paved our driveway for a neighbor (and received only a brief “thanks” for the service). But then, when we walk on our neighbor’s lawn to retrieve a newspaper, get yelled at for damaging the grass. Yeah, we’ve committed an affront. But, the scolding seems to be missing the big picture!

• We often do better than was done for us by our parents. So, we want out kids working dadto say something like “Father, I so much appreciate that you had it tougher than me when you were growing up and are putting so much effort into rising above that and selflessly and graciously giving me a better childhood.” In these moments we forget that it’s more likely the family dog will sing the Star Spangled Banner.

• Our kids are WAY more self-entitled, irrational, ungrateful and unfair in their treatment of us than the other way around. So, when they come to us with their grievances we want to take out the scales of justice and do some objective analysis.

Coping Strategies

• The first thing is to give your child permission to complain and to express anger. This is not the same thing as allowing cursing or abusive language. But, creating a household where it’s safe to express such thoughts and feelings goes a long way to promoting your child’s long-term wellness and interpersonal skills.

blocking out stimuli• We all do well to remember that our children are exactly that: children. In other words, if your child’s brain was placed into a fully grown adult’s body, and a full battery of neuroimaging and neuropsychological were tests completed, the conclusion would likely be that brain damage exists.

• Sometimes when our self-care is out of balance it’s easy to look to our children to meet our needs. This leaves us vulnerable to overreacting to complaints (i.e., the outlet for my needs being met is being challenged). It’s probably better to make a plan to get some consistent “me” or “us” (i.e., parents) time.

• Taking a deep breath and keeping things in perspective is helpful. Research suggests that our kids make less out of our conflicts than we do. When our kids come to us with lamentations about our parenting we can be more devastated, and think there is something much more wrong, than our kids do.

• Use empathy as much as possible. Just letting your kid know that you dadandsonunderstand what he or she is thinking and feeling can be very helpful. And, to be empathic with a position is not the same as to agree with it. It just lets your child know that you’ve heard and understand him or her, and that means a lot.

• This is the hardest part, but agreeing with any good points that your kid makes is very important to do. This will make it more likely that he or she won’t lie to you (i.e., what’s the good of bringing arguments to the bench if one never wins), models effective conflict resolution skills and strengthens your bond.

• Oh, and it’s probably not a good idea to expect much gratitude as long as your child has brain damage (see above). I know that’s very, very difficult given how selfless and gruelingly difficult parenting can be. But, we can always hope that this will come later, maybe after were dead, but at some point 😉

I’ll conclude by noting that the more years I get under my belt as a parent the more I have an empathic joining with one aspect of grandparenting. I CAN’T WAIT to see my kids in my shoes and to then go home to my childless residence! What’s that line about he who laughs last??

Ten Tips for When Your Teen Says, “I hate you!”

angry male hand upI remember when my eldest was in preschool and the delight we both took in being reunited at the end of each day. At the time I shared my bliss with a graduate student. This student, who had two teenagers, responded with “yeah, but wait ‘till she’s a teen.” I remember feeling nonplussed by that remark. While the available science and my clinical experience were both consistent with my grad student’s remark, I thought this would not happen to me…not only has it happened multiple times, but it has happened with both of my teenagers. And, my third child will hit adolescence in a few months, leaving me looking at want adds for oil rig work in the North Atlantic.

So, my fellow parent-lunatic, here are the things I try to do, at least when I’m acting with intention, when one of my teen says some version of “I hate you!”

Tip #1: Reflect on the resilience formula: crisis = pain + opportunity. You’re crisis opportunityfeeling the pain. Now, where is the opportunity? (My own experience is that the dosing of opportunity is usually higher than the dosing of the pain.)

Tip #2: Take a deep breath and keep things in perspective. This is a normative experience. (Those of you who have raised a teenager, and have not experienced this, should probably keep that to yourself, lest the rest of us kick you off the island!) Your teen’s brain is still developing, especially in regards to those parts that will end up defining his or her most mature self. Moreover, sometimes you hear this because you’re doing right by your teen (e.g., doing effective monitoring) and s/he will be grateful later (probably not until after your dead though).

Tip #3: Realize that yours and your teen’s experience of the conflict may be different. Research suggests that these sorts of conflicts bother we parent-lunatics more than they bother our kids. Ever have your teen go off on you and then act like zero happened a few hours later, or the next day? Our teens often look upon these conflicts as being less significant than we do.

Tip #4: Spend at least one hour a week each week doing special time. I’ve written extensively about this within this blwork-life balanceg and my parenting book. This is my top resilience promoting parenting strategy.

Tip #5: Use other wise parents as a sounding board. The three criteria I use for my sounding boards are: (a) the person is experienced and knowledgeable about the problem or issues at hand, (b) the person is willing to disagree with me and (c) the person feels kindly towards me. This discussion can help you to find your perspective and feel more confident about moving forward with your teen. Of course, if you can partner with your spouse all the better (my wife is my go-to gut check person in these instances).

Tip #6: Be selective about your psychological autopsies (i.e., following up later teen rolling eyeson what was said). A simple “I hate you!” Or, “you suck as a parent!” followed by the classic storm off and door slam, may not be worth following up on. Sometimes the gift we give our teen is allowing him or her to blow off steam without it ending up being a thing.

Tip #7: Wait until everyone’s brain is back online before doing a psychological autopsy. Sometimes your teen might say some things in the middle of one of these rants that is very hurtful or which gives you information you believe you need to follow up on. In these instances wait until you’re both calm and rested in order to proceed. This allows for everyone to have all IQ points on deck for what could be a difficult discussion.

Tip #8: When doing a psychological autopsy get your teen’s perspective first, and offer empathy (which can be done even when you disagree); stay there until your teen is vetted, unless you find yourself getting too upset (in which case you may want to stop and come back later). This can be gruelingly difficult to do, but not only will you be modeling an effective communication style, but you will be helping your teen to be more open to your perspective when it’s your turn to share.

child helpmeTip #9: Make sure this isn’t part of a larger problem. Is your teen making similar statements to teachers? Is your teen struggling in his/her social life? Are academics not going well? Does your teen routinely struggle when s/he is asked to do things s/he doesn’t feel like doing?  Is your teen’s mood often disturbed? Does your teen struggle in his/her extracurricular life? Are any of your teen’s regulatory habits disturbed (e.g., sleep)? If the answer to one or more of these questions is  “yes,” then the “I hate you” remarks may be a cry for help.

Tip #10 (readers of this blog can see this one coming a mile away): Err on the side of getting help sooner rather than later. Psychological problems are akin to medical problems in so many ways: they are nearly universal by the time a kid reaches adulthood (about 90%), most of the time they are treatable in a short period of time, they are easier to treat the earlier they are caught and, if they are left unchecked, can cause very stressful and costly consequences. However, unlike medical problems, only about 20% of youth who need evidence-based mental health care get it. Want to be among those parents who don’t make this error of omission? Just click here to get the ball rolling.

So, go forth in peace my fellow parent-lunatic. And, if you can remember exactly why we all signed up for this, would you email me? I’ve forgotten 😉

Top 11 Tips for Parenting Teens

Why waste your time with a preamble? Just the tips, kip:

#1 Make an hour of one-on-one time each week to do nothing with your teen but (a) listen to what his on his or her mind, (b) affirm the positive things you think about him or her and (c) reflect back that which value regarding what you are hearing or seeing. During this hour avoid teaching, correcting or directing.

#2 Always know and approve of where he or she is, what he or she is doing and what responsible adult is in charge of monitoring, if only from a distance.

#3 If your teen wants to do something you’re inclined to forbid, ask yourself if that thing he or she wishes to do is physically dangerous, psychologically harmful or unduly taxing of your resources. If the answer to all three questions is “no” it may be important to let him or her do it, no matter how much it might drive you crazy. This strategy promotes adaptive decision making and independence.

#4 Always ask what her or she thinks first before sharing your opinion, even when asked. Then value aspects of what you agree with before stating alternative perspectives. And, when sharing those alternative perspectives, remember that your teen’s learning is facilitated when your sentences end with question marks–and are truly inquisitive and not declarative–instead of periods.

#5 Avoid getting in the business of trying to control who he or she has a crush on. You can and should control your son or daughter being in safe situations (tip #2) but trying to control his or her crushes will often cause the exact opposite result of what you wish for. Also, try to have discussions about sex, and sexuality, as often as you can (one of the world’s best teachers was Socrates, who always did the heavy lifting of his teaching by asking questions).

#6 Don’t let him or her sleep with technology in the bedroom. Charge it the kitchen instead. This will help to increase the odds that a proper night’s sleep is accomplished (i.e., 8.25 to 9.5 hours).

#7 Do what you can to promote an hour of sweating and breathing hard five to seven days a week. And, limit sedentary electronic pleasures to 2 hours a day.

#8 Try to have as few processed carbohydrates in your home as possible and model healthy eating. Our walk does more good than our talk, though both are helpful.

#9 Listen to your teen’s arguments for changing a decision or rule. Making a change, when your teen makes a good and reasonable argument, reduces his or her odds of lying to you at other times.

#10 Support and/or grow your teen’s capacity to do things whenever she or he doesn’t feel like it. Few things better predict a person’s success in our culture than this capacity. As this is complicated you may benefit from reading the strategies for pulling this off in my parenting book; while I wrote it for parents of younger children, you will get a lot of what you need there.

#11 Savor these years by keeping in mind that in a few precious years she or he will most likely not be living with you. Yes, teens can be aggravating as hell (and I have 2.0 of them living with me now). But, when we are at the end of our life, looking back, we’d probably give a lot to come back and live just one day as we do today.

Related blog posts:

Communicating with your Teens about STDs

Recent Research: Teens Need Parents to Monitor Them

A Chronic Health Problem in Teens: a Lack of Sleep

Is Your Kid Getting Enough Sleep?

Kids’ Physical Activity: 7 Thinking Traps

Six Tips For When You Lose It With Your Kid

All of we parents say and do things with our kids that we regret. These are not knowledge deficits (i.e., we know we’ve erred) but are performance deficits, the causes of which are as varied as the number of stars in the sky. (Most of the time these lapses would not cause the staff at a state’s welfare department to become alarmed, and this entry is not meant to address such instances.) These are moments when our personal reservoir of resources has been depleted by stress and we snap, issuing forth with harsh invectives. This post is meant to give you some strategies to try once you’re back on your game and parenting with intention.

#1: Be kind with yourself in how you think about your lapse. Such moments are as universal to family life as dust mites. Sure, it’d be nice to be rid of them, and we strive for that as best as we can but, at the end of the day, we’re only human. Moreover, research suggests that our kids, assuming our family life is generally healthy, make less of these skirmishes than we do.

#2: Do a psychological autopsy with your child after you both have calmed down. In other words, have a calm discussion about what happened. During this conversation own your lapse without qualification. “John, it was wrong of me to call you lazy and slow witted. Neither of those things are true. I was having a bad day and over reacted to your complaints about doing your homework. That was wrong of me and I apologize son.” Let your kid respond and reinforce that with which you agree. Then, if your child misbehaved in some fashion, try to raise his or her awareness. This is done independent of the apology. That is, I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to place responsibility for my behavior onto my child. “John, thinking more about this, is there anyway you can think of that you could have acted better?” If your child comes up with a reasonable answer you can salute his or her growing maturity. If not, you can suggest what you have in mind. “Well, I think it would have been better for you to do your homework, without complaint, after being warned that I had had enough complaining for one day.”

#3: Consider what you can do to keep yourself from turning this type of intermittent lapse into a regular pattern. Some useful questions to consider: is your self-care sound (e.g., getting sufficient doses of sleep, healthy foods, physical activity, fun, interpersonal connections, and calm)? Is there a pressing stress on you that may need more focused attention? Could you use more help or support and, if yes, how might you get it?

#4: Assuming your child’s behavior prior to your lapse was problematic, consider what you can do to keep such from becoming a dysfunctional pattern. Some questions to consider: could the behavior your child is demonstrating be signally the presence of an underlying problem that needs attention? Are your child’s health habits in need of adjustment? (As much as we adults can be adversely affected by poor health habits, this is even more the case with our kids.) Does your child have any insights into what might be driving the behavior?

#5: Spend one hour a week one-on-one with your child doing nothing but paying attention to him or her and offering positive thoughts and feelings. (Please note that this is different from quality time–a valuable activity to be sure– but which usually involves my dividing my attention with the thing we are doing together.). This dosage of weekly attention is to a child psychologist what an apple a day is to a pediatrician.

#6: If the trigger for your lapse is your child resisting doing a chore or some other obligation, consider setting up a behavioral contract to make it in your child’s best interest, as he or she looks at things, to comply. This switch can turn you from acting like a harsh warden to a benevolent bystander. Click here to read a blog post that covers this method a bit more. Click here to learn more about my book, which covers all the issues in this post in depth.

In closing remember that there is a small army of highly trained mental health professionals available that is willing and able to be of help. To access one data base of such mean-lean-healing machines, click here.

The Best Marriage Advice I’ve Ever Heard

The best marriage advice I’ve ever heard didn’t come from a research study on couples, or from a book on marriage therapy or from a workshop by a marriage counseling expert. No, the single best advice I’ve ever heard came from a couple I worked with when I was practicing in Chicago in the mid nineties. This couple was not seeing me for marriage counseling but for the treatment of their nine year-old daughter, who was suffering from a severe case of depression and a moderate case of defiance.

Mood disorders, when they persist in children, tend to demoralize parents and stress marriages. The demoralization happens because the sorts of interventions that parents typically try not only don’t work but often seem to make things worse. The marital stress subsequently occurs when parents start to oversubscribe responsibility for their child’s problems onto their partner (e.g., if only you would do x or not do y maybe our child would not have these difficulties).

The couple I’m referring to experienced the demoralization but not the marital problems. After a year’s worth of treatment, which included behaviorally oriented family therapy, individual cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication (the nature of these treatments is described in my book Working Parents, Thriving Families), their daughter was no longer symptomatic. We had some extra time in our last session so I indulged a curiosity and asked: “You guys made it clear from the get-go that you have a strong marriage and are each other’s best friend. But I’m puzzled about something. Often when I’m helping parents to treat problems like your daughter’s I notice that they have periods when they feel alienated from each other, but I never saw signs of that in the two of you. Actually, you seemed to remain close throughout all phases of our work, even though there were some very rough patches.” As they nodded in agreement I asked: “What’s your secret?” To which the husband instantly answered (because they had thought and talked about this a lot): “We know the other person is not crazy.”

The couple elaborated that when the other person acts in a way that is grating they just assume that she or he has good cause. So, instead of just concluding that their partner is being a jerk, or selfish or unfair, they conclude (1) that she or he has an understandable reason for acting that way and (2) that she or he will rebound soon enough, especially if their own response involves patience and empathy instead of irritation and counterattacks.

Clearly there are multiple and important strategies that go into having a successful long term relationship (e.g., making time to have fun with each other, working on having a satisfying sex life, etc.), but I was struck by the truth of this couple’s insight and how well it was working for them. They also helped me to connect the dots and realize that this sort of way of being in a relationship captures a lot of the good outcomes that happen when communication training goes well. So, those of us in marriages that have existed since there has been dirt would do well to consider the wisdom of this couple’s insight.

Five Questions for Effectively Parenting Kids in Sports

This past weekend I watched an episode of ESPN’s Outside the lines regarding the suicide of 25-year-old LPGA golfer Erica Blasberg. Certainly this episode resonated with me as a psychologist, as I often deal with these kinds of issues in my practice. But, this piece touched me more as a dad of three kids who play sports (one heavily so). So, I thought I’d devote a blog entry for sharing five questions for a parent to consider when his or her child plays a sport.

1.     As a parent do I insist upon outcomes, effort or both?

I would argue that it is effort that we should encourage and allow the outcomes to fall where they may. The capacity to give effort when one doesn’t feel like it is a very important psychological muscle for promoting success. Thus, common messages relayed in sports along these lines generalize well to other areas in life (e.g., practice well when no one is watching, try your hardest even if your opponent is dominating you and try to improve no matter where you stand relative to other kids). Alternatively, emphasizing the win, the hit, the points, or other outcomes, especially without regard to other important considerations, can promote unwise philosophies, practices and outcomes.

2.     Does my child enjoy the sport?

Sure, there are rainy Mondays and valleys of weariness that all of us experience in the areas of our lives that typically produce joy. But, for at least a considerable portion of the time, is my kid having fun playing the sport? If not, there may be more downside than upside in continuing and/or my kid’s involvement in the sport may be more about my satisfaction than his or hers.

3.     Does the sporting experience support or interfere with adaptive character development?

This question may be especially important for athletically gifted kids. One father I know recently started to lightheartedly ride his athletically talented son for holding back during a rec basketball game (his son was a top player on two very competitive basketball teams but the rec team was made up of boys who played the sport only one day a week); his son explained that he could have scored more points, but not without cutting down on how much he passed the ball to open teammates, something that he thought would have been wrong to do. This is an illustration of how sports can engender and highlight character development.

Alternatively, it is possible for a sport to become a venue for consistent eruptions of anger, verbal or physical bullying, despair and cheating; in such instances, and left unchecked, the sporting life may be doing more harm than good. Relatedly, and as a parent, what is my emotional reaction to each of the following scenarios? Scenario #1: my child turns in a dominant athletic performance that leads to a win for the team, but he or she intentionally shames another child along the way. Scenario #2: my child tries hard but turns in a subpar athletic performance, which then facilitates a team loss, but along the way he or she lifts the spirits of a child who was feeling down. Understanding my emotional response to these scenarios (you know, the one we have when we’re being honest with ourselves and no one is looking) can tell me a lot about what I’m communicating to my child about priorities (either directly or indirectly) and also let me know whether an adjustment is in order.

4.     When academics and sports compete against each other, which wins?

Granted, those of us who value both academics and sports do what we can to keep them from coming into conflict. But, inevitably, when they do, what happens? Can there be any doubt that efforts spent towards becoming a good student stand to leave many more doors open in adulthood than efforts spent towards becoming a good athlete? Moreover, and for those who are playing at a level in high school where this concern is relevant, recruiters are more-and-more disinterested in students with a compromised academic record (i.e., they don’t want to deal the hassles that result when a student they recruit cannot perform academically).

5.     Does my kid realize that my bond with him or her cannot be threatened by how he or she does in sports?

As I review in chapter two of my book, self-esteem appears to be comprised of at least two core elements: of a sense of worthiness (i.e., I have inherent value and am loved) and a sense of competence (i.e., there are important things that I’m good at). Our kids benefit when they know they have a loving bond with us that can’t be severed when they stink at things, make poor choices or otherwise experience negative outcomes. Having this bond is more important than just about anything else we can provide for our child as they grow up.  So, one could argue that just as most sports require donning protective physical equipment, we do well as parents to require that our child dons protective psychological equipment, in this case a sense that his or her connection with us can’t be threatened by a score.

Gratitude Letters

Gratitude letters can promote closeness and happiness in families. Let me describe what such a letter is and then describe how such might be used within a family.

Gratitude letters are usually around 300 words in length, but can be as long as you’d like. The letter is written directly to a family member (i.e., in the first person). To be more personal, write it out by hand. The letter should express only positive thoughts and feelings that you have regarding the person and should not include direct or indirect statements regarding how the person may have let you or someone else down or how the other person might improve as a person. Try to include examples of specific things the person has done or said that cause you to feel gratitude; these examples can be recent or from a long time ago. When it’s time to share the letter do so by reading it to the family member; don’t chicken out and hand it over for the other person to read. You may start to tear up or get emotional. That’s okay (you’ll probably find you’re not the only one). When you’re finished give it to the other person. Allow the positive moment to linger as long as the other person likes (i.e., some of us, though we enjoy it, may start to feel a little uncomfortable with the intimacy that can emerge); in other words, the other person decides when to end the moment or change the topic.

There are a number of ways such letters can be introduced into your family. The first way is for you to start doing the exercise unilaterally for any and all members of your family. If you chose this method don’t announce your agenda in advance; just spring it on the other person. It is also important to not do this with the hope or expectation that the other person will reciprocate.

Another method is to agree, as a family, that you will all do this exercise. The first step is to pick the person who will be the first “victim” (i.e., the one who everyone will write about first) and pick a day and time by which the letters are to be completed and read. You may need to stay after some kids to make sure they do their part; the recipient of the letter should not be the one to do this reminding (if you’re a single parent, ask a relative or friend to do this for you). If a given child is in 4th grade or younger, or has some interfering disability, you can be flexible regarding the length. For children who cannot write, but who are old enough to understand the concept, ask for a gratitude picture instead (if a given child needs it, it’s okay to provide a little help, but do this as sparingly as possible lest the recipient conclude it’s more your work). When the assigned day and time comes around, take turns reading your letters (/showing your pictures) all-together as a family. After everyone is finished, go with any urges to hug and cry and express love and joy. After the first recipient’s turn is finished, assign who the next recipient will be and so on and so forth. When I’ve helped families to do this, we’ve usually spaced the turns one week apart, though you can do it at whatever pace feels right for you.

This experience is usually very positive for families, and often to a surprising degree. (If this is not the case for you and your family, I would wonder if this is a symptom worthy of attention.) You can also find a lot of satisfaction in writing gratitude letters for others towards whom you have unexpressed gratitude, be it ancient or recent. If you’d like to make this a regular self-improvement project, write and execute one a month, at least until you run out of people. You might also encourage others in your family to try writing letters for people outside of your family. Such a practice focuses our minds on positive truths and stands to promote happiness.

Communicating with Kids About Financial Stress

In today’s economy families commonly need to cut back or make significant changes in how they live. Many parents find themselves wondering how to discuss these changes with their children. Experienced child psychologists know that once you’ve seen one family you’ve seen one family. For this reason, there is no counsel or set of  procedures that can be universally applied. However, it is possible to provide some general guidelines to address common questions.

Is it possible to hide our financial stress from our kids?

Probably not. Most of us tend to show our vulnerabilities more when we’re stressed; smokers tend to smoke more; people in troubled marriages argue more; people inclined towards impatience yell more, etc. A young child, sensing these changes, can become fairly upset and believe that he is at fault unless a parent provides some degree of clarity.

Should I lie to my child about what is going on in order to protect her?

We parents love our kids so much that it can make us crazy (i.e., we’re parent-lunatics—my post on this topic can be found here). So, the motivation to give false assurances is certainly understandable. However, it would generally be a mistake to assert something we do not believe. While doing this in the short run can seem humane, it can damage our credibility in the long run. And, as is the case in adult relationships, credibility can be a difficult thing to recapture. Moreover, kids can usually tell when something is wrong.

What should I tell my child about what is going on?

The younger or the more psychologically vulnerable the child, the more selective I might be in what I share. The older the child, and the more that he is thriving, the more open I might be. A central parental goal is to help my child to learn how to cope well with stress. It’s useful for kids, through the course of development, and in doses that they can handle, to be exposed to a wide variety of stresses so that they can learn how to cope effectively. Yet we parent-lunatics, because we can’t bear to see our kids hurting, sometimes deprive them of such valuable learning opportunities. Then, when they’re on their own, they may experience a diminished ability to respond to multiple kinds of stress and challenges (e.g., many freshmen arrive on college campuses with a compromised capacity to make effective decisions when stressed).

Can you give me an example of what I might say to a younger or a more vulnerable child regarding the significant financial pressures we’re facing?

Let’s say that you’ve been downsized and you’re going to have to move out of your house if you can’t land a new job in three months. I probably would not tell an eight year old that the mortgage is in danger. I would, however, tell that child about the job change, because Dad is going to be home more, or someone else might let it slip. It’s like sex education: you want as much information coming from you as possible. However, a child is like a bridge that’s still being built. How much weight he can handle changes over time (i.e., we don’t want to take a caravan of heavy trucks across a bridge that’s not completed if we can avoid it). If there are serious issues that would significantly stress or frighten a young child, I’m probably would not share that information until I have to.

What would you say to a healthy, older teenager about that same situation?

I might say to the teen, “I need to tell you something troubling. I got laid off. I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen and what kinds of changes we might have to go through together. I’m somewhat worried and sad about all of this, but I’m also confident in my abilities and our abilities as a family. I just thought that you’re old enough to hear about this straight up.” Such disclosures can promote closeness with a teen and affirm that you recognize her growing maturity. Then, there is the follow up opportunity to model how to cope well with stress. I can’t tell you the number of times, in my practice, that a teen has expressed surprise to learn that her parent was previously dumped by a significant other (this happens in the context of the teen being devastated by such a loss in his or her own life). We’re often not used to telling our kids about our vulnerabilities and failings, even though doing so can help them in many ways (for my humorous blog entry on this topic click here).

What do I do about the shame and guilt that I feel that I’m not able to give my kids as many things, and as many experiences, as I could in the past?

I’d suggest trying to redirect the mental energy you are putting into guilt and shame into thinking through the following formula: crisis = pain + opportunity; a related corollary is that as the pain rises so too usually does the opportunity. Maybe we can’t go to the shore this year. But, maybe we can spend more time hanging out at a neighborhood pool together. Maybe I can’t buy the top-of-the-line sneakers, but I can start to collaboratively consider whether chasing expensive corporate branding is good for us.

In closing I can share that our research makes it clear that one of the most important things our kids need from us is undivided and positive attention. The things we purchase sometimes own us more than we own them, so reduced questing for material possessions may actually  be offering us the opportunity to create deeper and better bonds with our kids. Required is love, creativity, flexibility, presence and persistence. Not required is money and Ralph Lauren (well, except in his family).

Conversation Starters for You and Your Teenager

Getting a conversation going with a teen can feel like trying to move a building with a crowbar. If you’re having a hard time engaging your teen in conversation, some of what follows may help.

Begin by committing to one hour a week of a unique type of conversation (i.e., one 60-minute period, three 20-minute periods, etc.). In this conversation all you would do is pay attention and express positive thoughts and feelings, including empathy. Try to avoid teaching, correcting, moralizing, etc., during this hour. (Think of this as good practice for when you’re an in-law.) You can sit on your teen’s bed at night, get to a movie before the commercials, use car trips, etc. You could print out the following list and ask your teen to pick some to react to.

Answer both the question, and “how come” you gave that answer:

• The best thing that happened to me so far this year is…

• The worst thing that happened to me so far this year is…

• The thing I like to do the most is…

• The thing I like to do the least is…

• The best thing about you as a father/son/mother/daughter is…

• In 10 years I hope…

• If I had three wishes I’d wish for (avoid wishing for more wishes or cash and it has to be about your own life so “world peace” won’t work)…

• One of my favorite movies of all time is…

• My favorite recording artist is…

• If I could have any job in the world it would be…

• My favorite word is…

• My least favorite word is…

• My favorite TV show is…

• The thing I like best about our family is…

• It would please me if you were interested in…

• The three people who have most influenced my values and thinking are…

• A one-month all expense paid trip I’d like to take anywhere in the world is..

• Three people from history I’d most like to have as guests in our home are…

• An important change I want to see in myself is…

• If I could have any superpower it would be…

• My favorite video game is…

• I think the key to happiness is…

• When I’m on my death bed I hope I can look back and…

• My favorite thing about us as a family is…

• My favorite internet site is…

• Our families top opportunity for growth is…

Three closing thoughts: first, even your teen’s dialogue may seem simplistic (i.e., you want to discuss all the colors of the rainbow but she all she can do is black ‘n white), the value of the exercise is still there as long as you’re attending and valuing. Second, consistent application of this exercise can yield tremendous benefits not only for your relationship with your teen, but also for your teen’s wellness.  Finally, if you find that you cannot reach your teen perhaps your local friendly mental health professional can help. One place to locate someone is http://locator.apa.org/.

Good luck!

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