Tag families

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 equivalent of a 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 this year. Trump supporters may be tempted to do an end zone dance in the face of Trump detractors. 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 God, or your Higher Power, or the universe, bless you and yours during these challenging days for our nation.


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Helping Your Kid Get a Good Night’s Sleep

It’s back-to-school and many parents are working on sleep with their kids. In previous entries I reviewed evidence that most teens do not get sufficient sleep, shared authoritative guidelines for how much sleep kids should get and summarized the most common ways kids suffer when they do not get enough sleep. Here I offer guidelines for how you can promote a good night’s sleep in your kid.

• Try to encourage a consistent bedtime ritual that starts about an hour prior to the time you’d like your  to fall asleep. In this hour try to avoid activities that promote an active or a fretful mind. For younger children reading them a book as they lay in bed can be effective. A shower or bath in this hour can also be relaxing.

• Baring unusual circumstances, consider not allowing your kid to keep a cell phone in her bedroom.

•Try to avoid allowing your kid to watch TV as he falls asleep. However, if you do, make sure it is not on for long and that it is turned off shortly after he falls asleep.

• If your kid is waking up soar or stiff or if her mattress is showing signs of wear or tear, consider replacing it.

• If your kid reports being too cold or too hot when trying to fall sleep, adjust accordingly.

• Try to avoid laying with your child until she falls asleep. If her anxiety level seems to mandate such, see a qualified mental health professional for help.

• Dim night lights are fine to use if such makes your child more comfortable.

• Of course, try to ensure that your child’s environment is quiet. If you live in a busy area and outside noise is interfering, consider purchasing a noise cancelling machine.

• If your kid consistently fights you in getting to bed on time, consider making her earn access to a desired activity or object the next day by getting into bed on time (e.g., cell phone access the next day is earned by having gotten into bed on time with the lights out).  This is not punishment. (“I’m taking your cell phone away because you did not get to bed on time.”) This is reward. (“You earn your cell phone each day by having gotten to bed on time the night before.”) So, your kid either earns or doesn’t earn the desired activity or access while you remain an empathic bystander.

• If your kid reports that he cannot fall asleep because his mind is too busy, try one or more of the following strategies:

  1. At a soft volume, play an audio recording of a story with which your child is familiar. Try to avoid plots that are action packed.  Also, make sure to turn it off shortly after your kid falls asleep.
  2. Encourage your kid to imagine that it is the next day and he is in a boring class. In the class he is extremely tired, but he MUST stay awake. Encourage your kid to imagine what each of her senses experience as he does this mental exercise.
  3. Encourage your kid to imagine a repetitive pleasurable activity (e.g., fishing, cheerleading, pitching a ball game, dancing, etc.). Again, encourage her to engage all of her senses when imagining this activity.
  4. Play sounds from nature (e.g., the beach, a rainforest, etc.) or other soothing music (e.g., insomnia tracks available on iTunes). If your child has a device like an iPod, he may enjoy using one of the compatible pillows that are available.
  5. Some people report that the aroma of lavender can have a sedating effect. So, consider this as well.

Insomnia is like a fever as it is a symptom that has many possible causes (e.g., sleep apnea, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, etc.). If your child suffers from persistent insomnia consult with your child’s pediatrician regarding possible medical causes. If medical interventions do not resolve the problem, are contraindicated or will take a while to implement, consider seeking out the services of a qualified mental health professional.

A Dozen Ideas for Dad-Daughter and Mom-Son Activities

Many of we parent-lunatics want to create special moments with our kids amidst the madness of our hectic lives. This entry offers ideas themed around potential dad-daughter activities and mom-son activities. (Please be sure to read the four caveats at the end.)

Dads: 12 Things You Can Do with Your Daughter

  1. Spend one hour a week doing nothing but paying attention to her and reflecting positive, specific and truthful messages.
  2. Let her paint your nails or apply makeup
  3. Take her for a trip to buy clothes or jewelry
  4. Brush her hair (at least 100 strokes)
  5. Go for a jog together
  6. Take her to a trip to the city to see some sights and a show
  7. Go for a long walk in nature, stopping along the way to study interesting flora and fauna
  8. Take her bowling
  9. Take her to get her nails done
  10. Sing karaoke
  11. Let her see you doing special things for her mom
  12. Model to her that real men are affectionate, attentive, gentle and prioritize family life

Moms: 12 Things You can Do with Your Sons

  1. Take him fishing
  2. Play catch
  3. Play an interactive video game with him
  4. Spend one hour a week doing nothing but paying attention to him and reflecting positive, specific and truthful messages.
  5. Find a pond where you can try to find frogs or other small creatures
  6. Take him to see his favorite sports team play
  7. Take a trip to the library and show him all the cool books that are there on topics he loves
  8. Teach him how to do resistance training
  9. Let him see you doing special things for his dad
  10. Take a trip to a museum of natural history and afterwards ask him to make a drawing memorializing the trip.
  11. Model to him that real women are not subservient to men, are faithful and value their minds at least as much as their bodies.
  12. As you prioritize your family life, make sure he sees that you have outside interests and goals.

Some caveats:

• The organization of these ideas by sex is to be taken lightly, at best (e.g., maybe your son has the interest in fashion or your daughter in the sports team). So, think of these as 24 potential ideas for any parent-child relationship.

• The appropriateness of some of these activities will vary as a function of age (e.g., resistance training).

• Don’t worry about the ideas involving money if they aren’t practical. Required elements are creativity and commitment, not cash.

• Some of these ideas won’t apply to how your family is structured (e.g., single parent households). But the spirit behind each idea, with a pinches of creativity and commitment, can be extrapolated to other ideas.

Do you have other ideas you’d be willing to share?

Nine Questions to Consider if Your Adult Child Wants to Live With You

Our adult children (i.e., 18 or older) can feel paralyzed, overwhelmed or unprepared when it comes time to transition to the next phase of their lives, whether that is to attend college or graduate school or to hold down a full time job. For this reason, many petition to live at home, or to return home. This post is designed to address some key questions and issues for you to consider in these circumstances.

Parent question: Is there a priority I should keep in mind?

Answer: Yes. The key question is: Does your adult child have a viable vocational plan that stands a reasonable chance of accomplishing effective independence?  If yes, count your blessings and try to keep the other issues in perspective. If no, that is the place to start. There are multiple methods that may be used to create such a plan. For instance, vocational counselors  offer questionnaires that can be useful in narrowing down career choices (e.g., the Strong Interest Inventory). Moreover, if your adult child graduated from college, his or her university likely has a career services center that can help. Former teachers, guidance counselors, professors and mentors can also be invaluable resources.

Parent question: What if my adult child is completely clueless about what she or he wants to do for a vocation. Where is a good place to start?

Answer: Don’t worry if this is the case, as there are millions of adults in the same position, across the lifespan. A key first question is: What are your adult child’s top strengths? The premise is that all humans, barring significant brain dysfunction, have top strengths, or things that they can do in a superior fashion. Resources like the Signature Strengths Survey (www.authentichappiness.com)  or Tom Rath’s book Strength Finder 2.0 can be of help in generating theories regarding your adult child’s top strengths. Once the top strengths have been identified the next question is : What vocation will allow my adult child to execute those top strengths in service to others? Those who effectively realize the answers to these two questions tend not only to have a viable vocation, but also tend to experience great meaning and purpose in their work lives.

Parent question: Okay, let’s say my adult child has a viable vocational plan that requires her or him to live with me for a while. Should I set some rules about chores?

Answer: Most families find it important to have a collaborative discussion about these practicalities, which, of course, is different from a parent unilaterally deciding what the chores should be. You might start things off by creating the circumstance to have an extended discussion (e.g., going out to a restaurant, going for a walk, etc.). Then you can begin by affirming your adult child for the things in her or his life that you appreciate and value. You might then segue into the topic of dividing up tasks as follows: “Of course, whenever adults live together they share the household labor. What do you think would be a fair way for us to divide things up?”

Parent question: Should I charge rent? And, if yes, how should I calculate it?

Answer: There is no answer that can apply equally well across families. However, the more your adult child is working at a viable vocational plan, and the more she or he is scraping by financially, the more I might let this go. On the other hand, the more your adult child doesn’t seem invested in accomplishing independence, or the more she or he has a decent income, the more I might consider charging rent. Of course, how much you charge, and whether you charge at all, will also depend on your own financial health.

Parent question: Should I set a curfew?

Answer: I would not initiate a discussion about this unless a problem has emerged or is emerging. However, if your adult child is coming home at an hour that interferes with your getting a good night’s sleep or if your adult child seems to be developing self-destructive habits, then I would suggest initiating a discussion using the same strategy that I reviewed above regarding chores.

Parent question: What if my adult child does things like leave a dirty dish in the family room or a dirty towel in the bathroom, should I ask her or him to clean it up?

Answer: These sorts of dynamics happen whenever adults live together, no matter what the relationships are. In this context, I would probably try to keep the key issue in mind. That is, if she or he is working a viable vocational plan, and assuming I don’t feel too taken advantage of by cleaning up after someone, I might keep this agitation to myself. However, if you decide it is worth mentioning, I would do so by asking your adult child how she or he would suggest that you handle these situations.

Parent question: Do you have any other guidelines for communicating?

Answer: Remember that for a lecture to change human behavior two conditions must be met. First, the person must not already possess the information. Second, the person must want to receive the information. Hence, when lectures are used to try to change someone’s behavior in a family it is like a carpenter trying to drive a nail into a piece of wood with a screwdriver. There is nothing inherently wrong with the tool, it is just not designed for that particular job. Methods that are much more effective for modifying behavior include expressing empathy, asking questions (i.e., a method used by the best teachers), affirming what you like and partnering in decision-making.

Parent question: Is there anything I should avoid doing?

Answer: Yes, letting your adult child live with you without him or her having a viable vocational plan. I’ve seen many instances of adult children maintaining a vampire sleep schedule while filling their lives with some combination of electronic media, socializing and avoidance of responsibility. These sorts of “secondary gains” make it harder, not easier, for an adult child to experience the riches life has to offer.

Parent question: What should I do if my adult child and I are getting into regular and heated conflicts about these things?

Answer: I’d seek out a mental health professional competent in doing family therapy. It can be a remarkable and rewarding experience to have a well-trained and objective professional help to ease or completely resolve long standing family conflicts. For a referral in your community, click here.

Seven Tips for When Your Child First Leaves Home for College

And ever has it been known that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.   Khalil Gibran

The first transition from home to college is huge. Double that statement if the child in question is the eldest. Please consider these seven tips for getting the most out of the experience.

1. Carve out one-on-one time with your departing child and savor those moments. As the wheel turns new and exciting opportunities become available in our relationships with our children. However, we also say goodbye to phases that we will never experience again. Your baby will never again live under your roof as a child. This deserves shared time and reflection.

2. Share the positive thoughts and feelings you are having with your child, including those regarding your impression of the man or woman he or she is becoming. Don’t stop any tears that might well up (plus you probably won’t be the only one)

3. Write a letter to your child that expresses what you are thinking and feeling. Then leave it among her or his belongings to be discovered later.

4. If your child agrees, and it is within your means, set up a method for video conferencing.  Even if you don’t use it much, it can be a comfort to you and/or your child to have it set up. (If you both have iPads or iPhones this can be done through the application FaceTime. Another relatively straight forward choice is offered by www.skype.com.) Also keep in mind that many retailers of computer hardware and software offer discounts to students, though you may need to ask about it to get it.

5. Encourage any siblings your departing child may have to come to terms with what they are thinking and feeling about the departure, and to communicate the positive aspects of such to their departing sister or brother. It can also be mutually meaningful and beneficial for them to author letters, drawings and symbols that commemorate their relationship.

6. Agree on when and where each person in the family will say goodbye. No one wants to be stuck with the sense of having missed an opportunity. Also, if you decide to say goodbye on campus, keep in mind that your child is not likely to want much drama on display for others.

7. Give yourself a huge pat on the back (and maybe even a treat). Your shepherding has been effective enough to land your child in college. Way to go!!

(By the way, if your child is experiencing, or starts to experience, psychological symptoms keep in mind that most universities have a counseling center that offers free or low fee services. If the university has a graduate program in the mental health professions they may also have a training clinic on campus that offers outpatient care.)

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.

Using Our Screw Ups to Help Our Kids

With this entry I hope to illustrate the truth of two psychological formulas: crisis = pain + opportunity and comedy = pain + time.

Our children, as they negotiate awkward developmental challenges, often feel as if they are the first human to go through the turmoil and awkwardness that is at hand. For this reason it can be very comforting to them to hear our related stories of failings and difficulties, assuming they see us as being generally competent. To demonstrate what I mean I offer the story below. I’ve used it with not only my own children, but with many teen clients, to help quell the terror that is often associated with first dating experiences.

At this point in the story I was 16 years old. Having never dated before, and being tormented by my father’s repeated choruses of “16 and never been kissed,” I felt desperate to put the experience of “the first date” in the rear view mirror. So desperate was I that I asked my next youngest sister–with whom I was generally at war–for help. Probably sensing that teasing me about this would be too easy, Sharon took pity on me and put forward a candidate for a first date: Molly (her name has been changed to hide the fact that I cannot remember her name).

As many males who are learning about female creatures have discovered, movies make for good first dates because they reduce the need to come up with things to talk about. So, I asked Molly to Romeo and Juliet and she said yes. Before the movie I considered what rules might apply in such situations. Where I got this from I don’t know, but I decided that a “rule” for such dates was that the guy should put his arm around the girl. Now, I knew Molly about as well as the woman who punched our tickets. However, being a first-born Irish Catholic, I thought it important to follow the rules, so I put my arm around her. Of course, it didn’t take long for my arm to grow as numb and lifeless as a piece of decaying meat…and, then it started to hurt. So, I had no choice but to retract it. But as it was numb and I could not control it well, I bashed the right side of Molly’s head as I withdrew it. A few moments later, as I was feeling badly both about having hit her and for violating the dating rule, I decided to put my arm back. However, as it was still partially numb, I smacked the left side of her head on the return flight. Of course, a few moments later, the pain returned. This time, though, I was determined to gut it out. Finally I could bear the pain no longer and knew that I had to retract it again. This time, however, I resolved, with as deep and as sweaty of a conviction as any 16 year old could muster, that I would clear her head. But, as my arm had become deaf to signals from my brain, I hit her the fullest this second time coming back…trying to salvage some aspect of this date I consulted my mental rule book and remembered that guys should buy snacks, which I offered to do and which Molly quickly accepted (probably just to enhance her safety). With all that had been doing on with my right arm, I didn’t notice that my left leg had gone completely asleep. So, as I got up, I collapsed into the isle. Getting up somehow, I then galumphed my way up to the lobby like some actor playing a hyperbolic version of Igor. Such was my spectacle that when I returned to my seat a couple of people behind me started throwing popcorn at the back of my head.,..needless to say, Molly and I did not have a second date.

As mortifying as that experience was at the time, I have helped so many teenagers feel less alone and consider that maybe he or she is not as big of a screw up as he or she sometimes imagines. Indeed, the pain from that night–in a theater that was subsequently and thankfully torn down– has yielded more opportunities than I can count.

So, think of your mistakes and consider whether sharing them with your child might help you to discover hidden treasures. I would certainly enjoy hearing about any success you have, or have had, along these lines.

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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