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Manufacture Joy: Focus on Gratitude

Continuing on with this holiday series, I will next review the technique of using gratitude. (This is related, but different, from the technique of writing a gratitude letter that I covered earlier in an individual and a family exercise.) When you are feeling grateful you are probably not feeling sad, worried or angry. You are also less likely to be taking people and circumstances for granted. There are a number of techniques you can use to pull this off. Below are six to get you started.

• Keep a gratitude journal. Pick either a day a week, or a time of the day, to write down that for which feel grateful. If in doubt regarding which practice would be a better fit for you, make entries into the journal once a week. Write down simple pleasures (e.g., the sounds of birds chirping, the taste of a sweet piece of fruit, a smile you received), bigger events (e.g., getting a raise, celebrating a birthday, taking a great vacation) and anything in-between (a fun date night, your kid getting a good grade on a test, seeing a funny movie). Not only does this practice focus your mind on uplifting events but, over time, you create documentation of all that which is working well in your life, facilitating a sense of deep meaning and satisfaction. This practice also keeps you from becoming like Jimmy Stewart’s character in It’s a Wonderful Life, needing a miraculous divine intervention in order to appreciate the value of your life.

• Use gratitude as a coping thought. What behavior would you next do if you put on a pair of pants you hadn’t worn in a long time and, upon zipping them up, they felt so tight that it hurt? If you’re like most, your next move would be to take them off and put on a more comfortable pair (though you might simultaneously swear, promise yourself to eat less ice cream, or commit to joining a gym ;-)). Imagine what a silly image would be cast by someone walking around wearing uncomfortable pants declaring “Ouch, these pants really hurt! Ouch! I can’t believe how much these really hurt.” Yet, this is exactly what we do when we allow a painful thought to remain on our minds when it serves no useful function (i.e., not figuring out a problem or grieving or doing something else useful, but just pommeling us into the ground). So, if you find yourself chewing on a painful thought with no value just STOP, and turn your mind to that for which you feel grateful of late. Try to savor these thoughts for at least as long as you’ve been inclined to fret over useless and painful thoughts.

• Use your time in the shower each morning to reflect upon what you are most grateful for from the day before.  If you shower in the evening, focus on the day’s events.

• Go through photo albums or family videos with an eye towards remembering what you are grateful for about those events. Printing out some of your favorite images and displaying them around your life can add more value.

• Create a list of the top 10 things you are most grateful for about your life. Better yet, agree with your significant other or best friend (or both) to create your lists and share them with each other over a lunch date at a restaurant new to both of you.

• Write one thank you note a week to the person you felt the most gratitude towards that week. (It doesn’t have to be a heaping dose of gratitude.) Moreover, keep some thank you cards on any desk(s) you work at and put a weekly reminder in your electronic or paper appointment thingy to complete this task.

The point of this series, which you can read by scrolling down on my home page from this entry down, is to review some of the techniques that the science of positive psychology suggests we may use to lift our moods and enhance our experiences of meaning. I hope you will decide to give some of these techniques a try. And, if you do, I’d love to hear about the results as such will become part of my gratitude ritual!

Manufacture Joy: Write a Gratitude Letter

I thought it might be a good time of year to review a set of strategies that we parents can use to manufacture happiness. I’m drawing these strategies from the science of positive psychology. The first of these is to write a gratitude letter. I first learned about this strategy from a video presentation by psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman years ago and have since garnered a good amount of professional and personal experience with it. There are five steps:

Step #1: Identify a person towards whom you feel a significant amount of unexpressed gratitude. This might be a person who knows about some of the gratitude you feel but not all of it. This gratitude can be recent or ancient. You can also rotate writing a gratitude letter within a family: week #1 is moms turn, then eldest son’s, then dad’s, etc. Then everyone writes a gratitude letter for the person whose turn it is.

Step #2: Hand write a legible letter of about 300 words. Don’t worry about a precise word count, just land somewhere in that ballpark. (The handwritten nature of the letter produces a more personal feel and indicates more effort on your part.)

Step #3: Schedule a meeting with the person, but don’t tell her or him about your letter. The surprise tends to be more impactful.

Step #4: Read your letter to the person. You typically would not want to chicken out and hand it over for the person to read as that stands to significantly weakens the experience. Don’t worry if you get misty or cry as such usually adds meaning for the other person; plus you probably won’t be the only one.

Step #5: Give your letter to the person.

I’ve done this myself, had families do it in my office and offered graduate students extra credit for doing it. I find that just about everyone (myself included) is surprised by how powerful of an emotional experience it proves to be. The research also suggests that the writer of the letter can experience a bump in happiness for three to four weeks afterwards. So, give it a try it and see how much power you have to manufacture happiness in your life and the life of another.

Stay tuned as I’m going to do a series of these strategies and will end with a list of books where you can learn more.

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.)

Top 10 Funny Parenting Videos

When setting out to start this blog I meant to include regular doses of humor. However, I’ve fallen behind, having only written two articles thus far with a humorous slant. So, I thought I’d try to make up some ground by sharing my top 10 funny youtube videos with a parenting or child theme (they are ordered by how much they amuse me, from least to most).

#10 Baby laughing (it gets old but the first few moments are cute) www.youtube.com/watch?v=5P6UU6m3cqk

#9 Star wars according to a three year old (the funny line comes at the end) www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBM854BTGL0

#8 Irish girl Becky makes a prank call www.youtube.com/watch?v=qa7why6CCyo

#7 Babies and fathers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1glBETaSvc

#6 Smarty pants dance: www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Nn9dd6FfE8

#5 Tim Hawkins on parenting www.youtube.com/watch?v=crQ7Y2alDxI

#4 David after the dentist: www.youtube.com/watch?v=txqiwrbYGrs

#3 Mark Scharenbroic on hobby parents: www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfjH1Rk5hj4

#2 My nominee for best commercial with a parenting theme (touching with the laugh at the end): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGVm8fdYEGU

#1 (drum roll)

William Tell Overture mom:  www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0ZpuA8_YYk

I’d enjoy learning about other funny videos with a child or parenting theme.

Recent Research: Teens Need Parents to Monitor Them

The purpose of this blog entry is to highlight recent research that demonstrates the importance of parental monitoring.

Teenagers not only have brains that are not fully developed in their capacity to control impulses, but they also often have a sense of invulnerability. This is why survey results of risky behaviors that teens engage are often alarming. An example of this is the Center for Disease Control’s just published 2009 survey of 16,410 high school students in the U.S. These are some highlights quoted directly from the summary document:

• Among the 69.5% of students who had ridden a bicycle during the 12 months before the survey, 84.7% had rarely or never worn a bicycle helmet.

• 28.3% of students rode in a car or other vehicle driven by someone who had been drinking alcohol one or more times during the 30 days before the survey.

• 31.5% of students had been in a physical fight one or more times during the 12 months before the survey.

• 19.9% of students had been bullied on school property during the 12 months before the survey.

• 13.8% of students had seriously considered attempting suicide and 6.3% of students had attempted suicide one or more times during the 12 months before the survey.

• 19.5% of students smoked cigarettes on at least 1 day during the 30 days before the survey.

• 41.8% of students had had at least one drink of alcohol on at least 1 day during the 30 days before the survey.  24.2% of students had had five or more drinks of alcohol in a row (i.e., within a couple of hours) on at least 1 day during the 30 days before the survey.

• 36.8% of students had used marijuana one or more times during their life. 20.8% of students had used marijuana one or more times during the 30 days before the survey.

• 46.0% of students had ever had sexual intercourse. 34.2% of students had had sexual intercourse with at least one person during the 3 months before the survey. Among the …sexually active students, 61.1% reported that either they or their partner had used a condom during last sexual intercourse.

In a subsequent blog entry I will summarize the results regarding the poor health habits that teens often engage in. For now, we all do well to institute a monitoring protocol that includes knowing, and approving of, the answers to three questions whenever our teen is outside of our eye line:

1.     Who are you with?

2.     What are you doing?

3.     What adult or adults are responsible for monitoring? (Keep in mind that effective adult monitoring might occur from another room in the same house, in the parking lot of an event, or in a restaurant next door. Of course, it’s also important to confirm that the monitoring adult is responsible and shares your values and attitudes about acceptable activities and behavior.)

Sometimes this can be complicated business. For a more thorough discussion please see Chapter Three of my book, Working Parents, Thriving Families.

Helping Children Cope with Scary News

Many parents are confused about what to say to their children after scary news stories appear in the media (e.g., acts of terrorisms, school shootings, hurricanes, etc.). 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 news story 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 older children might find it easier to discuss difficult feelings and thoughts while not making eye contact (e.g., while driving or waiting for a movie to start) 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 feeling more scared these days”). 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 a similar trauma? 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.

• Try to maintain functional rituals and routines. Few things give a child a clearer message that life is safe than adaptive routines and rituals (e.g., maintaining the same adaptive routines at meal time, bed time, holidays, birthdays, etc.).

• 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.

• 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, join community efforts to heal and to help, etc.

• Maintain a healthy lifestyle for the entire family. This would include things like spending time having fun together each week and maintaining good diets and schedules for physical activity and sleep.

• 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.

10 Strategies If Your Child is Addicted to World of Warcraft (WOW)

According to the 2010 Guinness Book of Records, World of Warcraft (WOW) is the number one “massively multiplayer online role-playing game” or MMORPG, with over 10 million subscribers world-wide. WOW is a fun open-ended online game that can, for some kids, become an unhealthy obsession.  If you’ve determined that your child is overly engaged in WOW, consider these ways of responding:

  1. Try to understand what human need is being met for your child by taking part in WOW. Is it to be liked? Is it to lead? Is it to be competent? An effective understanding of the reasonable goal(s) your child is trying to reach through WOW can give you insights into what is being frustrated in his or her real world.
  2. Try to partner with your child in expanding upon the success she or he is having in the real world. This may be socially, academically, extracurricularly or within your home.
  3. If your child has not identified areas of top strengths, use tools like the VIA Signature Strengths Survey or StrengthsExplorer to generate theories about what  he or she might be very good at.
  4. If he or she has not done well with popular activities (e.g., sports offered at school, the most readily available clubs, etc.), try activities off the beaten path, using your child’s interests or insights from the previous recommendation to guide you.
  5. Look for partners in generating plans for increasing your child’s success in life. This might include teachers (most of whom are most willing to help), coaches, family, parents of your child’s friends, etc.
  6. Try to limit your child’s sedentary electronic pleasures to two hours a day. This is the sound counsel of more than one authoritative body (e.g., the American Academy of Pediatrics). If your child is doing more than this he or she may be missing out on other important developmental tasks (e.g., getting enough physical activity, advancing in reading skills, etc.)
  7. Explain to your child why you are putting any limits in place. This is done not to solicit approval (e.g., “thank you mother for being so wise and self-less in the administration of your parenting mission”), but to be respectful and loving. Of course, this will not typically mitigate passionate objections to the court from your child.
  8. Put appropriate electronic controls in place. Blizzard (the company behind WOW), has parent controls available within the game. Please click here to get started. There are also a variety of controls available either within many computers and televisions, just call the relevant technical support person. Finally, there are companies that sell products that make it easier for you to put controls into place (e.g., www.familysafemedia.com).
  9. Try to make sure that you are your child have at least one hour a week together where all you do is pay attention to your child and value either what your child is doing and/or saying. Called “special time” this involves  a more intense dosing of attention than  “quality time” (i.e., something else typically captures a parent’s attention  during quality time, such as shopping, fishing, etc.).
  10. There is an army of lean-mean-healing machines available and willing to help you in your efforts to help your child. If you find that this is complex or difficult for you to resolve on your own or that your child is having a toxic reaction to your efforts to establish loving controls, consider taking the step of identifying a child therapist to help. One place to get local referrals is here.

Research suggests that effective parental monitoring is one of the most powerful ways to promote resilience, happiness and wellness in your child. Hence, your well designed  efforts along these lines are usually well worth it!

We Parents are Lunatics

I was working clinically for 10 years with kids and their parents before I had my first child. (I now have 3.0 of them!) It would seem to me that the parents I was working with would become temporarily insane some of the time. We seemed to have a good relationship, and they seemed to value the service I was offering, and yet they would sometimes become so easily offended or hurt. THEN, I had my first child and I understood within a day what was going on. We parents love our kids so much that it can overwhelm us. In other words, our great love intermittently makes us parent-lunatics.

Before having my first child, Morgan, it would seem to me that the loving relationships I had in my life were like soothing waves that I could float in or swim with as I chose. However, this love was like a powerful wave that knocked me knees over elbows and took me where it would. I remember thinking, just after Morgan was born, that the love hurt and made it difficult to breathe. I also remember, in my efforts to be a good father, how crazy I acted (e.g., insisting on not being parted from Morgan so that the nurse could care for her, that we use a wipe warmer, etc.). And, if ever I forget about my own capacity for lunacy, I have only to monitor myself for a week or so. 😉

My primary goal in this blog, my co-parent-lunatic, is to support your mission to promote happiness and wellness in you, your child and family. But, in doing so I promise to remember my own lunacy when offering resources and making suggestions. But, this is not my only central promise. In the ensuing days I will review a few other ones as well.

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