Tag Parenting

When Santa Lives Paycheck-to-Paycheck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

√ Arrange for your family to give service to others. Many churches, soup kitchens, and charitable agencies could find something helpful for your family to do. These kinds of experiences can create a degree of warmth and magic that no present can touch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Ten Tips For Getting the Most out of Family Vacations

Ever feel stressed by a family vacation? This can be very surprising when it happens as we think of vacations as the antidote for stress, not the cause of it. In order to increase the odds that you will get the intended results from your next family vacation, consider the following 10 thoughts:

  1. Savor the moment. Ask yourself, “where’s the beauty in this moment?” Is it in the expression on your child’s face? Is it in the colors of the landscape? Is it in the skill being brought to bear by someone serving you? It’s so easy to rush past beauty and precious moments and to not notice them. As you focus your attention only in the here-and-now, try to do only that and breathe gently into your lower stomach. Observe the peace and contentment that grows within you.
  2. Appreciate that some things just about always don’t go as planned and that such moments offer opportunities.  That is, crisis = pain + opportunity. I’ve never known of a vacation that went exactly as planned. When flights are delayed, or its rainy out, or you don’t get the seating you wanted or someone gets sick, acknowledge that pain as you would a guest in your home. But, then look for the opportunity that pain always brings with it, and try to capitalize on that. Doing so models wisdom for your children.
  3. Love matters more than everything else. We parent-lunatics (see the first post in this blog) want so much to give our children the best of everything, including the best vacations. This is a natural and normal impulse. However,  so often what our children most need from us is to be connected. So, try to grab those moments on your vacation that allow your relationship with your child to grow. (Such moments are often cheaper anyway!)
  4. Stress happens. Our bodies are stressed when we experience bountiful pain and bountiful joy; while the former is obvious the latter can surprise us. How many families are surprised when a wedding, a family reunion, a baptism, or, in this case, a family vacation brings with it grouchiness or arguments or other kinds of relationship ruptures and challenges? When these sorts of things happen in painful moments we usually understand what is going on. But, when they happen during a family vacation, especially when a lot of time and resources have been brought to bear to make it happen, it’s easy to become disgusted with  family members for what seems to be their selfishness and lack of appreciation. Instead, try to remember that such moments are usually inevitable and that they can be minimized if everyone both realizes that and also tries to get healthy doses of sleep, nutritious food and physical activity during the vacation.
  5. Contemplate goals. Ask yourself what realistic goals this vacation can accomplish. If I tell myself, either consciously or unconsciously, that I expect my pliers to be able to cut down a tree, I will suffer disappointment or worse. If I try to use a vacation to correct a major family problem, to engender a significant upgrade in the harmony in my family life or to cause family members to love and to appreciate me more, I may end up very disappointed and hurt. However, if I tell myself that the goals are to appreciate and enjoy whatever moments come our way and the presence of my family in my life, I may end up feeling fulfilled and peaceful.
  6. Avoid rushing. “Let’s go we must be there 30 minutes early!!” “C’mon we’ll miss the appetizers!!” “If we’re not there in 15 minutes they’ll start without us!!” When we’ve paid a lot of money, and invested a lot of time planning, it’s so easy to treat a vacation like it is a hill to be charged: bayonets attached, troops organized and people on the receiving end in trouble! And, participants, including the one(s) barking orders, often feel more like they are engaged in battle than a vacation. If a given activity is very important to be at on time, try to give yourself sufficient time so that no one has to rush. If rushing becomes necessary, take a poll among the family regarding which they would rather do: rush, be late, or do something else. This way if there is a decision to rush at least the soldiers will feel less like they are being pushed.
  7. Avoid creating future stress. It’s so easy to spend money I don’t have because I tell myself that doing so will give my kids things or experiences that will be meaningful to them. However, if I do this spending in a way that compromises my future wellness, then there may be less of me available to my children when we return home (e.g., I have to work more, or I’m more tense, or I have more need to unwind with alcohol to manage my financial worries) and ultimately the scales tip more towards my children being stressed than benefited.
  8. Experiment with the path less traveled. When on such paths it can sometimes be easier to connect with each other and to have unique experiences. Try safe activities that either the crowds don’t do (e.g., swimming in the ocean when it’s raining, going to a restaurant off the tourist circuit) or which are a departure from your usual behavior (e.g., get a temporary tattoo, dance like no one is watching, volunteer to do a karaoke number). Then, really try to savor these moments.
  9. Begin your vacation before you leave. Anticipation can be so much fun, especially if it is shared. The internet, bookstores and libraries abounds with resources. Engage willing family members in this anticipation.
  10. Continue your vacation after you return. Every true benefit that can be garnered when at a vacation site can be garnered at home: good food, good fun, good relationships, fun activities, etc. are all available to all of us with sufficient creativity and persistence. In other words, there is no kind of brain activity that Paris can create that Toledo can’t.

By the way, if you had access to a time machine, you could go back in time and see me making just about all of the mistakes suggested by this article: I can still see myself acting like a general at Walt Disney World, treating the Unofficial Guide like a master battle plan! So, if you fall prey to performance problems when on your vacation, you’re in a huge club (i.e.,  those of us who sometimes act like Clark Griswold when on a family vacation). So the 11th suggestion is to cut yourself some slack in these moments: you’re trying the best you can and no angel in heaven means better.

Related post: Five Tips for Keeping Long Car Trips From Becoming Hell on Earth

Five Tips for Keeping Long Car Trips From Becoming Hell on Earth

Many of us take longer than usual car trips in the summer time. The starting point for keeping a car trip from becoming hellish is to determine if the length and nature of the trip is likely to leave your child, or children, regressing (i.e., annoying the heck out of you). If yes, consider these five tips.

Tip #1: set up a reward program. I once saw a documentary of a family that had to drive from Manhattan to Orlando. The parents gave each child $250 to spend on their vacation; however, they told their children that they would deduct $10 for each argument. By the time they reached Virginia the kids were bankrupt and the parents were ready to put them up for adoption. A better approach would have been to divide the total mileage (or the total estimated time in the car) by $250 and to give the each child that amount of money for each period of time they went without a fight. So, in this example, each mile driven without an argument could have earned .25¢. Keep in mind that there are many other kinds of rewards (e.g., experiences on the vacation, choices in dining along the way, access to electronic pleasures in the automobile, etc.). The idea is to describe the desired behavior and what is earned by hitting the mark.

Tip #2: build in entertainment. Being entertained makes the time fly. I’d suggest alternating activities and electronics. There are many kinds of family activities: license plate games, everyone describes the top five things they’d want the family to do if you won the lottery with a prize to the person with the best voted idea (no one can vote for their own idea), everyone says what they are most looking forward to about the upcoming vacation, and so forth This helps to make the drive a part of the pleasant memories and not just something that has to be endured. Electronics can also be shared either by everyone (e.g., an audio book that everyone is interested in) or parts of the family (DVDs). Keep in mind that most portable music players contain both the capacity to have audio books loaded onto them (e.g., through iTunes) and to be played through a car’s audio system (e.g., by purchasing a device that plugs into the cigarette lighter; for instance see http://www.belkin.com).

Tip #3: build in stops that rejuvenate everyone. A part of effective pre-trip happy hispanic familyplanning is to find interesting and low key experiences to have a long the way. This can be as simple as determining where the best of a certain type of food in a state can be found (e.g., ice cream, steak), or where the best place to take pictures might be. A stressed kid (and parent) is much more likely to act out. We all do well to heed the counsel of movie character Dirty Harry: “A man has got to know his limitations.”

Tip #4: try to have realistic expectations. Major family trips are something that we usually plan for, and look forward to, for a long time. This can make us like Clark Griswold in the Family Vacation movies: full of idealistic expectations that defy our family’s capacities. No matter how prepared we are every family member is likely to get grouchy and snappish from time-to-time. Just consider this to be the psychological equivalent of dust mites. Yeah, it’d be nice to be rid of ‘em but such is just part of life on planet earth.

Tip #5: If the long car trip is a return from a vacation, try to plan something to look forward to after arriving back home. As much as it can feel comforting to return to one’s home and routine, it can be a let down to go from Disney World to main street. And, if there is nothing to look forward to on the drive home, everyone’s vulnerabilities may be even higher. So, it can be nice to have something fun arranged for the weekend after one returns home, as long as such isn’t unduly taxing.

Related blog entry: 10 Steps for Reducing Stress During a Family Vacation

Parenting Through Proms

High school proms can represent, especially if your child is a senior, a right of passage. There is so much about this that can be joyful. But, there can be risks and challenges as well. So, this entry is designed to help you with the latter. I have three sections: (1) questions that I’d collaboratively answer with your teen until you are satisfied, (2) a list of issues that I would try to avoid controlling, barring unusual circumstances and (3) (hopefully humorous) responses to situations in which your teen tries to indict you for acting like a responsible parent.

Questions to resolve to your satisfaction

What sober and responsible person is driving?

Has the school established effective monitoring procedures? (This is more of a question for the relevant school administrator and needn’t directly involve your teen.)

What are the costs and who is paying for what? (A related issue, for some families, might be how a teen would be allowed to earn the money to cover the costs.)

Where is the after party and what responsible adult will be monitoring? (Keep in mind that monitoring can involve being in the same room, or next door, or in the parking lot. The goal is for the monitor to do no more than to ensure safety, sobriety and celibacy.)

Things to avoid trying to control

Yes, it’s good to be informed, but I would avoid trying to control what follows.

Who the date is. Of course you need to ensure that your teen is safe, sober and celibate for the night. Once those bases are covered, it’s a good idea for you to let your teen figure affairs of the heart out for himself or herself. It’s good to be a sounding board, if invited, but to keep negative opinions about a prospective date to oneself. This is good practice for when you’re an in-law, at least if you wish to be an effective in-law.

What the style of the outfit is, short of it looking like she could serve in a lineup of prostitutes. (Male analogies are less likely, but the same thing would apply if its relevant for your son.) Dads, when it comes to your daughter, it’s often best to let her mother (or some other responsible woman) handle this and to only make positive comments.

Who is attending the after party.

Other circumstances regarding the after party once you’ve secured the conditions described above.

Retorts to common prosecutorial invectives:

Obviously, these are not serious responses. But they are designed to make your teen exit your eye-line when howling at the moon.

Teen invective: “No body else I know has to have such stupid rules!”           Parental response: “But none of the other parents are as big of a control freak as me.”

Teen invective: “I’ll be going to college in a few months. You won’t be able to control things like this then!”                                                                         Parental response: (with a big smile) “Really?! I’ll be able to let someone else do it? What will that person be charging me?

Teen invective: “The other kids think you’re embarrassing.”                          Parental response: “That’s not because of my prom rules. That’s because they see me shopping at Victoria’s Secret so much.”

Teen invective: “I’ll just sneak out at the prom and you won’t know what I do.”            Parental response: “The school chaperone (know his or her name) has promised me that if s/he doesn’t see you for any given half hour s/he will text me about that. I will then text this baby picture of you (have visual ready) to your friend’s cell phones and upload it to your Facebook page with the caption “(your child’s name), cutest baby ever born in (name your city)! Love Mommy/Daddy”

Teen invective: Grandma (your mother) told me she didn’t have these kinds of rules for you!                                                                                                                Parental response: Grandma is getting senile.

Teen invective: You NEVER had these rules for (fill in name of older sib). Or, “You’ll NEVER make (name of younger sib) go through this!”                       Parental response: You know I love him/her more.

On a serious note, the wheel turns too fast sometimes. As your “baby” goes through this rite of passage, I hope you can enjoy it fully and take pictures/videos galore. It can be truly wonderful and bittersweet.

Four Holiday Stress Busters for Parents

Of course, the holidays are quite stressful, even as they offer us joy. There is less light. The weather is colder. Your life’s circumstances may not be in concert with a “joy to the world” message (e.g., you’ve suffered a recent loss, your child is ill). You may be faced with having to interact more with people with whom you have less than a peaceful relationship. There is a lot of hustling and bustling and, of course, financial pressures often mount. So, I’d like to review a few stress busters. I’m not going to cover obvious ones such as maintaining a good diet (avoiding processed foods and intoxication and eating fruits, veggies, Omega-3, etc.), getting enough sleep (8-9 hours/night) or getting enough physical activity (as one clinician put it, get some physical activity on any day that you eat). Instead I’d like to cover a few that may be less in the front of your mind. I’ll first review a common trap and then suggest one potential antidote.

Trap #1: To overspend

Antidote: Focus on relationships

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

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

Antidote: Kind declines

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

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

Antidote: Daily calming

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

Trap #4: Maintaining unrealistic expectations

Antidote: Acceptance

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

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

Seven Tips for Coping with Homework Hell

So, the first quarter report cards have come home. If you’re fortunate your progeny has done well. Otherwise, you may be wondering if the homework hell you’re experiencing has anything to do with the lower than expected grades. Here ere are seven tips to help.

• Tip #1: incentivize effective homework completion. First define what effective homework completion means (e.g., a certain amount of time legitimately exerted without hassling anyone). Then establish what reward your child will earn by effectively completing the homework. The more problematic the behavior the bigger the incentive and the more it should follow immediately upon homework completion. For instance, if Aiden lives for his X-box One, that might be earned by completing homework effectively each night. Be careful to put this as a reward, instead of a punishment. Xbox is earned, or not earned, not taken away. After so many days of effective homework completion Aiden might be allowed to earn a bonus (e.g., a new X-box game).

• Tip #2: Consider an excessive violation of the 10-minute guideline to be potentially problematic. Research suggests that there is often a diminishing academic return when students spend more than 10 minutes a night on homework times their grade in school (i.e., a 5th grader spending 50 minutes, a 7th grader, 70, and so forth). If your child is spending much more time than this consider tips #3 and #7. (NB: if your child is a high school student taking honors and/or advanced placement classes, this guideline will probably not apply. However, if the report card is suggesting that there are problems, perhaps take this question to an expert–see tip #7)

• Tip #3: Consult with your child’s teachers when homework is problematic. For instance, your child’s teacher(s) may not realize that your child is spending an excessive amount of time completing homework, especially in the middle school years and onward (i.e., teachers may not be coordinating their expectations). For example, asking your child’s teacher(s) what he/she/they believe is a reasonable amount of time to spend on homework each night can begin a productive dialogue.

• Tip #4: Try to avoid getting hung up on methods if the goal is being reached. Sometimes we parents try to over control how our child does his or her homework without considering whether or not he or she might get it done well using his or her preferred method(s). Some kids like music on, or to do homework on a bed, etc. As long as the homework gets completed, that’s okay.

• Tip #5: If your child isn’t being truthful about what the homework is, see if the teachers put the homework online. If the homework isn’t online, or a given teacher is spotty about compliance, add a communication system from school to home. This daily communication should include the grades that were returned that day (if any), the homework for the night and any long term assignments that are due; you might also add a report on any behaviors that might be of concern (e.g., treating peers with respect). Compliance with this system should also be incentivized. (This can be a complicated system, so see my parenting book for a step-by-step break down of the how-tos.)

• Tip #6:If you can afford this, and your child needs it, consider hiring a tutor to help with homework (not to do the homework, but to help with it). There are many well trained educators looking to do such work; you might also get names for tutors from your child’s school or PTA.

Tip #7: If your child is working at it, but floundering, consult with a child psychologist. It may be that your child has a learning disability or a psychological obstacle that is at play (e.g., a mood problem that s/he has been keeping from you). A skilled child psychologist can get to the bottom of things and suggest an effective remedial plan. For a referral, click here.

 

Tips For When A College Grad Returns Home

As it seems to take more years for young adults to accomplish independence from their parents, many return home after college for periods of time. This happens so often that a term has been coined for this group of young adults: “the boomerang generation.” Many parents feel confused about how to interact with their children in these situations. This post is designed to address common questions that arise for parents when their kids boomerang home.

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. Moreover, if your adult child graduated from college, his or her university likely has a career services center that can help. Former 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 VIA Survey of Character Strengths (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. (The Strong Interest Inventory can be helpful in this reflection, though it’s easy to misinterpret or misunderstand the results without the help of a psychologist.)

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 wellness.

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 significant 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, affirming what you like and partnering in decision-making. Besides, your adult child would probably score very high on a multiple choice test on “what mom/dad thinks about things.”

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 ease or completely resolve long standing family conflicts. For a referral in your community, click here.

Six Parenting Myths I’d Like to Destroy

sculptor#1. Parents are sculptors.

This myth suggests that we fashion our kids personalities and outcomes like a sculptor sculpts a statue. I suspect that theories in psychology that promulgated this myth were authored by men who weren’t around babies very much. I say this because even a casual exposure to newborns suggests that they are very different from one another (e.g., my three kids couldn’t be more different from each other before my wife and I had any opportunity to mess them up). We parents are more like shepherds. We guide our children, knowing that a significant portion of who they are, and what they will become, is heavily influenced by factors outside of our control, the largest of which is their temperament (i.e., genetically influenced personality characteristics).

#2. Screwing up makes us a screw-up.

I could take my family on a month long vacation to Rome if I had a dollar for every time I’ve had a parent, in my office, giving himself or herself a death sentence for a misdemeanor. We all screw up! It is inevitable! The thing to do is to try to be in the right fights, knowing that sometimes we’re going to get creamed. What are those fights? My intention is for my parenting book to articulate the top 10 of them (i.e., special time, rituals, competencies, self and relationship care, monitoring, discipline, collaborating with other adults, health habits, adaptive thinking and problem solving, and recognizing and responding to psychological symptoms), but you’ll see aspects of them described all throughout this blog.

working man passed out #3. It’s possible to have “work-life balance.”

 Images come to mind of a parent getting up and getting a good breakfast in everyone’s stomach, while interacting pleasantly with all about the day ahead, then having a rewarding day doing meaningful work, perhaps mixing in time for exercise and socializing, then coming home and skillfully producing a family meal, appropriate supervision of homework, shared time with one’s spouse, and pleasant commutes to the children’s extracurricular engagements, then perhaps ending the day with some gentle recreation, shared reflections with one’s spouse, prayer and a warming bedtime routine with each child. Man, even writing that stresses me out. I can’t tell you for a fact that unicorns don’t exist but I sure as heck know I’ve never seen one (well, except for maybe one bad weekend in graduate school). Likewise, I’ve never seen this sort of work-life balance. But, I’ve seen lots of parents (especially women) torturing themselves, in their mind’s eye, for not realizing such.

#4. Failure and injustice are always bad things.

 I once asked a panel of experts on a television program I was hosting: “If it were crisis opportunitypossible to raise a child to adulthood free of failure and injustice, would you do it?” Not one of them hesitated before stating, “No way!” They first argued that such an adult would be too vulnerable in this world. Moreover, crisis = pain + opportunity, with the dosing of opportunity usually being greater and, lasting much longer, than the pain. Failures and injustices are rich with learning, acting like, as one poet put it, dragons guarding treasure. I also speculate that the more a person is leading a high road life the more likely it is that that person will experience injustice (e.g., ever know of someone impactful in this world who didn’t experience significant injustice?). I don’t mean to suggest that everyone experiencing injustice is on a high road. I do mean to speculate that everyone on a high road experiences injustice, with the degree of such commensurate with her or his general effectiveness. As we want our children to lead self-actualized lives, they need to learn how to experience, think about, and benefit from failure and injustice.

#5. We can invest in our relationships after life’s obligations have been met.

kid bullhorn to mom This is another common one. I see it most when I ask people to make (not “find” but “make”) time for their relationships, including special time with each of their children. We’re inclined to use the verb “find” because we envision squeezing one-on-one time with family members in between the bricks of our obligations. But, in my experience, those obligations are more like a crack-free, icy, steel wall. We therefore end up treating our relationships like cacti instead of the orchids that they are, telling ourselves that next week will afford us more time. Then, when our relationships inevitably show symptoms (as any orchid treated like a cactus will), we misdirect our blame and lamentations. We do well to ask, “what important obligation will not get done this week so that I can make sure to attend to each of my family relationships one-on-one?”

#6. The word “normal” has value.

If I were emperor of the universe I’d establish a salary cap in major league baseball and abolish the word “normal.” I hear this word in my practice all the time: “Is he (my child) normal?” “Am I normal?” “Is (behavior x) normal?” In this context normal is meant to mean “normative” which, by itself, is not a hurtful query. But, as we too often equate normative with adaptive, we run afoul. Divorce and being overweight are both normative, but no one argues that they are inherently adaptive, and no one says they are “normal.” Moreover, someone with a very high IQ of 120 isn’t normal and Stephen Strasberg’s capacity to throw a fastball is certainly not normal.

Want just one example of a chronic cultural problem with “normal?” We too often equate how common a sexual interest is with how adaptive it is. So, if Bob tends to be attracted to those things that most men are attracted to his sexuality is deemed adaptive and vice versa. However, I can tell you nothing about how adaptive someone’s sexuality is if all you tell me is how normative it is. What matters much more is how the person’s interests are expressed; the more they are expressed lovingly, and don’t hurt anyone, the more they are adaptive and vice versa.

I like the quote from Stephen King: “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They stephen king quotelive inside us and sometimes they win.” Everyone is confronted with an internal battle. Show me someone who isn’t battling with himself or herself and I’ll show you someone who is in prison or homeless or in some other dire circumstance. For the rest of us, we battle. (So, from that perspective, all of us have some “abnormality” about us.) That there is a science for understanding such battles should be a source of comfort not stigma.

Finally, when a parents asks, “is he normal?” What he or she is really asking is, “is he an okay human being?” and that answer to that question is always “yes.”

In this blog it feels like I’ve been howling at the moon a little bit. I guess that’s because it’s Saturday following a long week and I needed to vent a little. Thank you, my fellow parent-lunatic, for indulging me with your attention 😉

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