Tag stress

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

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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.

Regarding Stress and Stress Coping: Adults and Teens Look A Lot Alike

teen girl pushing hand to headThe American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey came out this week. Since 2007, APA has conducted a national survey of the stress American’s experience. This year’s survey places a special focus on teenagers. The full report can be found here. Below are some key assertions and the data points within the survey that support them.

Like adults, teens feel overwhelmed by stress

• On a 10-point scale, teens report that ≤ 3.9 is a healthy amount of stress. However, they rate their stress to be a 5.8 during the school year and a 4.6 during the summer.

• The following is true of 1 out of 3 teens: they report that their stress has increased in the past year, they expect their stress will increase in the next year and they feel overwhelmed.

• Teens reported that one out of four of them feel stress at the highest levels (an 8, 9 or a 10 on the 10 point scale) during the school year.

• Adults report that ≤ 3.6, on the same 10-point scale, represents a healthy level of stress. However, they report their stress averages a 5.1. Moreover, 37% of adults report feeling overwhelmed in the past month, 1 out of 3 believe that stress is having a strong impact on their physical and mental health and 84% report that their stress stayed the same or increased in the past year.

Teens worry about the same sorts of things as adultscharacter burdoned by books

Both teens and adults report worrying the most about their vocational lives and financial matters. For example, these are the top stresses reported by teens: high school (83%), life after high school (69%), and their family having enough money (65%). For adults the top three stresses are money (71%), work (69%) and the economy (59%). (By the way, the fourth rated stress among teens is balancing their time, at 59%)

Teens experience similar symptoms of stress as adults

• Only 41% of teens report that they handle stress well, compared to 35% of adults.

• The top symptoms teens report experiencing secondary to stress are irritability (40%), anxiety (36%), fatigue (36%) and insomnia (35%). This is very similar to the profile reported by adults: irritability (41%), lack of energy or motivation (39%), anxiety (37%) and feeling overwhelmed (37%). (It’s also telling that 51% percent of teens report that someone tells them they seem stressed on at least a monthly basis.)

Teens commonly use the same poor coping strategies as adults

teen video game playing•The following are some of the top strategies for responding to stress that are traditionally ill advised, at least if used as a lead strategy: playing video games (46%), going online (43%), and watching TV or movies (36%).

• Teens report some behavioral responses to stress that also increase the risk of poor stress coping: eating unhealthy foods (26%), skipping meals (23%) and neglecting school (21%). Moreover, half of teens who report being under high levels of stress indicate that they don’t get enough sleep.

Tell me how teens’ potentially maladaptive responses to stress compare to adults’ (i.e., what follows in the next four lines are adult numbers):

√ 62% use screen time to manage stress (42% watch ≥ 2 hours a day of TV)

√ 17% exercise daily; 39% skipped physical activity because of stress

√ 38% have overeaten to manage stress; 30% skipped a meal because of stress

√ average 6.7 hours sleep/night; 20% report that their sleep is sound

• Moreover, these trends seem to be even more true among parents. That is parents, as compared to non-parents, report higher rates of eating unhealthy foods due to stress and sleep disturbance.

Stress management strategies work!

• Teens who are physically active report lower levels of stress (i.e., those who soccer character, coolexercise ≥ 1/week report at average stress level of 4.4–on the 10 point scale mentioned above– compared to 5.1 for those who don’t engage in that much physical activity).

• Teens whose body size is within expected ranges report lower levels of stress (i.e., those with a BMI of 18-24 report a 4.4 stress level, while those with a BMI ≥ 25 report a 5.2.).

• Teens who get healthier doses of sleep report lower levels of stress (i.e., those who sleep ≥ 8 hours a night report being at a 5.2 while those who sleep less indicate they are at a 6.5).

• Teens who report higher stress levels also report engaging in more sedentary behaviors than those who report lower levels of stress (e.g., 54% versus 24% surf the net to manage stress).

Take home messages

I have three take home messages this week:

missing puzzle piece#1: Parenting from the cross sucks. When our kids show needs (and when don’t they?), we tend to act like we have none; over time, this reeks havoc on us and them. (This is why self and relationship care is one of the 10 science-based parenting strategies I stress in my parenting book).

#2: There are plenty of things we parent-lunatics can do to promote stress management in our teens. For my top nine, see the blog entry I guest wrote on APA’s blog.

#3: Why suffer needlessly? Let’s treat ours and our kid’s mental health as we do ours and our kids’ dental health whenever there is a complication: see a pro. For a list of referral databases, click here.

Six Parenting Tips for Avoiding Holiday Freak Outs

xmas themeMost of us are about to go all in on the holidays. This edition articulates six of my favorite tried-and-true strategies for managing holiday stress (yeah, yeah, a lot of the stress is joyful, but that doesn’t keep us from wanting to go postal on people from time-to-time, lest we are planful about our stress management).

#1. Create a plan for your kid’s academics, socializing and health habits. The holidays are like a cheerful, large-and-in-charge, bully coming to our door and demanding that we bounce around the universe like hyperactive gerbils on crack. If we, and our kids, are 100% compliant with this cheerful bully’s dictates, diverse mom and childwe’ll likely end up feeling exhausted, overweight and very backed up with our responsibilities (e.g. academics). Better to proactively agree on a plan for sleep, physical activity, diet and the completion of academic tasks. Then, socializing and other holiday activities can build around that.

#2. Create an hour a week of one-on-one time with each of your progeny. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know I’m a broken record with this tip. But, it’s like I’m coaching you how to prepare your kid for a jousting tournament, so I always include the instruction: “make sure he puts on his armor.” Special time is that armor. Click here for a download on how to do it and/or see Chapter One in my parenting book for a more thorough review of the rationale and strategy.

#3. Keep realistic perspectives. I’d like to name a new parenting syndrome: CGS, or “Clark Griswold Syndrome.” To appreciate the nature of this syndrome watch any of the family vacation movies staring Chevy Chase. Parents suffering from CGS go into the holidays busting their tails in order to engineer nirvana. Then, when people inevitably act like people (instead of charming and appreciative angels), or the almost guaranteed surprises happen (i.e., as in the saying “people make plans and God chuckles”), parents suffering from CGS often get pretty upset and have their holiday moments ruined. Better to leave CGS to amusing movie characters.

burnout:balance sign#4. Try to keep the overdoing to a manageable amount. I used to counsel “avoid overdoing,” but that isn’t realistic. We all overdo, blogging psychologists included. But, the more we can try to cap spending and overextending ourselves, the better. I love the line in one of the Dirty Harry movies: “A man has got to know his limitations.” (I just wish I could snarl and say it like Clint Eastwood in the mirror each morning.)

#5. Enhance mindfulness. Here’s a cognitive trick. When you’re in a holiday moment with your family imagine that you’ve died. However, you’ve asked God, before transporting you to the next place, if you could be allowed, for a mere few hours, to enjoy your family one last time in this place. God then responds by smiling warmly and transporting you to this moment. Savor deeply. Appreciate calmly. And stay in the moment, noticing the grandeur around you, including the misfires, but especially the loving ambiance (not perfect but loving).

#6. Give yourself credit. I was working on my laptop at a Starbucks this week christmas snowman sign for blogwhen I heard a man lament to the barista: “Look at my jacket! See this small hole here?! I haven’t bought a new jacket or a suit for myself in years, but my daughter has three new pairs of Ugg boats in her closet!” A few moments later he continued: “EVERY year we say we’re going to keep our spending to X on our kids!! But EVERY year we go way over that!! Why do we do that?!” I smiled to myself as most of us have these kinds of thoughts. But, here’s my point: we all deserve a standing ovation for our selfless efforts. Sure, we drop the ball a lot. We say and do a lot of dumb things. We also parent reactively, instead of with intention, more than we like. But, those elements are as much a part of effective parenting as dust mites are a part of a clean and well kept home. Not every home with dust mites is clean and well kept, but every clean and well kept home has dust mites. So too it is with parenting. Therefore, my fellow parent-lunatic, spend some time giving yourself kudos. …oh, and throw a few kudos out there to other parent-lunatics from time-to-time as we all could use a little air under our wings during the holidays 😉

10 Tips for Surviving Your Kid’s Graduation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neurotic Parental Guilt

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

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

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

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

• A parent is on his or her death bed.

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

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

• A vacation is finished.

• A holiday period is concluded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six Tips For When Your Child Has Experienced an Injustice

We parents do everything in our power to protect our children from experiencing injustice, including lobbying school personnel, coaches, other parents and law enforcement officials. However, it is inevitable that everyone experiences injustice, from the mild to the truly dreadful and horrifying. What follows are six tips for responding to these experiences after you’ve done all that you reasonably can or should to prevent the injustice or right the wrong.

#1: Let your child experience her pain. It hurts to experience an injustice. Empathic statements can help.  “You deserved that leadership position, what happened is wrong and it makes sense that you’re in pain over it.” “Being bullied is a shaming, awful experience and I understand how hurt you feel.” “Being arrested when you’re innocent is something no one should ever have to go through. You must feel more terrible than I can even imagine.”

#2: Let your child know that everyone goes through this and sometimes it happens because a person has displayed excellence. We all want to believe that we live in a just world where all wrongs can be righted and where virtuous, hard-working people do not have bad things happen to them. We all want to live in a world where others do not respond to our gifts and successes with jealousy, envy or resentment. But, in my experience, such perspectives are right up there with Disney’s “happily ever after” concept. Just as all bodies living in the world are exposed to germs and viruses, and need to learn to respond effectively to them to survive and thrive, our psyches need to learn to respond effectively to injustice when it inevitably comes our way.

#3: Teach the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.” Regardless of one’s spirituality, the wisdom behind this psychological model is sound. Indeed, it is often used in helping people to recover from addictions because it can be the antidote to many kinds of madness that facilitate self-medication.

#4: Look for the opportunity imbued within all pain. The pain must be given its due for this to work well; this is not about being in denial about the injustice, or being pollyannaish about it. However, once the pain has been given its due think of the injustice, as one poet put it, as a dragon guarding treasure. Resilient people think this way: they take the hit and expect to become better because of it. Teaching your child how to do this at a young age is a major gift. (To read more on this theme see my blog entry Failure: An Important Part of a Psychologically Healthy Childhood.)

#5: Timing is everything here, but let your child know about injustices you’ve experienced, including your thoughts about what you did in response that was effective, ineffective or some combination of both. (Of course, you’re going to want to consider what material is developmentally appropriate for your child. For a discussion that highlights similar issues see my blog post Helping Children Cope with Scary News.)

#6: Teach unilateral forgiveness. In my judgment unilateral forgiveness is the psychological equivalent of an ironman triathlon. Yes, bilateral forgiveness (when the other person has acknowledged fault and has asked for forgiveness) can be, especially when the wrong has been mighty, a marathon unto itself. But, forgiving when the other person has not asked for it, or even feels justified in the injustice they’ve perpetrated, puts a person on one of the highest psychological roads a human can traverse. This is not the same thing as denying the injustice. This is not the same thing as tolerating the injustice or not protecting oneself from future manifestations of it. It is to say that bitterness, revenge and products of their sort are like poisons that hurt the victim most of all while forgiveness promotes healing and the capacity to not become owned by the injustice. Just as the case with training for an ironman triathlon, it takes lots of time and practice–often for many years and with many stumbles along the way. And, it can’t be forced. But, it’s a journey worth any effort we can offer it, both for ourselves and for our children. (To read a great self-help book on forgiveness see Forgiveness is a Choice.)

In closing, let me suggest that you may need to take additional steps if your child has been traumatized by the injustice. For a discussion on these issues see my blog post Ten Steps to Take if Your Child is Exposed to a Traumatic Event or click here to find a psychologist in your area.

What Should I Do When My Kid Throws a Fit?

Temper tantrums in childhood are nearly as common as the flu, though no one has developed a vaccine for them. What follows are the four most common problems that I’ve found are at the root of tantrums followed by four guidelines for how to respond.

Problem #1: Your child needs more positive one-on-one time with you

Possible Fix #1: One hour a week of special time

Just as plants grow their branches around obstacles to get light, kids grow their behavior towards that which gets them attention; neither process is conscious. In run-and-gun households–and aren’t we all this way these days–it’s easy to be quietly grateful when our kids are behaving and to give them passionate attention when they screw up. Sure, this kind of attention is like eating an unwashed radish, but if you haven’t eaten in days that can be a pretty delicious food. Moreover, our relationship with our child is like any other relationship in our life: speed bumps are more likely to cause crashes when the relationship hasn’t gotten enough positive attention.

My prescription would be to spend at least one hour a week one-on-one doing nothing but paying attention to your child, expressing positive thoughts and feelings about him and proportionately complimenting anything that he is doing or saying that is praiseworthy. This technique is called special time, which is different from quality time (i.e., in quality time something else is usually getting my attention in addition to my child). My space here is too limited to describe the technique, but I’ve elaborated upon it in the first chapter of my book Working Parents, Thriving Families, and a few days ago I did interview with USA Today that describes it more.

Problem #2: Someone is experiencing a significant stress

Possible Fix #2: Try to either eliminate/reduce the stress and/or increase resources

All of us break when our stress/resources ratio tips too heavily to the stress side. Resources are enhanced when we do things to rejuvenate ourselves, child and adult alike (e.g., socializing with friends, seeing an enjoyable movie). When we break we tend to break in the direction of our vulnerabilities. Adults may drink more, yell more, withdraw from others and so forth. Kids may tantrum. So, ask yourself whether there has been a recent increase in stress in your child’s life or in the life of someone else in the family. If yes, a starting point might be to see if such can be eliminated or reduced. If not, then I would try to be patient and try to increase everyone’s care.

Possible Problem #3: Your child doesn’t feel like doing something

Possible Fix #3: Incentivize future occurrences of the something

 One of the most important tasks we parents have is to grow our child’s capacity to do things when she doesn’t feel like it. No psychological muscle better predicts success in both vocational and interpersonal pursuits. So, if my child is freaking out just because she doesn’t care for a rule or restriction that is developmentally appropriate, I would set up an incentive for future occurrences. Lets say she’s freaking out because you’ve told her to clean her room. Perhaps you might decide that, going forward, access to TV is earned each day by having cleaned the room appropriately (i.e., to spec and without freaking out). You are not taking TV away in these instances. Your child is either deciding to earn or not earn TV based on her behavior. No matter what you’re going to insist on the room being cleaned, less you create a training program for throwing fits, but whether it results in the TV being earned or not is dependent upon your child’s choices.

I have a much more detailed description of setting up a range of behavioral programs in my parenting book. You can also find additional guidelines at this blog post: Seven Tips for When Your Child Refuses to Do a Chore.

Possible Problem #4: Your child is showing the expression of a diagnosable psychological problem

Possible Fix #4: Seek our the services of a mean-lean-healing machine

 Tantrums are like fevers. You know there’s a problem but it could be many different things. Like a fever, you try treating it yourself first if it’s mild. However, if it persists, or if it’s serious (e.g., the tantrums are violent), then it’s good to do as you would do with a medical problem: seek out the services of a clinician well trained to diagnose and to treat the problem(s). To find possible candidates, click here. Here are some related blog posts:

Signs That a Kid Needs Mental Health Services

Seven Common Myths About Counseling

Affording Mental Health Care

Ok, here are some things to try at the point of the fit, keeping in mind that these may not work or be appropriate for your child.

Guideline #1: Don’t reward the bad behavior

Caving in to your child’s demands often creates a training program for the bad behavior. Your child gets the idea, often not even consciously, that throwing fits gets him his way. Moreover, I wouldn’t increase your positive attention during the fit, which leads to the next guideline.

Guideline #2: Extinguish the flame

Your attention can act as oxygen for the flame. For example, lets say your child throws herself down on the ground in a fit of anger. I would, if she won’t hurt herself and others or damage property, and if it’s possible for you given other demands on your time, leave her alone as she calms down. You might say as you leave: “What you’re doing is inappropriate. Let me know when you’re ready to clean your room.”

Guideline #3: Use timeout

Timeout can be done in ways that are not effective. But, if you’ve gotten some good counsel on how to do it, this can be a good time to use it (again with the parenting book?!…sorry, its just that there is just so much relevant information that I can’t cram in here and I don’t want to leave you hanging).

Guideline #4: Do a psychological autopsy

Once everyone is calmed down, which might be after the fit, later that day or sometime after that, I would sit down with your child and deconstruct what happened. We all lose IQ points when we’re upset. We do well to wait until everyone’s brain is fully back online before doing this work. Some of the best teaching can be delivered through questions: “What happened yesterday when I asked you to clean your room?” “What do you think about how you acted?” “What would be a good way for you to make up for what you said and did?”

If you have two adults parenting in your household it might be good for the parent who was not involved in the conflict to do this autopsy. If the transgression was slight, a heartfelt apology may be sufficient. If not, simply apologizing is not good for your child’s character development. Therefore, I would look for a proportionate reparation he could make, for his sake (e.g., using his own allowance to replace a magazine he ripped up, writing out an apology, offering to rub mom’s feet ;-).

Dealing with this issue can be a true pain in the neck, and make one wonder what exactly are the criteria for arranging for an adoption out of the home, but it’s very important work. And, you are to be saluted for taking it on!

The Value of Unplugging

I have a confession to make. I don’t walk my talk all the time. In my defense, I own this often in my writing, public speaking and clinical work. But, it usually bothers me, as I guess it does any of us when we don’t parent in the manner that we intend to. Most of the time I avoid excessive self-reproach and try, instead, to learn what I can from my blunders. This blog entry articulates a fresh example.

I write this on page 199 of my parenting book Working Parents, Thriving Families:

Pick one day each month to have a sedentary technology holiday: During this twenty-four-hour period do not allow any electronic entertainment. Such days allow the other opportunities before you and your family to come more sharply into focus. Who knows, you may decide to try it on a weekly basis!

Ok, here’s the confession: I’ve never done it, until this past week.

The context was a family vacation to Bermuda. Before leaving I was having a discussion with my colleague and friend Karen Osborne. I forget how it came up, but I must have let on that I was considering taking my technology with me. Karen’s eyes got big and she said something like this: “If I were your wife there’s NO WAY you’d be allowed to take your laptop with you! That vacation is for you, your wife and your kids. Spending time with them, and not your email, is what it’s for! That stuff will be waiting for you when you get back. There’s no way that’d fly with me! No way!” I saw instantly that she was correct (plus the fact that she is a gentle person who normally doesn’t take a 2 x 4 to my head unless I really need it) and I knew I could never face her when I came back if I did otherwise. (In case you’re wondering why my wife didn’t serve in this role: she’s run out of 2 x 4s.)

So, I didn’t take my laptop and kept the other stuff off unless it was to plan or coordinate a vacation activity or to take a picture (like what you see below).Image

And, my family didn’t have or use their technology either.

I can’t easily describe for you what a remarkable experience it was to be unplugged. It allowed for much, much more of a sense of focused attention and peace. In a remarkable book called The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle argues the same that that many other wise people, across multiple disciplines and traditions, have argued: being in the moment (instead of the past or the future), is an essential element for experiencing meaning, joy and peace. While technology can facilitate being in the now (e.g., a meditation facilitator, music), most of the time it interferes. In my case, when I’m most plugged in, multi-tasked and caffeinated, I’m like a hyperactive hamster on crack. When I was unplugged, and focused on the beauty and wonder before my eyes, especially my family, I became filled with peace, joy and serenity. And, I was able to feel this way even though I had some heavy duty stresses to deal with at work upon my return (i.e., being in the moment allowed me to keep that stuff out of my consciousness 95% of the time).

So, now I’m going to do this more often. How much more, or how regularly,  I don’t know yet, as I’m still catching up from the backlog of being unplugged for five days (including writing this blog entry on a Saturday morning), lol.

Try it for a day, or half a day, or as long as you can. Turn everything off. Observe your mind then try to go to the past or the future. Watch it trying to do so as you might watch a two year old throwing a tantrum. Then, try not to give any power to your mind’s inclination to do that, and just observe the beauty around you, especially your family. If you can do it, I’d be very, very interested in having you write about your experience here.

Ten Steps to Take if Your Child is Exposed to a Traumatic Event

What it means to be exposed to a traumatic event varies greatly. The exposure can be direct (it happened to your child) or indirect (it happened to someone your child cares about). It can be a single event or repeated over time. Vulnerable children might also experience traumatic reactions when learning about something terrible that happened to strangers. Moreover, traumatic experiences themselves vary greatly (e.g., watching dad physically abuse mom and witnessing mom get hit and killed by a car are both traumatic, but one more than the other). For this reason, what follows can only be considered general advice that may need adaptation across a range of traumatic experiences and reactions.
#1. Try to keep adaptive rituals in place. Rituals are islands of stability in the torrential currents of our culture. Rituals promote a sense of stability and safety in a child’s life. One of the ways in which traumatic events are most damaging is in how they fracture a child’s basic assumptions about stability and safety. So, try to maintain as many of your usual daily, weekly, seasonal and special occasion rituals as you can. (See Chapter Four of my parenting book for an expanded discussion and a list of methods for pulling this off.)
#2. Monitor your child’s health habits. When excessively stressed our children may start to suffer impairing changes in their sleep, diet and level of physical activity. A brief period of these kinds of reactions is typical. However, if such persists for weeks it is a good idea to get assistance (see tip #9).
#3. Give your child the opportunity to discuss the trauma but do not force the issue. It’s important for kids to know that you, or others who are available (e.g., therapists, school personnel), are interested and willing to discuss the trauma whenever your child likes. However, sometimes kids cope by not talking about what is bothering them. Also keep in mind that younger children may deal best with these kinds of feelings by drawing or playing.
#4. If your child is traumatized by misfortune that has befallen someone else, engage him or her in a plan for making a contribution to reparative efforts. Perhaps your child might draw a picture of support, or help with some volunteer project (e.g., making food, conducting drives), or offer prayers. Making an active contribution can combat a feeling of powerlessness.
#5. If your child is traumatized by something that happened to him or her be careful to not give her or him the idea that it’s not okay to hurt around you. We parents hurt when our kids hurt, and often worse. So, it is natural for us to try to convince our kids, and ourselves, that they are not really in pain or that they are over their pain, when that isn’t the case. It’s very tough to provide empathy for the pain our kids experience, and to stay with them in that experience until they are ready to move on, but doing so is a major gift.
#6. Try to avoid blaming yourself. “If only I had…” is a very normative reaction for we parents when our kid has suffered a trauma. However, it’s rarely helpful as the resulting guilt and shame can have the paradoxical effect of making us less available for the kinds of responses that promote healing and resolution. (Of course, if poor choices or poor judgment on your part has caused the trauma, that is much trickier and would make #9 an even more important step to take.)
#7. Once your child’s pain has been given it’s due (and judging that point in time is an art form unto itself), help him or her to look for the opportunity imbued within all crises. That is, crisis = (pain/2) + (opportunity/2). As one poet put it, the pain is like a dragon guarding treasure. Or like Khalil Gibran put it “your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” Teaching our children to think about trauma in this way is a major way to promote resilience.
#8. Be on the watch for signs of depression (e.g., persisting depressed and/or irritable mood, diminished concentration, not taking pleasure in activities that used to be fun, appetite and/or sleep disturbance, self-blame, hopelessness, harmful thinking) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (e.g., avoiding situations, things or people that remind your child of the trauma, experiencing withdrawal from others or life in general, reliving the trauma in dreams or flashbacks, doing psychological back flips to avoid being reminded of the trauma).
#9. If you see signs of mental illness, or if the trauma is severe, please do not go at it alone. This is complicated business. So, for your child’s sake, your family’s sake and your sake, seek out the services of a qualified child psychologist or mental health professional. (See Chapter Ten of my parenting book for detailed guidance along these lines.)
#10. Don’t forget about self-care. Our self-care can be one of the first things we jettison off a ship that feels like it’s sinking. However, doing so is like throwing the life jackets overboard first. What good am I for my child if I’m breaking down? (Please see Chapter Seven of my parenting book for a detailed review of issues and methods.)

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