Tag stress

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.)

Manufacture Joy: Take a Daily Mini Vacation

As part of this holiday series, I’m next covering the strategy of creating mini daily vacations, an idea I’ve adapted from psychologist Dr. Barbara Fredrickson’s book Positivity. The idea is to treat yourself with an enjoyable respite from the busyness of your daily life by doing something fun, meaningful or relaxing. Here are two dozen ideas to get you started:
• Rather than work on a project at your desk, take it to a local coffee shop or bookstore, order your favorite drink, and work on it there.
• Have lunch at a restaurant, whether by yourself (reading something fun or interesting) or with a friend.
• Go to a local library and read or listen to something funny or interesting.
• Start a game of chess with a friend, or a stranger, and make a couple of moves each day.
• Go for a walk with an eye towards paying attention to nature.
• More elaborate, but if you can spare a couple of hours, go see a movie.
• Find a quiet space, put on some headphones, and listen to relaxing sounds on a music player (e.g., ocean waves, rain, birds).
• Click around YouTube.com for some funny videos, then forward any treasures to friends (for my top 10 funny parenting videos click here).
• Read a guide book regarding the location of your next vacation, even if it’s far off. If you don’t have a vacation planned, do that instead.
• Click onto some live streaming of a favorite location (an internet search will yield many options, this is just one example).
• Go to a shop that sells your favorite guilty pleasure (e.g., chocolate, baked goods), order something modest, find a quiet spot and eat the treat very slowly with an eye towards savoring every morsel.
• Call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while just to say hey and to see what’s up.
• Read something regarding your favorite hobby.
• Start a file of affirming things people send you, then, over time, read that.
• Eat your lunch while strolling through a museum.
• Look through a file or scrapbook of photographs.
• Watch parts of one of your favorite TV shows or movies (e.g., take a DVD to work, log onto a video streaming service such as Netflix.com).
• Go for a swim in an indoor pool.
• Go play some sets at a bowling alley during lunch, whether by yourself or with a friend.
• Kick your shoes off, get a good drink or snack and read a few chapters of a good novel.
• Play with a pet.
• Visit a florist and buy a plant for your daytime space.
• Find a quiet place, light a candle and offer your Higher Power prayers of gratitude.
• Plant something.
• Make an agreement with your significant other, or a good friend, to alternate giving each other 10 minute shoulder massages. Alternate days if need be.

I would love to hear your ideas for creating a daily mini-vacation.

Other offerings in this series:

Write a gratitude letter

Perform acts of kindness

Manufacture Joy: Write a Gratitude Letter

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

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

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

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

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

Step #5: Give your letter to the person.

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

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

My Child Gets Afraid A Lot. What Can I Do?

Our science tells us that some children are born with an anxious temperament. These temperaments can often be identified by the toddler years, and sometimes sooner. Kids with such personalities may cling excessively to their parents (or other attachment figures) and respond to novel situations, people or things with hesitation and/or fear. Moreover, about one third of such children may go on to develop an anxiety disorder (compared to eight to twelve percent of the general population). All this said, there are at least nine things parents can do, and not do, to help.

#1: Try to reduce parental anxiety. If I have unrealistic fears about the person, thing or situation under consideration I may be facilitating my child’s anxiety without even realizing it.

#2: Avoid avoidance. If the person, thing or situation your child is fearing is developmentally appropriate for him to be exposed to (e.g., going to the first soccer practice of a new team), it is often a good idea to not avoid it just because he is afraid of it. None of we engaged parents are happier than our least happy child. So, when our kids hurt we hurt, and often worse. Hence it can be an understandable knee-jerk reaction to allow our child to avoid those people, things and situations that distress him without considering whether doing so is helpful or not. However, what we often find is that avoiding developmentally appropriate experiences that are distressing can facilitate more and more avoidance and more and more anxiety.

#3: Avoid preemptive reassurances. I suggest to the parents in my practice: “Imagine I said to you as you sat down. ‘Listen, don’t worry about the ceiling collapsing on your head while we meet. It’s quite secure.’ Of course, your attention would be drawn to the ceiling and you could not help but wonder what danger I’m referring to.” A pre-emptive reassurance states that there is something worthy of being reassured about and can be like saying to a kid (unintentionally of course): “Go ahead and freak out now.”

#4: Avoid excessive reassurances. This is similar to the previous suggestion. Imagine a friend said she was nervous about a job interview and you responded by hugging her and kissing her and suggesting she’ll be fine regardless of what happens. A peer might just find it odd. A kid, who often looks to her parent to decide what to make of her world, might imagine that maybe she has underestimated the gravity of the situation.

#5: Remember that most anxiety passes once a kid is in the situation. Assuming the situation is developmentally appropriate and a child does not suffer from an untreated mental health disorder (e.g., Panic Disorder) and assuming adults are not throwing gas (excessive reassurances) on the fire, a child with an anxious temperament will usually show some initial distress but then be fine.

#6: Preemptive exposures to the situation can be helpful. Doing a dry run to the new classroom before school starts, going to the soccer field before the first practice, meeting the new coach before hand, and other preliminary exposures to what is feared can sometimes soften the initial distress, especially if such is practical and not accompanied by preemptive or excessive reassurances.

#7: Having your child breathe into his belly and try to make his muscles as soft as a cooked piece of pasta can help just before facing the feared person, thing or event. It is very difficult, and maybe even impossible, to be anxious and to have a relaxed body. In doing this, work on muscles in groups. That is, first relax the hands and arms, then the shoulders, neck and head, then the chest and belly and then the legs and feet, all while pretending that the lungs are in the lower belly instead of the chest cavity.

#8: If part of your child’s avoidance strategy is to cling to you, consider leaving the premises once you’ve dropped your child off. Of course, this assumes that you’ve determined that a responsible adult is in charge and that the situation is developmentally appropriate for your child. You can always leave your cell phone number with the adult in charge in case something surprising happens and you need to return. (It would generally not be advisable to tell your child that he may call you if he gets upset.)

#9: Consider consulting with a mental health professional if these strategies do not resolve the problem. To obtain a referral click here.

Failure: An Important Part of a Psychologically Healthy Childhood

Recently I was on a sports field and overheard heard this conversation between a mom and a coach:

Mom: “Coach Jim didn’t make the all star team. Did they tend to pick older boys?”

Coach: “Ahhh, not really. Older boys are often more skilled, and so more of them were chosen, but some younger talented boys were picked too.”

Mom: “What do I say to him? I don’t want him to be crushed. I think I’ll just say that they were choosing older boys this year”

Coach: “Whatever you think is best.”

On this same ball field, as is the case all across America, children are routinely praised for poor outcomes. A kid grounds out weakly without advancing a runner and hears “good hit Colin!” A girl pitches ball four to load the bases and is told: “good pitch Sarah!” Moreover, kids receive positive feedback on a very high proportion of plays (in my neighborhood, well over 90%).

Is it easy to understand why this happens. No engaged parent is more happy than her least happy child. When one of our kids hurts we hurt worse, so it’s natural to try to avoid the pain that failure brings. Moreover, we are very interested in making sure that our kids have a solid self-esteem and are concerned that failures, or an absence of consistent positive feedback, may leave our child falling short of developing well.

However, what we sometimes fail to realize two things: (1) failure is a critically important part of a psychologically healthy childhood and (2) too much praise dulls it. I once asked a panel of child mental health experts on a TV program I host. “If it were possible to raise a child into adulthood and make sure that she never failed at anything would you want to do it?” Everyone on the panel instantly declared “no” as such an adult would be handicapped when inevitable failures come along. Moreover, praise that is vague, inaccurate, overdone or overstated loses its impact and can actually have detrimental effects.

Let me focus a little bit on failure and review some of the benefits it offers:

√ Failure helps a kid to understand what her true talents are (i.e., if one is praised for every outcome, even the bad ones, it is more complicated to discern one’s true capacities).

√ Failure provides the opportunity to learn how to think adaptively about failing and how to respond effectively to it. Sure, I might be able to protect my child from the notion that he has failed (e.g., by stating falsehoods) for much of his childhood, but at some point the world will visit failure upon him. Better for him to learn how to think about it and respond to it early on, before dysfunctional attitudes and coping styles might develop, and when I can have a greater impact on how he responds to failure. Moreover, I certainly don’t want to condition my child to believe that she is owed a good outcome simply because she is a good person who means well and tries hard.

√ Failing offers the opportunity to learn a very important psychological formula: crisis = pain + opportunity. None of us likes pain, of course. But is it not woven into the fabric of all of our lives? Part of being resilient is to recognize that pain, to paraphrase a poet, is like a dragon guarding treasure; and, the fiercer the dragon the more valuable the treasure. However, the dragon must have its way before the treasure can be accessed. Time after time I’ve seen examples of resilient kids and families taking the hit and, because of the hit, coming out on the other side stronger, wiser, more effective and happier.

A few suggestions for those moments when your child produces a poor outcome:

√ Sometimes no comment is the best comment. For some kids striking out can be as upsetting as having a fly land on their nose. It may not need to be remarked upon.

√ If a comment is needed, sometimes waiting is advisable (e.g., for my child to become more responsive, so that it is less public)

√ Don’t lie or exaggerate. This is not the same thing as saying everything on my mind. But, when I do speak I want it to be truthful. This strengthens my long-term credibility and models virtuous behavior.

√ Provide empathy when your child is hurting without qualification. “That hurts doesn’t it.” “I could see why you’d be upset over that happening.” “It hurts to not be able to come through for your team.” Keep the butts off it initially (e.g., “…but you’ll get ‘em next time”). This can be especially difficult for we lunatic-parents to endure (i.e., we love our kids so much it makes us crazy), especially when our empathy leads to more opening up about the pain. But, tolerating this is a gift we give our children.

√ After feelings and thoughts have been vetted consider whether a plan of action is warranted: drilling, studying, problem solving, etc. If the failing represents a painful pattern think of it as a problem to be solved.

√ Value things like effort (e.g., your child hustles even when a losing outcome seems inevitable) and character (e.g., you child congratulates an opponent for a good play, lifts up a team mate who was feeling down) making sure that such comments are tied to specific examples.

√ Keep praise for effective performance proportionate, especially when around others from outside of the family.

I realize I’m hitting only some high points here. A much more complete accounting of these issues, together with stories that illustrate the points, can be found in my parenting book Working Parents, Thriving Families. I’ve also written a blog entry titled Five Questions for Effectively Parenting Kids in Sports. Finally, if your child has a pattern of responding to failure that is consistently impairing (e.g., public displays of anger, inconsolable and persistent sadness) consider seeking out the services of a qualified mental health professional.

Where Are Your Wells of Wisdom?

I’ve been doing psychotherapy continuously for the past 24 years. In this time I’ve come to think of each person’s psyche as a cottage in a forest. My client–which can be a family or an individual–and I initially collaborate on an assessment of whether the cottage needs repairs or remodeling. If so, we partner, guided by science, and do that. This kind of work on cottages has characterized the lion’s share of my career. However, it has recently dawned on me that most people (and perhaps even all) have wells of wisdom located around their cottages. When they access these wells they can usually figure out how to proceed when life gets complicated, stressed or confusing.

Some clients know where their wells are without my help. I can see the paths they’ve worn from their cottage to their wells. When thirsty, they go to their wells without much thought, just like someone might make a daily commute without much thought; such people make many decisions in a way that promotes love and self-actualization. However, I find that most of my clients do not know about the existence of their wells, never mind how to access them. Therefore, one of my jobs, as their therapist, is to help them both to find their wisdom and to get in the habit of accessing it.

Let me give a few examples, keeping in mind that people differ regarding where their wells are located.

One person I knew could access her wisdom by imagining how she would look upon a given decision from the context of her deathbed. The gift of death to the living is perspective. Realizing this my client would wonder how her deathbed self would wish for her to proceed when she was facing a difficult decision or a complicated situation. This allowed her to be wise, even if her chosen course sometimes brought her into conflict with other here-and-now agenda (e.g., keeping a clean house, defeating someone with whom she was arguing, purchasing a new car).

Another person I knew could access his wisdom by imagining what advice he would give his son if his son, some years later on as an adult, came to face the same dilemma or problem. It was fun watching him go from complete confusion to complete clarity as he traveled from his cottage to this particular well of wisdom.

Another person I knew would imagine what her therapist would say about a particular problem. She had worked with this therapist for about 18 months and found his Buddhist/mindfulness perspective wise and enlightening. As she had internalized his voice, she only had to envision what he would say to find the right course of action when life became difficult.

I now have woven this principle into my practice. Yes, many cottages need repair and remodeling and, as a therapist, I have a valuable role to play in that regard. (I’ve also subjected my own cottage to such work on two occasions.) But, I’ve learned to assume that many people have more wisdom hidden inside themselves than they realize. It only takes finding the well and then remembering to go to it enough so that the journey becomes automatic when thirst arises.

Do you know where your well is? Do you realize how much wisdom you have inside of you? If not, maybe a therapist can help you to discover it. For a referral click here.

Is your kid getting enough sleep?

For many of us, a typical school night resembles a circus with the clowns’ hair on fire. There is way too much to do and not enough time to do it all. Because of this it may be tempting to try to make more time by pushing our kids’ bedtime back. After all, there has to be give somewhere and, while we might not like seeing our kid tired the next day, we know he or she can always catch up later.  Right?

Well, unfortunately, research suggests that even one hour of lost sleep can have a dramatic and negative impact on a child’s or a teen’s functioning the very next day. Before summarizing some of this research, let me share the nightly doses of sleep recommended by the National Sleep Foundation:

1-3 years old:            12-14 hours

3-5 years old:            11-13 hours

5-12 years old:          10-11 hours

Teens:                       8.5-9.25 hours

One of the best parenting books I’ve ever read is Nurture Shock (read my blog entry on my top three favorite books for parents by clicking here). According to the authors, the following number among the consequences when our children do not get enough sleep:

• For every hour of lost sleep, a child loses seven IQ points the next day.

• When kids get less sleep, their bodies respond in a manner that maximizes the production of fat and minimizes its breakdown.

• Sleepy kids are more lethargic and less active the next day.

• A complete night’s sleep is needed in order to properly remember newly learned academic material.

• Children with deprived sleep are more likely to remember negative rather than positive events.

• Children who are tired have a more difficult time thinking flexibly the next day.

To review related findings from the National Sleep Foundation click here.

I realize that messages like this are difficult to hear as it is so challenging to fit it all in. Moreover, our children often resist our efforts to get them to bed on time, adult leaders of extracurricular activities often seem unaware of these issues when they schedule late night events and kids sometimes find it difficult to fall and stay asleep. (To review strategies for promoting a good night’s sleep in your child click here.) But, for now, I believe we all do well to realize the importance of our kids getting a good night’s sleep.

Signs that a Kid Needs Mental Health Services.

About 14-22% of children in the United States suffer from a diagnosable psychological disorder. Add 20% to that number if you include youth who suffer at sub clinical levels. However, only about 20% of these children get effective care. And, even when they get it they’ve often had to suffer for years first. This occurs even though the research on the effectiveness of child psychotherapies is very positive. What would we conclude about our culture if this were true of our childrens’ dental health instead of their mental health?

I’m writing this blog entry to try to review key indicators of when a child might benefit from mental health services. There are four primary areas of functioning that one can consider: relationships with adults, relationships with peers, academics and mood.

Relationships with adults: The key issue is whether the youth gets along reasonably well with adults. Of course this includes parents/parent-figures and teachers. But it also includes coaches, extended family, bosses, etc. If the youth is frequently in conflict or frequently avoidant or detached from any significant type of relationship with adults, an evaluation may be warranted.

Relationships with peers: Kids need to be able to form friendships, and get along effectively, with other kids who are doing well. For example, if a teen’s close friendships are primarily with those who often get into trouble, abuse substances, or are significantly symptomatic, a significant problem may be present. Likewise, if a child or teen is avoidant, aggressive, controlling or otherwise routinely rejected or ignored by most other youth, this is of concern.

Academics: This is one of the trickier areas to describe tightly. The central issue here is not grades, though grades consistently falling in the C and lower range would generally indicate that a problem exists (assuming that the teaching and curriculum are appropriate). The central issue here is the youth applying herself or himself when she or he does not feel like it.  Developing this psychological muscle (i.e., task persistence when internal motivation is required) is one of the most important developmental tasks of childhood. So if a child is not applying herself or himself, or experiencing significant turmoil or failure in academic pursuits, an evaluation is likely warranted.

Mood: The key issue is whether or not the youth is content. Happiness is great. Contentment is the bar however. If the child is consistently sad, angry or anxious for a significant portion of his or her waking day, this is signaling a need for professional attention. It is often the case that a parent may be confused regarding what a child or teen is thinking or feeling. Thus, problems with sleep, appetite, concentration, connectedness with the world or physical activity can be signs of a problem. (There may also be absences of experiences of joy, but more for kids with depressive disorders than anxiety disorders. )

As I write this blog, there are 42 ways that youth can be diagnosed with a mental health disorder. So, this is hardly a comprehensive post. However, if a child is getting along well with others, is doing well in school and seems content, that child may be fine. The only significant area I’ve left out is experiencing success in one or more extracurricular pursuits. While a lack of positive experiences in the latter area is not, by itself, necessarily indicative of a problem, a child who lacks for such experiences may be more vulnerable to attacks on self-esteem.

I hope you will share this blog post with those who could use it. If you would like to read about common myths about mental health services, click here. For ideas on how to afford care click here. And, finally, to find a lean-mean-healing machine in your neck of the woods, click here.

Communicating with Kids About Financial Stress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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