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Monday, January 23, 2017

Self-Care in the Midst of Chaos


Most of us have either given or received this advice: "you need to take care of yourself first or you are no good to anybody else!" Makes sense. It's good advice. The only problem? If someone is saying that to me, or I am saying that to someone else...it's probably obvious to everyone that there is a problem with self-care. After all, most of us tend to cycle through periods of adequate to great self care and periods of slips, relapses, indulgences, too-tired-to-care-about-much-of-anything!
Self-care is one of the greatest challenges of family break-up and family conflict. Self-care by the parents is one of the protective factors essential to the long term positive adjustment and well-being of the little ones. Children need to be cared for and protected from adult concerns to the greatest extent possible and that responsibility lies with the parents. Unfortunately, some parents care for themselves by placing the burden and responsibility for adult worries squarely on the shoulders of the children. Directly: "tell your Mom/Dad that I need the child support or I can't pay for your school pictures." Indirectly: "Oh, sweetie, I wish we could afford to do that, but your Mom/Dad isn't paying his/her child support so we just can't afford it."
We know that inter-parental hostility creates a negative home environment and results in children who experience stress, unhappiness, and feelings of insecurity and vulnerability. Research informs us that that parents who go through a high conflict family break-up are more likely to devalue the importance of the other parent in the life of the child and interfere with the other parent's relationship with the child. Research also informs us that an ongoing relationship with both parents serves a protective function and predicts a child's overall well being. In fact, several studies have found that children in joint custody situations fare better after divorce than children who are in sole custody situations.
Let's look more closely at inter-parental hostility and its affect on self-care and care for the other. It's perhaps the clearest example of a parent putting his or her own emotional needs far ahead of the needs of the child for warmth, care, nurturing, and protection. Hostile parents are stuck in an attitude of opposition, negativity, hatred and loathing toward the other parent and, therefore, toward important aspects of who his or her child is! Hostile parents are not able to love, accept and nurture ALL of who the child is, but only a part. Hostility/negativity as a stuck position for a coparent makes self-care an impossibility, which means that care for the child will be impaired long term and the child lives in a state of vulnerability and insecurity rather than stability and security.
For many parents who survive the earthquake of a family break-up, accepting personal responsibility for the quality of our life and that of our children moving forwards is the key to peace in the family and is at the core of self-care. This doesn't mean that all is forgiven but it definitely means that I take responsibility for my own choices on a daily basis and move toward my own healing and wholeness. Some parents are not able to make the changes needed to truly move forward; mental illness including trauma histories, substance abuse, poverty and other fundamental challenges interfere. The good news for the child is that a stable, loving, healthy parental relationship with just one of their parents can compensate for the impairments of the other parent.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

V-W-X-Y-Z: Value What eXcites Your Zealously


Children learn how to be good citizens and good family members by watching and listening to family and close friends. They pay attention to everything. Our little ones absorb information about us and about what and who we care about through every cell of their being. Be intentional about expressing your excitement about people, places and things that you value.

If you find something or someone to be worthy, important, useful, interesting, then show it! Show it to your children in the way you speak and the way you behave. Show it in your investment of time, energy and other resources. A parent is the single most powerful teacher a child will ever have, and children learn from everything parents do and say.
They also learn from everything parents choose not to do and choose not to comment on. If you love a friend or family member and think they are an awesome person, spend time with them. Talk about them. Talk to your children about them. Hang pictures of them in your house.

If you love nature, spend time in it with your children. It is the early years of intimate family life that teaches children the value of relationships to other living things, including the earth on which we live. It is family who teaches and models the principles of honesty, commitment, trust, process, recognition, validation, connection, and living fully.


Monday, May 9, 2016

S-T-U: Support Thoughtful Understanding


For better or worse, children learn from everything and everyone around them. They are sponges, soaking up knowledge through listening, observing, and feeling. One of the strongest methods of learning for children is role play and imitation. They also learn by carefully observing what and who their parents approve or accept, and what and who their parent disapprove of or disavow. Common sense suggests certain connections between parental modeling and children’s choices. For example, it seems that parents who use tobacco products would be more likely to have children who do so. And that parent who use alcohol inappropriately would be more likely to have children who do the same. And, finally, that parents who are sexist or racist or elitist or classist would be more likely to have children with the same prejudices.

Research does generally support those correlations, but it is important to be cautious about drawing conclusions about solutions, especially simple solutions. For we all know that simple solutions to complex problems have an almost overpowering appeal. The more complex the problem, the more complex the effects on everyone! And complexity tends to increase the intensity of people’s feelings about the problems. No one likes feeling helpless or powerless, no matter what their age. It is human nature to need some sense of control in order to maintain a basic confidence in one’s own ability to manage problems and challenges. Complex problems challenge our sense of control because there are so many levels of involvement whether one is talking about the complex problem of an individual, a family, a community, or the larger society.

This combination of the way in which children learn and the human tendency to oversimplify creates an important job for parents. First and foremost, parents need to be able to acknowledge their own weaknesses and inconsistencies to themselves. Thoughtful understanding is based on empathic compassion combined with fact-finding investigation. And parents need to develop thoughtful understanding of their own problems to be able to talk with their children about them. It is confusing for children when they learn in school that smoking is bad for one’s health or that alcohol is a drug and have to make sense out of their parents’ choice to smoke or drink. It is doubtful that there is a parent who smokes who does not also with they did not, at least at times. Parents often feel embarrassed or even ashamed of their problems. Parents who practice thoughtful understanding for their own difficulties and challenges become better able to model appropriate problem-solving for their children.


As a way of supporting the development of thoughtful understanding in your children, pay attention to the messages that fill our world on a daily basis. Don’t ignore messages that you agree with or messages with which you disagree. Let your children know what your like and what you don’t like about the media that surrounds us. Let your children know and then wait for them to ask for more information. When they approach you, help them get the facts about whatever they are concerned about or interested in. And help them develop compassion for their own and others people’s problems. Support thoughtful understanding, the foundation of compassion.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

P-Q-R: Protect Quiet Routines


All of our lives are hectic – full of demands that create the need for swift evaluation of complex issues and equally swift changes in direction. Sometimes the changes are physical, sometimes mental, and other times emotional. Sometimes the changes are something that we were anticipating and other times we are caught completely by surprise. In either set of circumstances, as adults we have a variety of tools available to cope with rapid and difficult changes. We have the ability to recognize that we have successfully survived previous change point and transitions in our lives; and we have the confidence in our own skills to do so again.

Even when our coping skills are challenged by excessive amounts of change and stress, we know how to reach out to others for help. We have learned ways to reduce and relieve our stress even if those methods are temporary like taking a nap, a walk, or having lunch with a friend. What we may not think about is the complexity of the process involved in our development of these coping skills. And we may underestimate the impact of even a seemingly small change of routine for our children.

For anyone, change is something that disrupts our routine. A predictable routine helps to protect and preserve our sense of safety, security, confidence, and competence. The type of change our own ability to cope with it are factors that determine how disrupted our sense of routine becomes. And those factors also affect our ability to protect our children from unnecessary disruptions. Contrast these two events.

We walk outside one morning to retrieve our morning paper, only to find that it is not in the usual spot. We look everywhere and cannot find it. How are we effected? What do we do? How do we manage the situation?

Let’s say that we come hope after work that same evening to find that the locks on our house have been changed and a process server is there to serve us with divorce papers. Now how do we behave?

Clearly not all marriages end in divorce, but nearly half do. Many families experience the serious illness of a parent or a child. 1 in 3 adults will experience a bout of clinical depression sometime in their life. And all of us will lose a loved one to death or accident at some point.

Protecting quiet routines on a daily basis should be a high priority for parents. Routines that are for the soothing and comfort of the grown-ups and routines that are for the children are of equal importance. It is these quiet, dependable, daily routines that sooth and reassure us and our children through the ups and downs of life, whether big or small. Think about the quiet routines that sooth and reassure you on a daily basis. Make a list. Then do the same with your children. 

If your child is too young to speak, watch and listen, and notice the rhythm of their day. Become conscious of the quiet routines that create a sense of security and safety in your lives and then honor them. This is easy to do when life flows predictably. So make your study at such a time, sot that you are prepared to protect those essential quiet routines when the very real anxieties of change are part of your daily life.

A daily shared meal or a bedtime story or a walk around the park or neighborhood are examples of quiet routines that can be preserved through all states and stages of family life. Remember that children’s ways of coping with change are very different from those of adults. In general, the younger the child, the smaller his or her world in terms of the daily landmarks they use to orient themselves and feel safe and secure. 

You may be feeling a tremendous sense of disruption and upheaval because of a change in your family life. But be cautious about communicating that to your child. Practice self-restraint and check first to see how your child is doing. Stop, look, and listen are steps form own childhoods that have much to offer us at a time of transition. Remember that your child does not think in the same way you do, so don’t assume that because you feel overwhelmed your child will, too. In fact, children tend to very easily take on the feelings of the parent if the parent does not allow the child to have his or her own experience.



Saturday, May 7, 2016

M-N-O: Mold Natural Opportunities


Effective parenting doesn’t just happen. Neither do good grades, good friends, good relationships or a good life. Sure, sometimes luck and fate conspire to present us with a chance at something special. But for the most part, we create our good fortune by molding the natural opportunities that life offers us simply as a part of being human.
Growth and development are natural impulses. Research has shown that there are optimal times for learning language as well as learning emotional and physical skills. And it is parents who help mold these natural opportunities. The attentive parent notices when the infant is trying to hold his or her head up on their own. That parent then creates a structure in which the infant can safely practice. Will the child learn the skill without parental structuring? Yes. But that accomplishment would be purely a physical without the enrichment and connection afforded by the parent who molds a natural opportunity into one that is stimulating and nurtures the emotional and mental development of the child as well as the physical.

The concept of molding natural opportunities is based on research about signs of readiness or interest in displayed by a child. Parents can attend and actively listen for these signs, then structure the environment and provide activities in a manner that respects and enhances those naturally occurring moments. A great example of this is toilet training. Parents struggle with this issue and so do children. Self-control versus other-control. Some parents push their children too hard and too fast to gain self-control of toileting even there are no signs of readiness. And some parent ignore the signs of autonomy because the parent needs to feel needed. For the latter parents, the child growing up means the parent losing their importance in the life of the child.

There are many ways for parents to encourage and support children. One of the best is books! Even better is story-telling. It’s easy to get started. Plan a field trip with your children. Take them to the children’s book section at the local library or at a local bookstore. Plan on spending the afternoon there with your children just exploring books. Keep it unstructured and follow your child’s lead. They will let you know what they are interested int. And it can give you some wonderful ideas for molding natural opportunities as they present.

For example, many children are fascinated by dinosaurs, dragons and reptiles. While you may not be crazy about reptiles, they offer an inexpensive way to teach children about diversity, uniqueness, habitat, environment, and overcoming prejudice or fear. And you don’t have to bring them into your home or even pay to go the zoo. Go to a pet shop that specializes in reptiles. The staff is usually happy to educate children and adults about the animals. Your trip to the bookstore or library could lead to a series of local field trips that teach and support your child’s natural interest. Sometimes you will find that you will grow right along with your child as their interests move you outside of your own comfort zone.

Molding natural opportunities includes teaching our children to swim even when we don’t know how because of our own fear. It includes finding a piano teacher we can afford even if we can’t carry a tune in a bucket. It might mean asking the boss for a change of schedule to be at our child’s soccer game when we have two left feet ourselves. It includes helping our children to develop positive relationships, learn how to resolve conflicts, develop positive peer relationships, and feel a part of a community.

Molding natural opportunities means putting our children’s needs ahead of our own. It requires the difficult work of allowing our children to be completely different form us in some very important ways. The greatest challenge to our own values as a parent may come in the pursuit of supporting and respecting our child’s authentic self-expression. But the committed parent does it because effective parenting is not accident. Effective parenting is intentional.


Molding natural opportunities means being able to understand our children as separate, unique individuals and helping them to form relationships to the world with their own personalities, interest, and vision. Just as we learn more about relating to them at many levels, they learn to broaden and deepen their perspective in relation to others. It means sharing with them what is basic and genuine to us, and guiding them into the opportunities that are unique to their world, their lives, and their experience.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

J-K-L: Just Keep Listening


No matter what, we must listen to our children – actively and closely. And that’s not easy sometimes. For our little ones speak a different language than we grown-ups do. They speak in metaphors, symbols, behavior, and animalese! Children’s language consists of imagination, wishing, hoping, whining, crying, tugs and yelps, aches and pains, ghosts and monsters, candy castles and magic lands.

So how do we listen well when we don’t speak the language? Listen actively first. Get down to the child’s level physically and make good eye contact. Watch their faces. Pay attention to gestures and other body language. Tune into yourself as you watch and listen to your child. If we’re open to active listening, our child will help us feel how they feel. Whether it is fear or sadness or anger, tune in first and then begin a conversation. It’s called empathy – experiencing the situation from the other person’s point of view.

Empathy is how we effectively listen to our children and it is how we teach our children to listen to others. If we model active listening for our child, s/he will use it with others. There’s no moment quite as lovely as the first time a parent sees his/her child reach out to comfort or support another person who is having a hard time. That moment of kindness bodes well for the future of the child, the family and the larger culture. For active listening lays the foundation for the development of effective communication skills based on respect and mutual cooperation. The older our children get, the more important communication becomes.

All parents are concerned about protecting their children from adult information about sex, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, crisis, trauma, and violence. Inappropriate information is everywhere: billboards, television, radio, magazines, internet, video games, and social media. There’s a limit to any parents’ ability to monitor what their children experience. The earlier a parent opens the door to mutual communication about important and difficult topics, the more likely it is that children will walk through that door and have conversations with Mom and Dad.

How do we open the door and keep it open? The first step is self-honesty. Each parent must acknowledge the tough areas for him or herself. When do you clam up? What makes you go silent? What topics do you avoid? When do you over-react? What are you paranoid or neurotic about? Whatever the answers to these questions, pay attention. These will be the challenge points between you and your child as s/hr grows. Don’t wait until his/her adolescent years to start the dialogue.

Speak briefly and simply when these sensitive areas present. Start when your child is young. If you see or hear something that bugs you, offends you, something you disagree with, make a simple statement like, “Yuck! I don’t like that!” Even very young children get the message. First, you have feelings about it, and second, you’ll talk about it. This gives your child permission to talk to you about your tough issues and his or her own tough issues. And children have a way of responding to your active listening when you least expect it. Two days, weeks, or months later, your child will ask the difficult questions or express his/her opinion. And even when it feels challenging, there is nothing quite like it.


So keep listening. From the cries of the infant to the valedictorian speech of the graduate, the time goes quickly. We must make the time to actively listen to our children. S/he will respond dramatically to being heard. Our investment in listening now will create respect and mutual cooperation in the lives of our children and the lives of others as our children move out into the world.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Guide His/Her Independence


Children can imagine incredible possibilities long before they can handle the reality. Whether it is a 2-year-old contemplating a huge flight of concrete stairs with the thought of climbing them all alone, or a 12-year-old contemplating the same steps with the thought of jumping down them on a bicycle, the impulse for challenge, growth and independence is natural. So is the parental response to protect and safeguard the child. Balancing protection with a healthy dose of guidance is essential to nurture the child’s need for exploration.

Because the world of a child is very small – just what s/he can see, feel touch and hear – parents need to guide his/her independence to ensure that the child pushes the limits safely. For part of the wonder of childhood is that tender confidence that all within his/her control is possible and safe. But parents know better. Accidents happen. Our children will be hurt sometimes as they experiment in the world. Our job is to protect them when we can, and to help them soothe the disappointment of limitations and pain when they inevitably come.

When the child is very young the need for guidance is nearly constant. Even infants can easily hurt themselves as they learn to control their arms and hands, if there is something in the immediate environment they might accidentally pick up. We must make sure that infants are placed only in safe spaces with safe surroundings where they cannot roll or slide into trouble.

As the child begins to move on his or her own the need for protection, including restriction of movement or access, increases dramatically. At the same time the need for stimulation and exploration is vital to healthy cognitive, emotional, and physical development. Guiding the toddler’s independence starts with accurately assessing the world from his or her point of view. Cover or remove sharp corners. Stay close and observant when in an unfamiliar environment. Stay ahead of the child visually as s/he explores so you can anticipate and structure successful exploration.

Once the child is competent on wheels – low, stable, three-wheelers – a whole new world opens up. Hopefully the parent has been practicing the art of limit setting and natural consequences to teach self-control. If so, the wheel phase is much easier. Establish clear time and distance parameters appropriate to the age of the child. Set clear consequences for violations of either time or distance rules and then stick with it. The easiest consequence is a loss of the wheels for a period of time. The amount of loss time depends on the child’s age and personality. Periodically check up on your child to make sure s/he is within the distance parameter. You might start with just the back or front yard patio, for example.

Seek opportunities for your child to make his/her own decisions. Watch for signs that your child has preferences and help him/her express them. Clothing choices are one of the easiest places to allow and encourage the expression and exploration of personal choice. Second is room organization and decoration. We can guide his/her independence in these areas most effectively by offering appropriate, but limited, choices.

For example, parents can select two or three outfits appropriate to the weather and activities for the day and allow the child to choose. Parents with a very high tolerance for creative clothing choices may be able to provide even wider choices, as long as the choices are consistent with adequate protection related to the weather.


One of the most important and difficult are of guidance for any parent is allowing our children their angry feelings. That’s because the ability to control impulses and have strong feelings, contain them, and direct them appropriately starts with the opposite behaviors; impulsive action, overwhelming feelings, acting out and lashing out at the closest target – parents. 

If parents can support their children through approximately 2,000 of these difficult moments in the first five years of life, the adolescent years will be much easier. That’s because the skills of independent thinking and mature action develop over time. Parents lay the groundwork during the first five years of a child’s life by consistently and loving guiding his/her independence.